While standing on the shore of San Francisco’s East Bay, I noticed a plaque. It told the story of one of the worst chapters in American history, possibly the worst since the abolition of slavery, the time we imprisoned hundreds of thousands of American citizens, simply for their heritage.
Many years ago, when I first learned of the Japanese internment camps, which were the result of an executive order by the progressive icon, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, I became deeply conflicted. How can someone who I’ve come to revere make such an unjust decision? How would I have reacted had I been alive during WWII?
While I’ll never, with absolute certainty, know the answers to those questions, I do know that FDR’s decision was political. Our country had just been attacked by the Japanese. People were frightened. Roosevelt had succumb to the most vile and racist of human instincts, by punishing an entire race of people for the actions of their former government.
“Special interest groups were extremely active in applying pressure for mass evacuation. Mr. Austin E. Anson, managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Association, has frankly admitted that ‘We’re charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It’s a question of whether the white man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. They came into this valley to work, and they stayed to take over. … They undersell the white man in the markets. … They work their women and children while the white farmer has to pay wages for his help,. If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we’d never miss them in two weeks, because the white farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we don’t want them back when the war ends, either.’”
This, of course, wasn’t the last time our country engaged in actions that were socially unjust. Then Senator John F. Kennedy, while not actively involved in McCarthyism, another jingoistic and reactionary attempt at stripping civil rights from American citizens, especially Jewish people, did nothing to stop his friend. This one, especially, hits home for me. Had I been alive during the time, I have no doubt I would have been blacklisted. My grandparents were.
Lyndon Johnson escalated the Vietnam War. Bill Clinton was quoted as saying, ”that the U.S. has the right to use military force to ensure uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies, and strategic resources,” and must maintain huge military forces “forward deployed” in Europe and Asia “in order to shape people’s opinions about us” and “to shape events that will affect our livelihood and our security.”
Need I remind you that George W. Bush bogged us down in two of the longest wars in American history? He indefinitely detained people with no hope of trials. His administration advocated and used torture. During his administration, our tax money was stolen and handed over to cronies. He left us with the worst economy since the Great Depression and the complete lack of respect from the rest of the world. Obviously, I could go on.
Like all Presidents, Barack Obama is flawed. Like all Presidents, his flaws are often glaring. On the campaign trail, Obama promised to close down the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center (Gitmo). It hasn’t happened.
Yesterday, the White House reemphasized that closing Gitmo is still a priority for the administration, while admitting that it is an uphill climb.
“The commitment that the president has to closing Guantanamo Bay is as firm today as it was during the (2008) campaign,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
“We are all are aware of the obstacles to getting that done as quickly as the president wanted to get it done … but the president’s commitment hasn’t changed at all.”
Carney said that Obama, top national security officials and senior members of the military still believed that closing Guantanamo was in US interests.
“We will continue to abide by that commitment and work towards its fulfillment,” he said.
171 prisoners are still being held at Gitmo. They are still awaiting trials. It’s doubtful that the situation will change in the foreseeable future. As a reminder, Obama did not open Gitmo. He has tried to close the prison, with extreme opposition from Congress…a timeline:
January 22, 2009 (two days after taking office) - Obama signs an executive order to close Gitmo within a year.
May 20, 2009 – The Senate votes 90-6 against the needed funding to close Gitmo. For most Senators, the issue was political kryptonite. While in theory, many Americans wanted Gitmo to close, few wanted the prisoners transported to their “backyards.” Again, fear won out over human rights.
June 25, 2010 – The New York Times reports that it probably isn’t going to happen. It blames both Congressional opposition and “lack of inertia” in overcoming the opposition.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who also supports shutting it, said the effort is “on life support and it’s unlikely to close any time soon.” He attributed the collapse to some fellow Republicans’ “demagoguery” and the administration’s poor planning and decision-making “paralysis.”
“There is a lot of inertia” against closing the prison, “and the administration is not putting a lot of energy behind their position that I can see,” said Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and supports the Illinois plan. He added that “the odds are that it will still be open” by the next presidential inauguration.
Still, some senior officials say privately that the administration has done its part, including identifying the Illinois prison — an empty maximum-security center in Thomson, 150 miles west of Chicago — where the detainees could be held. They blame Congress for failing to execute that endgame.
“The president can’t just wave a magic wand to say that Gitmo will be closed,” said a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal thinking on a sensitive issue.
The politics of closing the prison have clearly soured following the attempted bombings on a plane on Dec. 25 and in Times Square in May, as well as Republican criticism that imprisoning detainees in the United States would endanger Americans. When Mr. Obama took office a slight majority supported closing it. By a March 2010 poll, 60 percent wanted it to stay open.
December 22, 2010 – Obama acknowledges limbo and on the same day, the Senate voted against the funding necessary to transport prisoners for trial.
January 9. 2012 – Obama administration restates determination to close Gitmo.
Guantanamo Bay will go down in history as a sad chapter in a history of American civil rights abuses. If I could manufacture my perfect President, he would have held his breath till he was blue in the face and have taken Congress hostage while demanding that they fund the closure of Gitmo.
Unfortunately, this didn’t happen. President Obama chose not to commit political suicide over an issue he might not have (in fact, arguably wouldn’t have) won. Personally, I believe him when he says the intention is still there. Perhaps our political pressure is misdirected when focused solely on the President. The Senate is the direct reason Gitmo isn’t closed. If Gitmo is anyone’s legacy, it is the legacy of George W. Bush and of the US Senate.