GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba -- It is the oddest of unintended airport stopovers -- a short stay at Guantanamo Bay. Helicopter flights for the ship I was trying to reach off the coast of Haiti had been canceled. So I slept in an Air Force tent at Camp Freedom, an arrow's shot from where 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed is imprisoned -- his stay now extended longer than the Obama administration would wish.
"Guantanamo" has become a synonym for "prison." Actually, it is a 45-square-mile U.S. Navy base, complete with a McDonald's and a Subway. The Guantanamo Bay Children and Youth Program sounds like a violation of the Geneva Conventions. But there are families stationed here needing child care. The Navy conducts operations against drug running and human trafficking. The base is now a major transit point for supplies headed to Haiti.
But Guantanamo's reputation is largely determined by roughly 200 detainees. Military personnel involved in holding and prosecuting these terrorists are proud of their work, but can't be public with their pride. When I saw one television camera attempt to film a soldier, he covered his face with his cap -- not out of shame, but out of concern for the possibility of terrorist reprisals.
The highest profile trials take place in courtroom No. 2, housed in a maximum-security compound of East German aesthetic sensibility -- all concrete and barbed wire. On the fences are large signs reading, "No photography." The building also hides its face.
It is an ugly place -- ugly to many Americans and most of the world. By 2005, President George W. Bush wanted to close the Guantanamo prison. It had become a symbol of abuses that had little to do with the facility itself. But the administration's internal policy debate became deadlocked over the question: What to do with the detainees? Without a clear answer, Bush refused to set an arbitrary deadline to shutter Guantanamo. Complexity had defeated symbolism.
President Obama chose symbolism. He promised the closure of the prison within a year of taking office, on the theory that a bold presidential decision would force others to implement it. Unfortunately, the implementer has been Attorney General Eric Holder. Some detainees would be judged by military tribunals under revised rules. Some, including Mohammed, would be tried in federal court in Lower Manhattan, blocks from the scene of their crime. America would have its Nuremburg moment, dramatically demonstrating its commitment to the rule of law.
But the Nuremburg trials followed the defeat of an enemy. Al-Qaeda remains an active, global threat. Terrorists also understand symbolism. The trial of the century would be both a forum for propaganda and a target for violence. Which is why preparing and defending a site would cost hundreds of millions of dollars each year. If soldiers at Guantanamo are concerned about terrorist reprisal, who would inflict such insecurity on an American city?
Eric Holder would. Testifying before Congress, you'll remember, he dismissed such concerns as cowering. Does he now view New York officials and much of Congress, including prominent Democrats, as cowards? The New York trial, it turns out, was not a careful decision -- the police commissioner of New York City was not even consulted. It was an unthinking endorsement of the criminal justice model of the war on terror. Add to this the unthinking decision to Mirandize the Christmas bomber. The attorney general seems to do a lot of unthinking.
Which leads back to this place. Over the years at Guantanamo both facilities and procedures have been improved -- forced, in part, by a Supreme Court decision. Last May, Obama announced that military tribunals would resume for some detainees, using fairer rules of evidence. Which raises some questions: If tribunals are now considered just for some detainees, why not for the 9/11 conspirators? What great symbolic benefit is gained when some terrorists face tribunals and others do not? Why turn an American city into an armed camp when an armed camp, with facilities for detention, trials and media coverage, already exists at Guantanamo?
This may be the strangest effect of Eric Holder's bungling. He has led Congress and Americans to take a second look at Guantanamo Bay -- and to see, perhaps, the best of flawed options. The facility is still ugly. But ugly things, such as maximum-security prisons, can be necessary. And symbolism, it turns out, can be costly, even dangerous.