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.
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