Yesterday, Wall Street Journal columnist William McGurn made an interesting point (though our interpretation of it may not be exactly what he had in mind). Pointing to recent news headlines hinting that the Obama administration must carefully decide how to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, as well as to the recent confessions of four men currently held there, McGurn observed that those developments are proof that the the problem with Gitmo "is the people, not the place."
For once, we could not agree more. The problem is the people: the people operating the facility and denying detainees their right to a fair trial.
We know those are not the same people McGurn had in mind. He was thinking of the presumed-guilty-before-you're-proven-innocent enemy combatants detained at Gitmo because it was "thought to be the best way to protect the American people." But those are not the individuals who have tried to sidestep the Constitution, so it's hard to blame them for the predicament the Bush administration has created. Even if, as McGurn argues, the administration did not establish the facility at Guantanamo Bay because it was "out to shred the Constitution," that is exactly what the administration has tried to do time and time again. Torture. Holding detainees without access to attorneys or the courts. Illegally wiretapping Americans. The list goes on and on.
Justice Anthony Kennedy once wrote, “the laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, [even] in extraordinary times.” We do not dispute that terrorism and the threat of future violence is real, and we are certainly living in extraordinary times. It is a solemn responsibility to protect the lives of Americans from such threats and it is a difficult task. But, as Justice Kennedy advises, these threats do not give the government a license to turn its back on the Constitution.
The Obama administration must reverse course and abandon the Bush administration's view that the Constitution is an obstacle to be evaded. As he works to close Guantanamo Bay and address the problems we will face in the years ahead, President-elect Obama and his team must couple efforts to protect the safety of all Americans with the desire to defend the constitutional rights we cherish.