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Closing Gitmo Gets a Hearing, But is Anyone Listening?

It’s hard to believe that more than 11 years into the failed Guantanamo Bay detention center experiment, the US Senate would need to hold a hearing on the national security and human rights implications of closing the detention facility. Four years after President Obama pledged, on his second full day in office, to close it within one year -- and two months after he made a new pledge to do so -- a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee, held such a hearing on Wednesday. The results were mixed.

Senator Dick Durbin, chair of the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, led off the afternoon by reminding the audience that those accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks are still awaiting trial at Guantanamo. Several Senators spoke clearly about the travesty of Guantanamo, the need to end indefinite detention, and the intrinsic flaws of the military commissions.

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Also on the table were discussions of the hunger strike and the force-feeding of prisoners, which both Senators Durbin and Dianne Feinstein have publicly opposed and called inhumane. Retired Brigadier General Stephen Xenakis testified that force-feeding hunger strikers violates medical ethics and is illegal under international law.

The arguments in favor of keeping Guantanamo open were as hollow as they always have been. Some Senators and panelists discussed a prison break at Abu Ghraib in Iraq earlier this week – an event for which al Qaeda has claimed credit. One witness discussed radicalization in American prisons, as if the men in Guantanamo were going to turn the general population in US federal prisons into Islamist militants (where there already are hundreds of people convicted on terrorism charges through the regular criminal justice system).

The testimony seemed designed only to incite fear, a fear swiftly rejected by Senator Durbin, who said that he has never once heard a resident of Marion, Illinois, raise a fear of a prison break. Marion, in Durbin’s home state of Illinois, houses a federal prison and a special wing that contains mostly persons convicted of terrorism offenses.

Most Senators present, and most witnesses, supported closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. But for many, Guantanamo is just a location, and transferring the men to a prison in the US would satisfy their concerns. But Guantanamo has always been more than just a place, it is an idea - the idea that certain people can be dealt with outside of the law. Indefinite detention is illegal, immoral, and harms US national security, whether it is used at Guantanamo or in the US. That it was not universally rejected at the hearing was deeply troubling.