No Comment — October 28, 2011, 1:10 pm

Gitmo Forever

In today’s New York Times, Charlie Savage tells us that Republicans are continuing to tie the Obama Administration’s hands in dealing with terrorism suspects:

Republican senators are pushing to include a provision in a 2012 military authorization bill that would require [Al] Qaeda suspects accused of plotting attacks and who are not American citizens to be held in military custody — even people arrested in the United States. The White House opposes such a blanket rule.

Republicans are lining up near-uniformly behind the measure, and they seem to be recruiting a number of Democrats as well. It appears to be part of their campaign to portray the American criminal-justice system as too weak to meet the challenges of trying terrorists. Instead they want to militarize the process, consolidating terrorism cases in the hands of commissions at Guantánamo.

In a short piece at the National Interest, senior counterterrorism analyst Paul Pillar explains why this approach is wrongheaded:

Applying the “war” notion to counterterrorism has several negative consequences. It overly militarizes counterterrorism itself, encouraging excessive reliance on the military instrument. It invites the tendentious association of counterterrorism with unrelated military adventures or misadventures, as happened with the Bush administration’s Iraq War. It further invites the open-ended use of extraordinary and even extra-legal methods, as occurred with the Bush administration’s practices on detention and interception of communications. It elevates terrorists from the status of criminals to that of warriors.

The Obama administration sensibly discarded the term “war on terror,” but the “war” view of counterterrorism lives on and continues to have negative consequences. The most recent, and in a sense the most extreme, application of this view is found in efforts by Republican members of Congress to bar the use of civilian prisons and courts to handle terrorist suspects. These efforts do not involve the expansion of any counterterrorist tools or resources. Instead, they involve a prohibition on the use of certain tools and resources—ones that have been used effectively for years to handle many terrorist cases. How could such a prohibition be expected to improve counterterrorism?

Of course, it won’t improve it. Instead it would be a new impediment to counterterrorist investigations. If enacted, it would lead to awkward and ineffective procedures such as the FBI having to interrupt an investigation that had just gotten under way in order to turn a suspect over to military custody.

To provide another example of a problem with militarizing justice for terrorist suspects, consider that most suspects seized abroad are held by foreign police. The United States needs the cooperation of these forces, and the support of their governments, to get its hands on the terrorists. But the Guantánamo system has fallen into such disrepute that very few countries will send America a prisoner if it means he’ll be held and prosecuted before the Gitmo military commission. It would become practically impossible for the U.S. to get custody in some cases.

The Republican measure is not only dumb, but hypocritical. Only four years ago, its sponsors were zealously arguing that the president needed to be given all possible tools to fight the “war on terror.” What has changed since then? Only one thing: the party in control of the White House. Obama’s tactics and handling of terrorism cases are barely distinguishable from Bush’s. Both presidents employed military tribunals and the criminal-justice system; both also funneled far more cases into federal court than into Guantánamo. And with good reason: prosecutors got better results in the federal courts.

Could it be that Republicans are seeking to embarrass Obama by ensuring that Guantánamo is kept open, and that his campaign pledge to close it is therefore never fulfilled? That sounds about right, though it’s also true that the G.O.P. never tires of offering sacrifices to the god Mars, tending to see military force as the solution to every problem. In any case, the measure reveals yet again the miasma that has descended on Congress, which recently won a record-setting 9 percent approval rating. That the Republicans would push a foolish provision is unsurprising; what’s amazing is that some Democrats are cowed enough by their opponents to support the initiative.

Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada



October 2019


Secrets and Lies·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1973, when Barry Singer was a fifteen-year-old student at New York’s Yeshiva University High School for Boys, the vice principal, Rabbi George Finkelstein, stopped him in a stairwell. Claiming he wanted to check his tzitzit—the strings attached to Singer’s prayer shawl—Finkelstein, Singer says, pushed the boy over the third-floor banister, in full view of his classmates, and reached down his pants. “If he’s not wearing tzitzit,” Finkelstein told the surrounding children, “he’s going over the stairs!”

“He played it as a joke, but I was completely at his mercy,” Singer recalled. For the rest of his time at Yeshiva, Singer would often wear his tzitzit on the outside of his shirt—though this was regarded as rebellious—for fear that Finkelstein might find an excuse to assault him again.

Good Bad Bad Good·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

About fifteen years ago, my roommate and I developed a classification system for TV and movies. Each title was slotted into one of four categories: Good-Good; Bad-Good; Good-Bad; Bad-Bad. The first qualifier was qualitative, while the second represented a high-low binary, the title’s aspiration toward capital-A Art or lack thereof.

Some taxonomies were inarguable. The O.C., a Fox series about California rich kids and their beautiful swimming pools, was delightfully Good-Bad. Paul Haggis’s heavy-handed morality play, Crash, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, was gallingly Bad-Good. The films of Francois Truffaut, Good-Good; the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, Bad-Bad.

Poem for Harm·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Reflections on harm in language and the trouble with Whitman

Constitution in Crisis·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

America’s Constitution was once celebrated as a radical and successful blueprint for democratic governance, a model for fledgling republics across the world. But decades of political gridlock, electoral corruption, and dysfunction in our system of government have forced scholars, activists, and citizens to question the document’s ability to address the thorniest issues of modern ­political life.

Does the path out of our current era of stalemate, minority rule, and executive abuse require amending the Constitution? Do we need a new constitutional convention to rewrite the document and update it for the twenty-­first century? Should we abolish it entirely?

This spring, Harper’s Magazine invited five lawmakers and scholars to New York University’s law school to consider the constitutional crisis of the twenty-­first century. The event was moderated by Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown and the author of How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon.

Life after Life·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

For time ylost, this know ye,
By no way may recovered be.

I spent thirty-eight years in prison and have been a free man for just under two. After killing a man named Thomas Allen Fellowes in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight in 1980, when I was nineteen years old, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Former California governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence and I was released in 2017, five days before Christmas. The law in California, like in most states, grants the governor the right to alter sentences. After many years of advocating for the reformation of the prison system into one that encourages rehabilitation, I had my life restored to me.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:


A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A solid-gold toilet named “America” was stolen from Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, in Oxfordshire, England.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Happiness Is a Worn Gun


“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today