Dear Mr. President,
Your Guantanamo choice – to release the hunger strikers or let them die – reminds me of Margaret Thatcher’s similar choice in 1981 when “the Iron Lady,” as her admirers called her, allowed 10 Irishmen to slowly starve to death because she would not recognize their most basic human rights. Thatcher’s stubborn reputation was preserved. But the whole world was watching. One of the strikers, Bobby Sands, was elected to parliament as he lay dying. The agony caused massive sympathy for Irish Republicans and led directly to the political success of Sinn Fein and the Good Friday peace agreement.
You alone face a similar crisis. Despite your original vow to close Guantanamo, members of Congress, Democrats included, have blocked your every effort. It is understandable that you would hesitate to unilaterally release detainees held in Guantanamo by your own administration. But your policy of brutal force-feeding is an abhorrent example of torturing prisoners to “save” them. But if the alternative is to send an estimated 17 men to their deaths as martyrs, after excruciating treatment at the hands of their guards, under a global media spotlight, I believe that some in the White House are reconsidering the options. They must do so quickly.
The White House has the power to reframe the issue. Your political opponents and many moderate voters define the detainees as terrorists who deserve their fate, and who, if released, will return to the battlefield against the United States. The facts are these: the total number at Guantanamo has declined from 240 to 166 since your promise to close the facility. There are 86 already designated for transfer, 56 of them from Yemen. You have the power, on a case-by-case basis, to release them, although many in Congress will complain vociferously. Sen. Diane Feinstein, however, already has called on you to lift the ban. Not only will such a step ease the Guantanamo crisis, it may facilitate the stalled talks with the Taliban. The release of one US prisoner held by the Taliban, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, has been blocked by House Republicans objecting to an exchange for some Taliban detainees in Guantanamo; the exchange was meant to be a step toward a negotiated settlement.
The principle reason the Guantanamo detainees are willing to die is that that they believe, on the basis of all they know and have experienced, that there is no hope whatever for release in their lifetimes. While suicide bombers have committed their bodies as weapons, these prisoners are using their bodies nonviolently in a form of radical suicide.
So here is a proposal:
Commit to ordering the immediate release of a meaningful number of detainees already designated for transfer, in an attempt to persuade the hunger strikers to break their fast to the death. Give them hope. Stop delaying the de facto parole hearings you have promised, and to which the CIA objects because of the evidence of torture that might be introduced. Block the $200 million funding for permanent new prison facilities.
Let us re-examine more critically the “threat” posed by releasing the Yemeni detainees. It is claimed by US intelligence that between 16 and 25 percent of the original Guantanamo detainees rounded up by George Bush are confirmed or suspected of having returned to terrorist battlefields. As the New York Times analysis points out, that implies that 72 percent “are living quietly.” (New York Times, April 25, 2013) Without question, of the official definitions, this would mean that up to 13 or 14 Yemenis now detained might well join ranks with Al Qaeda. Though your right-wing critics would inflate the threat and castigate your “softness,” the truth is that 14 more supporters of Al Qaeda in Yemen would make no difference at all. One might even argue that they serve Al Qaeda’s purposes more effectively in Guantanamo detention than using their English-language skills to become translators in some Sana underground office. Sen. Feinstein's letter suggests that Yemen's current regime, heavily bolstered by US forces, is capable of providing adequate security assurances for the detainees. In that case, there would be no problem whatsoever.
The benefits to your administration and to the inevitable peace process ahead far outweigh those of helping the CIA or Guantanamo bureaucrats save face by hiding secrets, which someday will be revealed anyway.
To summarize, free some Guantanamo detainees in order to end the Guantanamo hunger strike and restart the stalled peace talks with the Taliban.
In Ireland, the polarizing reputation of the Iron Lady lives on, but the republicans she sent to Long Kesh are serving in the elected Irish government and a multitude of respected civil society institutions. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness are received routinely at the White House, and especially by Rep. Peter King, the Republican who screams most loudly against any accommodation with “terrorists,” at least the dark-skinned Islamic variety.
Do not go the way of Thatcher, Mr. President. Releasing some Guantanamo detainees will save lives, will be a gesture toward peace and will salvage some global respect for our country.