President Barack Obama wasted no time in issuing an executive order to close Guantanamo Bay's prison within the next 12 months. While that is not an end in itself, it is a necessary first step in eliminating this blight on America's image.
Within 12 hours of taking office, Obama ordered a halt to the military tribunals at the prison camp. Shortly thereafter, he issued the executive order to close Guantanamo. While the fate of the estimated 245 inmates still imprisoned there must be determined, this at least ends what had stood as a mockery of U.S. standards of justice, human rights and the rule of law.
The prisoners at the camp fall into several different categories. About 85 detainees -- some who have been imprisoned for years -- have been found to pose no threat of danger. While they could be released, they will need to be resettled, some of them possibly ending up in the United States.
Only 21 detainees actually have been charged with crimes. Many others are in what amounts to legal limbo. They cannot be charged with crimes but are considered too dangerous to simply be released.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates testified Tuesday before the House Armed Services Committee that the vast majority of detainees easily could be tried by U.S. criminal courts or sent to other countries for trial. Gates also said he fully endorses the closing of the prison within a year.
That might rankle some fellow Republicans who say closing the prison is too risky. However, the more pertinent question is: What happens if we don't close Guantanamo?
The prison has been a black eye for the United States in the view of much of the rest of the world. It and secret prisons operated by the CIA in other countries have ignored the provisions of the Geneva Conventions and undermined the image of the United States as a bastion of fairness and due process.
Any pretense that prisoners were not tortured at Guantanamo dissolved earlier this month when Susan Crawford, the official overseeing military prosecutions of detainees, said that one of the alleged plotters of the 9-11 attacks had suffered treatment that met the legal definition of torture. As a result, she reluctantly deferred his case for prosecution.
Sending hundreds of prisoners to Guantanamo might well have prevented dangerous men from carrying out terrorist acts against Americans here or abroad. But preventing those attacks could have been accomplished without trampling on the values of due process and fairness that help make America great.
Plus, Guantanamo became a propaganda and recruiting tool for terrorist groups around the world. In the end, it seems likely that Guantanamo created more terrorists than it incarcerated.
Terror suspects must be prosecuted. But the nation must devise a fair and orderly process to do that. Simply holding suspects indefinitely is no solution and, in fact, is contrary to American values.
As Obama stated in his inaugural address, we must reject the false choice between our safety and our ideals. Ordering the closure of Guantanamo was a good first step in rising to that standard.
Order to close Guantanamo Bay prison is first step toward fair hearing for detainees.