In a column a month ago, I argued that the American public is fully responsible for the shameful actions of its government at Guantanamo Bay. Prisoners who have already been cleared, or have never been charged, are being held illegally and indefinitely at the detention facility — all because Americans are letting the nation’s elected leaders betray the Constitution.
With no other options, prisoners at Guantanamo have resorted to a hunger strike, which has now spread to more than a hundred out of the 166 prisoners being held. This moral crisis has reached an ugly climax, now that at least 21 are being force-fed. Dozens of new medical personnel — Navy nurses and medics — recently arrived at the prison to deal with the increasingly endangered inmates.
If Americans want this spectacle to end — if they want to tell Congress and President Obama that Guantanamo must be shut down — now is the time for them to make their voices heard. But how?
At a recent news conference, President Obama denounced the policy over which he presides and claimed a kind of humanitarian moral high ground in wanting the protesters to live. “I don’t want these individuals to die,” he said. But the way to respond to the threat of their dying from self-imposed starvation is not to torture them with feeding tubes forced into their nostrils, but to address the legitimacy of their demands. The news conference amounted to yet more handwringing. No policy change was announced. The next day’s headline read, “Obama renews his effort to close Guantanamo,” but all that meant was more caviling at Congress.
In fact, Obama already has the authority to act on dozens of individual Guantanamo cases that have previously been reviewed; to waive restrictions imposed by Congress; and to issue certifications needed to transfer the detainees to foreign countries willing to receive them. Any number of the prisoners could be released from Guantanamo in this way. Obama could also move authority over Guantanamo from the Pentagon to the White House, demonstrating a new level of seriousness about bringing this scandal to an end. He could initiate these actions today — and show the hunger strikers that their protest is being taken seriously.
At least some Americans are trying to force the president’s hand. As he spoke last week, a new online petition was launched at Change.org — with the challenge that Obama at least exercise the concrete powers he has. The petition asks Obama to immediately certify for release to other countries two suitable prisoners who have both been held uncharged for eleven years. Shaker Aamer is a Saudi, formerly resident in the United Kingdom. He was cleared for release twice before, in 2007 and again in 2009. Djamel Ameziane is an Algerian who lived in Canada, and whose repatriation there would be sponsored by the Anglican diocese of Montreal.
Normally, petitions — being easily manipulated and diffuse in impact — are a dubious form of civic expression. The White House receives hundreds of them, on serious issues like gun control and crackpot issues like cloning dinosaurs. Yet Obama himself recognizes that petitions can capture a genuine popular demand for actions that official Washington, for whatever its reasons, cannot bring itself to take. The White House website has a platform for petitions, and the administration has committed at least to review the issue raised by any petition that receives more than 100,000 signatures.
The Change.org petition was started by anti-Guantanamo activists, including the group Witness Against Torture, and spearheaded by Morris D. Davis, the retired Air Force colonel who served as chief prosecutor of the Guantanamo Military Commission from 2005 to 2007. In his letter introducing the petition, Davis writes, “If any other country were treating prisoners the way we are treating those in Guantanamo, we would roundly and rightly criticize that country.” Within hours of the petition’s being launched, tens of thousands of people signed it, and it soon passed Obama’s 100,000-signature threshold.
This question stands apart from other petitions because men are literally dying to have it heard — and because no one makes the case for its moral rightness better than President Obama himself. For some reason, he does not yet feel pressed to turn his moral repugnance at Guantanamo into a program of change. That is where American citizens come in. Let’s get millions to sign this letter. To add your name to Davis’s Guantanamo appeal and pass it to your contacts list, go to Change.org.
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.