Advancing a Free Society

Is Gitmo Really an Important Recruiting Tool or Do We All Just Say That?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Spencer Ackerman makes a thoughtful point in response to Jack’s oped:

Goldsmith is totally, totally right that the GTMO-North alternative makes the closure of Guantanamo “symbolic.” I made a similar point to a colleague at the Khadr trial. And then she said something that blew my mind: Yes, but symbols matter. What will it mean for al-Qaeda recruitment if GTMO stays open?

I resisted that point for as long as I possibly could. It seems so much like a cop-out. Symbolism should never trump substance! Thomson, with its indefinite detentions and military commissions, will just become the new symbol — and in the United States, no less! But I had to conclude my colleague was right. Symbols really are important. As journalists, it’s our responsibility to separate the symbols from the substance and to challenge both. But policies that lend themselves to misunderstanding will ultimately be untenable (see: the July 2011 “deadline” for “transition” in Afghanistan). I sympathize deeply with Goldsmith on this point — really, I do — but it’s worth acknowledging that the net costs to the U.S. for keeping Guantanamo open are significant, however much they stem from a symbol.

Ackerman and his anonymous colleague here are reflecting a common meme in both press and administration thinking on the necessity of Guantanamo’s closure: Guantanamo is, uniquely among U.S. detention sites, a recruiting bonanza for the enemy, so even in the absence of any substantive change in U.S. detention policy, shuttering it would deprive Al Qaeda of a big argument against us.

I have one question: Is this really true or is it just something we’ve repeated so many times that we all now take it as true?

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