The hunger strike by prisoners at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo calls attention once more to a maddening problem that the Obama administration, Congress and the public would prefer not to think about: What to do with 166 captives confined to an island prison with de facto life sentences under a judicial system that they deem unfair and unjust?
Protests of one sort or another inside the island prison have been ongoing practically since the day the first detainees arrived in January 2002. As time goes by, the protests have become better organized and more widespread as frustration deepens among detainees. Some of them have been confined for more than a decade and still see no end to the adjudication process. Nor can anyone say with certainty when their cases will be concluded, nor reasonably predict the ultimate fate of the detainee population.
No surprise, then, that Guantanamo has become a powerful symbol of injustice for many people around the world, particularly Muslims, including those who otherwise bear no ill will toward the United States. For terrorists, the prison has long been a valuable recruiting tool. Congress has been perfectly content to let this all happen without contributing useful ideas for dealing in a fair and humane manner with accused terrorists caught overseas. Out of sight, out of mind seems to be the prevailing mindset on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers have blocked President Obama's efforts to close the prison and send detainees to mainland prisons and have required security guarantees before they can be sent to their home countries or elsewhere.
Instead of closure, the momentum may be headed in the opposite direction. Earlier this month, Gen. John Kelly, head of the U.S. Southern Command, said in congressional testimony that as much as $170 million may be needed to improve facilities for the troops stationed at Guantanamo Bay.
"I'm assuming Guantanamo will be closed someday," the Marine general said. "But if you look at the past 11 years when it was supposed to be temporary, who knows where it's going?"
As far as Congress is concerned, it's staying put. Indeed, lawmakers may well spend the money to create yet another justification to keep the prison camp open for decades to come.
Unlike Congress, however, Mr. Obama cannot assume an irresponsible attitude. A White House spokesman said this week that the "president's team is closely monitoring the hunger strikers at Guantanamo Bay." And then what?
Lawyers for the accused terrorists say their clients claim that mistreatment of Qurans by prison guards sparked the hunger strike. But camp officials say prisoners were angry that President Obama failed to raise the Guantanamo issue in his State of the Union message.
Whatever the reason, there is no question that the strike is growing, and camp authorities must find a way to bring it to an end. It's their prison. They're the ones in charge.
If commanders can't find a way to accommodate the prisoners without sacrificing security, Mr. Obama would do well to appoint a high-level U.S. representative to get the job done. "Monitoring" won't produce a solution.
The underlying cause of the strike is the hopelessness of detainees. To ease tensions, Mr. Obama should make Guantanamo more transparent and more adherent to the rule of law. Before all else, though, the focus must be on ending the hunger strike before the protest produces more martyrs for the cause of terrorism.
-- Miami Herald