A UW class wrestles with Guantanamo questions

President Obama missed his self-imposed one year deadline for closing Guatanamo's detention facility. Even when that is settled, the larger issues of handling terror suspects will require the kind of serious study being done in a UW class.
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Guantanamo Bay from a satellite

President Obama missed his self-imposed one year deadline for closing Guatanamo's detention facility. Even when that is settled, the larger issues of handling terror suspects will require the kind of serious study being done in a UW class.

The deadline ran out last month on President Obama'ꀙs promise to close the Guantanamo Detention Center within a year of his inauguration. Like other of the president'ꀙs initiatives this one fell prey to political gamesmanship and gridlock. But that wasn'ꀙt the only problem to face the president. Resolving the complex issues posed by Guantanamo is plain hard.

One place where people are looking into the tough issues is the University of Washington classroom of political science prof Jamie Mayerfeld. 'ꀜGuantanamo and Its Legacy'ꀝ is being offered for the first time in the winter quarter, and is one of the first classes of its kind anywhere.

What led Mayerfeld, who also holds an appointment in the Law, Societies and Justice program at UW, to create the class? "Several things," said Mayerfeld over a cup of tea at the UW Bookstore. "Citizens are confused about Guantanamo. It has been heavily politicized and people have been bombarded by emotional messages. But it raises really important issues of human rights, law, and ethics. I spent a solid month creating this class."

How'ꀙs it going? "There are forty-seven students," said Mayerfeld. When I said that seemed large for an upper division seminar, he laughed, saying at UW these days that's "intimate." One of the assignments for each student is do a term long case study journal that focuses on one detainee, past or present. How was that person captured and why? How has their detention been justified? What is that person's combatant status? Was the detainee subject to torture or ill-treatment? How has their case been resolved, if it has? One student is writing about Khalid Sheik Mohammed, implicated in the 9/11 attacks and soon to go on trial somewhere, 'ꀜwho is not a sympathetic character at all,'ꀝ Mayerfeld said.

Where do students find information about particular detainees and their cases? The internet of course! Since 2004, the New York Times has maintained 'ꀜThe Guantanamo Docket'ꀝ on line. Various human rights organizations, including the British-based Reprieve, are also reliable sources, as is the website of Guantanamo expert Andy Worthington.

As with wars, detention centers seem to be easier to start than to end. Starting Guantanamo proved relatively easy. A November 2001 military order gave President Bush the right to detain indefinitely any person he deemed a terrorist. Closing Guantanamo has proven tougher, in part because U.S. politicians and citizens have resisted relocation of detainees anywhere near them. NIMBY becomes NTIMBY, 'ꀜNo Terrorist in My Back Yard!'ꀝ That reaction has also made U.S. government attempts to persuade other nations to take Gitmo detainees a tough sell.

While those issues will be worked out at some point, the larger legal and ethical questions are likely to linger longer. Such questions, upon which Mayerfeld'ꀙs course focuses, include this fundamental one: is terrorism properly defined as an act of war or a crime or both?

Recall that after the Christmas underwear bomber incident former Vice President Dick Cheney, among others, was all over President Obama about why he wasn't speaking of 'the war on terrorism." "There is," points out Mayerfeld, "a huge body of law with respect to war which recognizes some situations as war and some not. Is the criminal enforcement response adequate? Should terrorism cause us to change our laws?"

Other hot questions on the table in PoliSci 401 include, 'ꀜHow does U.S. law compare with the law and practice of other nations and with international law when it comes to human rights?'ꀝ Remember the torture memos and the debate over the relevance of the Geneva Convention? Do we abide by that international agreement or not?

Another important question has to do with U.S. legal norms of due process and habeas corpus (having actual legal charges against a person being held and advising a detainee of the charges against them). Does this go out the window for someone detained on suspicion of being a terrorist?

When Mayerfeld has spoken in various settings about these and other issues raised by Guantanamo, he has sometimes been besieged by comments and questions alleging that the abuses at Guantanamo (prisoner humiliation, use of brutal 'ꀜinitial reaction force'ꀝ teams when there'ꀙs a problem, solitary confinement, and various forms of ill-treatment including torture) aren'ꀙt limited to the detention facility at all. They are, some allege, standard operating procedure today within criminal justice systems in the U.S. In other words, we can swallow Guantanamo because we've already swallowed the same or worse elsewhere in the U.S. Is that true?

Should President Obama be successful in closing Guantanamo, these questions will persist. But chances are good that the U.S. will also face them again in a new situation or another context soon. The era of sovereign nation states declaring war on one another with some sort of agreed-upon process seems positively Victorian. Good thing future lawyers, politicians, and citizens are studying these vexing issues now at UW.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.