The Constitution obviously does not leave Americans helpless in fighting against those who wish them ill. But it also sets standards of conduct that should not -- indeed, cannot -- be carelessly tossed aside.
The prison at Guantanamo Bay has become such an international symbol of the U.S. abandoning its principles because it reflects an anti-terrorism policy gone badly awry. First, the Bush administration was both callous and careless in imprisoning people, even paying unreliable tribal allies for captives. Second, the U.S. government created no effective and objective truth-determining process to assess guilt. Third, Washington employed torture, violating both domestic and international law.
No doubt dangerous terrorists have been incarcerated at Gitmo. But so too have many innocent people. Indeed, the claims of former State Department Chief of Staff Larry Wilkerson are particularly sobering:
Lawrence B. Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, admitted today that of the approximately 800 detainees held at Guantanamo Bay since the controversial detention center opened, only “two dozen or so” were actually terrorists. Wilkerson told the Associated Press today that “there are still innocent people there,” and that “some have been there six or seven years.”
Wilkerson made other comments earlier in the week in an internet posting entitled “Some Truths About Guantanamo Bay.” In that posting he said that “several in the US leadership became aware of the lack of proper vetting very early on and thus, of the reality that many of the detainees were innocent of any substantial wrongdoing, had little intelligence value, and should be immediately released.”
Wilkerson also claimed that then-Secretary Powell and Richard Armitage were pressuring for the repatriation of as many detainees as possible, and that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney were unphased by the fact that “among the detainees was a 13 year old boy and a man over 90,” standing in opposition to returning detainees.
Even if Wilkerson exaggerates--and he has been a credible witness so far--he points to the price America has paid for failing to live up to its principles. The U.S. has locked up many who were neither terrorists nor otherwise dangerous. Doing so undoubtedly has helped turn some people in and out of Gitmo towards violence against America. And mistreating the innocent has badly sullied America's reputation as a shining city upon a hill.
Confronting terrorism will never be easy. But violating America's principles is no way to defend the America in which we all claim to believe.