Steve Chapman

Moderation is often an overrated virtue. You wouldn't want a moderately skilled surgeon, moderately reliable brakes or a moderately faithful spouse. But at times, moderation means something sensible: finding ways to accommodate the legitimate concerns of two opposing groups.

That concept is a big reason Barack Obama is president. Many critics find him maddeningly vague and elusive, which they take as evidence of either incoherence or deceit. But the key to his appeal is his notion that both liberals and conservatives have a piece of the truth and public policy should incorporate both pieces whenever possible.

His decision to close Guantanamo may fit that approach. The camp was created for enemy captives in the war on terror, designed by an administration that worshiped only one goal: security. But if security were our only goal, we'd emulate the old Soviet Union, which was nothing if not safe. The U.S. Constitution presumes we can achieve security and uphold individual rights within a framework of law.

The Bush administration claimed the alternative to Guantanamo was freeing bloodthirsty fanatics to prey on innocent Americans. It got help from critics who pretended that the criminal justice system was fully suited to handle enemies captured on the battlefield. Each side dismissed the concerns of the other.

The reason President Bush put the camp where he did was the belief that Guantanamo was beyond the reach of U.S. law. In practice, that meant denying inmates the guarantees of international treaties, the protections of United Nations monitoring or access to American courts.

Hundreds of captives were locked up for years before being released, suggesting they were innocent. Many were subjected to brutal interrogations and harsh conditions. Recently the Pentagon said one inmate may not be prosecuted because "his treatment met the legal definition of torture."

The Supreme Court rejected the idea of a law-free zone, ruling that detainees had the right to challenge their incarceration in court. It found there are some things the government can't do on the pretext of protecting the nation.

Obama agrees -- as did John McCain -- and wasted no time announcing he would close the facility. His order makes it clear that some prisoners will be prosecuted in criminal courts, while others will be released to their home countries or other nations. That may leave some who fall in neither category.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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