Thursday, May 21, 2009

Obama eats his own words

Want to know what a contradiction sounds like when it comes out of a highly intelligent, eloquent lawyer? Watch or read President Obama's speech today on Guantanamo Bay Prison and the detainees held there.

To be fair, Obama delivered a detailed, well-prepared response to many of the recent falsehoods being spewed about this topic. The transcript reads like a well-balanced discussion by a professor. And he ought to be commended for many of the steps he's taken to uphold his commitment to close Gitmo and deal with its prisoners in a legal manner -- which were major campaign promises. (Some of these steps include banning torture, sticking to the closure of the prison, and reviewing every case.)

But a detailed and thoughtful argument does not necessarily mean a logical one.  

Obama says that each of the 240 remaining cases will fall into one of five categories: 
1. Try them in federal court under criminal laws.

2.  Cases that include "detainees who violate the laws of war and are, therefore, best tried through military commissions." But these commissions will be reformed to fall in line with the Constitution -- torture cannot be used as evidence, hearsay is more scrutinized, and greater rights for detainees to choose their counsel.

3. Those that are deemed innocent and will be released: "The courts have spoken. They have found that there is no legitimate reason to hold 21 of the people currently held at Guantanamo."

4. "The fourth category of cases involves detainees who we have determined can be transferred safely to another country. So far, our review team has approved 50 detainees for transfer." 

5. Those "who cannot be prosecuted yet who pose a clear danger to the American people." The next quote is critical: 

"We're going to exhaust every avenue that we have to prosecute those at Guantanamo who pose a danger to our country. But even when this process is complete, there may be a number of people who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes, in some cases, because evidence may be tainted, but who, nonetheless, pose a threat to the security of the United States... Examples of that threat include people who've received extensive explosives training at Al Qaida training camps or commanded Taliban troops in battle or expressed their allegiance to Osama bin Laden or otherwise made it clear that they want to kill Americans. These are people who, in effect, remain at war with the United States. Let me repeat, I am not going release individuals who endanger the American people."

A minute later, the president says, "But if we continue to make decisions within a climate of fear, we will make more mistakes." And at three other points in the remarks, Obama stresses the importance of avoiding "fear-mongering" (his words) when discussing national security.

These two sets of quotes are, of course, a stark contradiction. But wait, there's more! A third set of incongruities: Obama spoke frequently about the need to uphold the rule of law and the values of the United States. The most instructive quote: "I took an oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution as commander-in-chief. And as a citizen, I know that we must never, ever turn our back on its enduring principles for expedient's sake."

I will simplify these three premises to make the fallacy more clear (contradiction in bold):
1. Rule of law will be upheld.
2. Appeals to fear are illegitimate means to make important decisions.
3. Some detainees will not be subject to the rule of law because Anericans should be afraid of the extraordinary security threat that they pose.

(I am not the only one that spotted this contradiction.)

One particular thing bothers me about this contradiction. As stated before, Barack Obama is a genuinely intelligent person trained in the art of logic. Thus, there is a reasonable chance that he knows, with a clear head, that he is rhetorically lying. There is no rational way that he can simultaneously uphold numbers 1, 2, and 3 above. So unless he has made a mistake, Obama is insincere about at least one of them. This bothers me. It ought to bother you. 

Leaving aside the extremely disappointing possibility that President Obama lied, there is the separate but (more) important problem of what to do about these detainees that continue to "pose a threat to the security of the United States." 

The solution: try to rehabilitate them and then let them go.   

First, the rehab step. Many of these prisoners are ideologically motivated and justify their violence through their religion. One way to change these motivations is to convince them to reinterpret their religion in a way that delegitimizes violence. It is performed by allowing religious scholars -- Islamic clerics in this case -- to argue with prisoners about doctrine. Rehab is a highly successful tool in Singapore, Saudi Arabia, and the US military in Iraq. (Here's a more detailed article on rehabilitation and its success.)

Second, whether or not rehab ultimately works, prisoners must be let go if they are not found guilty under the rule of law. This happens every day with people in the US prison system who have been trained with or have grown up within violent gangs, openly express hate toward other gangs or groups of people, or who could possibly kill Americans. Although they are effectively the same as Gitmo detainees, we would not claim that "they are at war with the United States." 

True, compared to the average citizen, these prisoners are more likely to commit a crime. But these are the sacrifices that we make in a system of law. Furthermore, if exceptions can be made for them, then they can be made for you.


  1. Good post - I also wondered about the rhetorical inconsistencies when I read a transcript of his speech. Out of one mouth he seemed to be criticising those like Cheney who don't even apologize for torture (did you see Cheney's speech?), but then he steps into his "commander in chief" role and makes it seem like he would let some of these people rot in a hole for the rest of their lives, the law be damned, simply because they can't fit into any convenient category.

    Despite all of this, however, there are two more things more upsetting to me than Obama's political mumbo-jumbo.

    First is Congress' reaction to allowing Gitmo detainees to be placed in US prisons. Congress just voted against placing $80 million in the War Supplemental to fund closing Gitmo. Several bills have been introduced from many different Congresspeople (most are Republicans) that would prevent Gitmo detainees from being placed in certain prisons in the US. It's almost as if Congress is saying that our beast of a prison system, which currently handles the incarceration of more than 2 million people, can't handle however many prisoners from Guantanamo. It's ridiculous.

    Second, one can only imagine that our elected officials are reacting in this fearful, xenophobic manner because their constituents are pushing them to it. How horrible is that? That there are honestly people out there in this country who simply don't care about the rule of law, don't care that we've tortured and probably created terrorists out of some of the men in Gitmo, and certainly don't want to take responsibility for our POWs in this "war" on terror.

  2. Yes, I agree. Both of these are also disturbing. But perhaps it is the acute intelligence of Obama that makes his (potential) transgression so frightening.