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Detention and Denial: The Case for Candor After Guantanamoby Benjamin Wittes
Synopses & Reviews
Our current stalemate over detention serves nobody --not the military or any other component of the U.S. government that has to operate overseas.... It is a system that no rational combination of values or strategic considerations would have produced; it could have emerged only as a consequence of a clash of interests that produced a clear victory for nobody. --from the Introduction
Benjamin Wittes issues a persuasive call for greater coherence, clarity, and public candor from the American government regarding its detention policy and practices, and greater citizen awareness of the same. In Detention and Denial, he illustrates how U.S. detention policy is a tangle of obfuscation rather than a serious set of moral and legal decisions. Far from sharpening focus and defining clear parameters for action, it sends mixed signals, muddies the legal and military waters, and produces perverse incentives. Its random operation makes a mockery of the human rights concerns that prompted the limited amount of legal scrutiny that detention has received to date. The government may actually be painting itself into a corner, leaving itself unable to explain or justify actions it may need to take in the future. The situation is unsustainable and must be addressed.
Preventive detention is a touchy subject, an easy target for eager-to-please candidates and indignant media, so public officials remain largely mum on the issue. Many Americans would be surprised to learn that no broad principle in American jurisprudence actually prohibits preventive detention; rather, the law eschews it except when legislatures and courts deem it necessary to prevent grave public harm. But the habeas corpus legal cases that have come out of the Guant?namo Bay detentionfacility --which remains open, despite popular expectations to the contrary --have addressed only a small slice of the overall issue and have not --and will not --produce a coherent body of policy.
U.S. government and security forces need clear and consistent application of their detention policies, and Americans must be better informed about them. To that end, Wittes critiques America's current muddled detention policies and sets forth a detention policy based on candor. It would set clear rules and distinguish several types of detention, based on characteristics of the detainees themselves rather than where they were captured. Congress would follow steps to devise a coherent policy to regulate the U.S. system of detention, a system that the country cannot avoid developing.
Barack Obama and John McCain agreed on very little during the 2008 presidential campaign, but both promised to shut down the detention center at GuantAnamo Bay. Nearly two years later, Gitmo is still open, and it is unclear if and when that might change and what it actually means in the long run. Many Americans choose to remain blissfully ignorant about how their nation prosecutes the War on Terror, and public officials are happy to oblige them. But whether they realize it or not, the U.S. continues to detain individuals it deems enemy combatants.
Benjamin Wittes pulls back the curtain of silence to discuss what the U.S. and its allies currently are doing in the way of detention, and what they ought to be doing. Current policy is incoherent and muddled, sending mixed and confused signals. While that is perhaps understandable, given public ambivalence about detention, this is ineffective and counterproductive. Out of sight means out of mind to many people, but pretending a problem no longer exists does not make it so. Just because someone is not detained at GuantAnamo doesn't mean that person won't be detained elsewhere, by either U.S. forces or its proxies.
Detention is an easy target for eager-to-please politicians and indignant commentators. But the issue truly is complex. Many detainees cannot simply be allowed to walk away. And things are not always as they seem. While reduced detention may assuage some angst, it might mean that potential detainees are being killed at a higher rate. Does that really ease worries about America's moral compass?
Wittes issues a persuasive call for greater coherence, clarity, and candor in detention policy and practices. He lays out some of the problems that could result from the current state of obfuscation. For example, captured al Qaeda fighters can be detained by friendly host governments such as the Karzai regime. But if another front opens on the War on Terror, in a country such as Somalia or Yemen, the U.S. may need to detain its own prisoners. But it will find itself painted into a corner by the public assumption that we don't operate that way. Far better to be frank and direct about the dangers we face and how to deal with them.
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History and Social Science » Crime » Prisons and Prisoners