The idea of having an al-Qaida presence in Illinois, even locked up behind bars, is a horrifying prospect. That's what we have to confront now that the Obama administration has decided to move some Guantanamo inmates to a prison in Thomson, a small town in the northwest corner of the state. How will we sleep nights with terrorists in our midst?
Probably about like we do right now. From the shrieks of alarm, you'd think no bloodthirsty jihadist had ever occupied a cell in one of our correctional facilities. As it turns out, there are already some 35 domestic and international terrorists privileged to reside in the Land of Lincoln.
Run into any at Wal-Mart lately? Seen one cut in line at Dunkin' Donuts? Me neither.
Just a few weeks ago, a federal judge sentenced Ali al-Marri, a convicted al-Qaida sleeper agent who had undergone terrorist training and met with alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, to eight years behind bars. A former student at Bradley University in Peoria, he is now serving his term at the federal prison in Marion. Yet Illinoisans have somehow stifled their impulse to curl up into the fetal position awaiting certain doom.
A lot of politicians nonetheless insist the risk of relocating detainees to Thomson is intolerable. All seven Republican House members from Illinois vehemently object.
They signed a letter drafted by Rep. Mark Kirk predicting the state would become "ground zero for jihadist terrorist plots, recruitment and radicalization" and insisting that "al-Qaida terrorists should stay where they cannot endanger American citizens."
Being locked up in what will become a supermax prison, however, means they will be in a place where they can no more endanger American citizens than they can party with Paris Hilton. If housing jihadists would provoke attacks here, why hasn't Osama bin Laden carried out massacres in Florence, Colo., whose supermax penitentiary holds several terrorists?
Kirk warns that an inmate who needs more than routine medical care will have to get it at the nearest military hospital, which happens to be in his district -- raising all sorts of security risks. Fear not. No inmate has ever left Guantanamo for treatment. The Pentagon says it won't move anyone to Thomson until it ensures the medical unit can "handle all foreseeable detainee health conditions, just as it has done at Guantanamo for the past seven years."
A common theme among Republicans running for senator and governor is that the inmates shouldn't be moved anywhere, because there is no reason to close Guantanamo. Obama's decision, charges Senate candidate Patrick Hughes, is just keeping "a campaign promise to an antiwar, left-wing" faction of his party.
But it's not just Birkenstock-shod peaceniks who support the idea. Former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Colin Powell has endorsed it. So has Gen. David Petraeus.
Last year, John McCain vowed to close Gitmo if he became president. There were other presidential candidates who disagreed. You know what? They lost.
The opponents see no risk in keeping Guantanamo open and no gain in getting rid of it. But plenty of military people think the status quo is about as satisfactory as a dead skunk in the living room.
Former Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora told Congress that high-ranking officers "maintain that the first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq -- as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat -- are, respectively, the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo."
The Bush administration's purpose in putting the captives at the U.S. naval base in Cuba was to keep them beyond the reach of federal courts, so it could do whatever struck the fancy of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. But the Supreme Court has repeatedly asserted that Guantanamo cannot be a lawless zone. The executive branch has to follow the Constitution even there.
Moving the prisoners to American soil would affirm the startling proposition that we consider ourselves bound by the rule of law. It wouldn't make veteran terrorists give up the fight. But it would deprive them of an emblem of torture and abuse that inspires anti-American fury and endangers American lives.
When the detainees arrive here, I predict, Illinoisans will pay attention for about five minutes and then go on calmly with their lives. At least the grownups will.