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.

It’s true that Congress has, in bipartisan fashion, attempted to block his efforts to close Guantanamo. But it turns out that those efforts have been exceedingly lackluster. The Administration even has the power to waive many of the restrictions imposed by Congress. Somehow, it has never exercised that power. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard McKeon said, “The administration has never certified a single transfer” for consideration.

In fact, Obama signed a 2011 executive order specifically creating a formal indefinite detention system at Gitmo. “It is virtually impossible to imagine how one closes Guantanamo in light of this executive order,” an American Civil Liberties Union official said at the time. Administration 0fficials have acknowledged that under Obama's policy some detainees might be held for life without trial.

“So when the president of the United States righteously condemns the idea of imprisoning someone forever without charge or trial,” Charles Davis wrote bluntly in a column at Lobe Log, the foreign policy blog, “it’s important to remember the truth about his record. It’s important to remember he is lying.”

Administration officials, asked for specifics on what could be done after reporters were no doubt awesomely inspired by Obama’s oratory, responded by acknowledging they have not moved quickly enough to set up review boards to seek waivers for moving low-risk prisoners and pledging to fill a post currently left unfilled at the State Department.

Now, large numbers of detainees at Guantanamo desperately protest their plight with a hunger strike. The current regime has responded by force-feeding 21 men, eliciting from the American Medical Association and many others condemnation for a violation of medical ethics.

So, what can we make of this mess? Talk is cheap, but actions speak louder than words. Mr. Obama talks a good game. He’s so symbolic. But our policies — his policies — contradict what he says.

When President Obama signed the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, bestowing upon him the power to incarcerate American citizens indefinitely without charge, he wrote in a “signing statement” that his administration would not “authorize” the use of that power. Of course, by his signature he absolutely authorized it for himself, should he change his mind, or for any successor.

As for changing his mind, when Obama signed the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, his signing statement made no mention of whether or not the Obama Administration will be snatching American citizens off the street and holding them for decades or life without any due process of law.

What’s the symbolism of that?    [further reading]


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.