Paul Jacob

Symbols are not identical to the things they symbolize.

  • A nation’s flag is not the same thing as the nation itself.
  • A star on the map representing a capital city is not actually the dirt and grass and trees and concrete and lumber and people in that capital.
  • A picture of a gun is not the material weapon . . . and thus won’t do much at all to stop a criminal.

Most people completely understand this simple principle, including those who have not taken an advanced course in semiotics at the Sorbonne. Even young children comprehend the distinction between a sign, or symbol, and its object, or referent (though they may smilingly say otherwise).

But is it possible that President Barack Obama does not?

As a candidate, Obama pledged to close the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the Bush Administration locked up enemy combatants and suspected terrorists from across the globe captured in the War on Terror. He called it a “sad chapter in American history.”

As president, Mr. Obama moved quickly to sign an executive order to shut the facility down by year’s end. Five months later, a U.S. Senate with 60 Democrats voted 90-6 to prohibit the president from moving the prisoners onto U.S. soil.

Last week at his news conference, President Obama renewed his call to close down Guantanamo, saying, “The idea that we would still maintain forever a group of individuals who have not been tried, that is contrary to who we are, contrary to our interests, and it needs to stop.”

But if we need to shut down the detention facility at Guantanamo because it is wrong to hold people indefinitely without any charge or trial or conviction, making Gitmo a seriously negative symbol for our country, why is President Obama’s policy, as the New York Times reports, “not to release those prisoners, but to continue to imprison them indefinitely under the laws of war — just somewhere else.”

Is Obama’s lofty notion really just to trick the world into thinking we’re the good guys by moving around our prison camps in three-card monte fashion?

I really liked the old idea of actually being the good guys. That was great symbolism.


Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.