Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Indescribable Collision

Can't go forward; can't go backward; can't stand still; can't sit in the corner when you're in a round room. Now what?

"The brutally frank answer is that we're stuck, and we're stuck in several ways," Gates told the defense subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee.


Gates said that he favors closing the detention center [at Guantanamo Bay], which currently holds about 270 detainees, but that a number of problems stand in the way.

For one, Gates said, there are about 70 detainees ready for release whose home governments either will not accept them or may free them after they return.


Gates said there were also several detainees who cannot be freed but who are also ineligible for prosecution under the military courts set up by the Bush administration. Gates did not elaborate on why those detainees would not be charged.

"What do you do with that irreducible 70 or 80, or whatever the number is, who you cannot let loose but will not be charged and will not be sent home?" Gates asked.

Furthermore, he said, there are lots of obstacles to overcome in order to send the detainees to U.S. prisons.

"We have a serious 'not in my backyard' problem. I haven't found anybody who wants these terrorists to be placed in a prison in their home state," he said.
One of the favorite paradoxes is the paradox of an omnipotent god, i.e.: could such a god create a boulder too heavy for the god to lift? Can there be, in other words, an unstoppable force and an immovable object, and what happens if they meet?

So what if we built a prison nobody wants, housed in it prisoners nobody wants back, and yet they are prisoners we cannot keep and perhaps should never have detained? What then? The most interesting problem here is that the people who created this problem, bear no responsibility for solving it. Congress must fund the Gitmo prison, or close it; the Defense Department must administer it and staff the guards there, or abandon it. There is no question some of the prisoners should not be there, and none of them were taken captive according to national or international laws. This was completely the action of a rogue state. But people don't stop being people simply because you lose interest in the symbols you once tried to make of them. They don't go conveniently away when the morning headlines shift from them. And what of those responsible for this disaster?

All moved on, muttering excuses or offering no apologies at all. What accountability will they face? What will a President Obama do about them (the answer if the question is President McCain is obvious on its face)? Nothing. He will do nothing. The great genius of the American system is its ahistoricity, we have been told for generations. We don't punish the past, we don't hold the historic grudges we claim to see in European, and now Middle Eastern, history. It has been the great genius of our system, we were told. It is now the reason the worst criminals will walk free.

What good, then, is a criminal justice system? I ask the question quite seriously: what good is it at all? It imprisons the poor, the powerless, the weak, the undefended. And it excuses the powerful, the wealthy, the self-important, the true monsters of our age, of every age; of any age.

When Jesus told his disciples to visit the prisoner, we comfort ourselves with thinking they were illegally and improperly imprisoned, because the Roman empire was an illegal and improper imposition of political will over a subjugated people; it held its power and control by force of arms, not as an expression of popular will. When Jesus says he has come to set the prisoner free, we comfort ourselves with thinking he meant spiritual imprisonment, and since we will never see the inside of a prison, we are quite sure he means us, and the cage of our complacencies and cares. But what if the fundamentalists are right about this much, and he meant what he said literally?

Even the fundamentalists don't take those words that seriously. What if they did, though? And why do we continue to trust our government to provide for our security, when they are so clearly incapable and uninterested in doing so? The alternative is not isolation and ammunition hoarding and mad defiance of the social order fed by paranoid schemes involving black helicopters and world governments. The alternative is to reconsider what government really means, and what is really supplies, and how much we can really expect it to do.

We never expected it to do this; but now it has. We never expected to face this dilemma; but now we do. We may even expect our new political leaders to find wisdom and solve these horrendous problems, to fix these nightmarish horrors. But if they do, how will they do it? We seem to be stuck going backward. What power, what rationale, what political position, what ideology or idea or hope, will make us move forward?

Is there an unstoppable force that can be brought to bear on this immovable object? If so, what will it be? What is the way forward? And who offers it?

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