Mr. Obama can’t have it both ways. He said during his healthcare speech to Congress that he was going to call out those who spread false information. Turnabout is fair play.

During Thursday’s speech to the United Nations, Obama reiterated some of the things he’s done to restore America’s moral position and international credibility. Specifically, he said:

On my first day in office, I prohibited – without exception or equivocation – the use of torture by the United States of America. I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed, and we are doing the hard work of forging a framework to combat extremism within the rule of law. Every nation must know: America will live its values, and we will lead by example.


He did do those things, and I think the message about America living by its values is an important one. One that we desperately need to heed. However, at nearly the same time, the Obama administration made another decision which it has kept pretty low-key. The New York Times buried it on page 23.

The decision was that the administration will continue to hold detainees currently in Guantanamo without bringing them to trial based on the power it says it has under the Congressional resolution passed after 9/11, authorizing the president to use force against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. There was no word on where they would be held, and presumably he could skate on some very thin ice by still closing Guantanamo Bay and holding them elsewhere, but that would be more than a little disingenuous.

Clearly the moral message of his decision to close the Guantanamo prison was not to get the prisoners out of Cuba, but rather to get them out of Limbo. Treat them as criminals and prosecute them. Treat them as prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention. Or let them go.

I do recognize this is problematic. Many of the prisoners cannot reasonably be prosecuted under U.S. law because the Bush administration collected much of the evidence against them illegally. The cases would fall apart. I too, would hate to see truly guilty people set free based on legal technicalities. Yet our justice system is based on the notion that better 100 guilty people go free than a single innocent man be convicted. (It’s hard to tell that from the percentage of our citizens we currently imprison, but it is our stated principle.)

It seems conceivable that there must be some way to handle these prisoners that are truly guilty. Prosecute them in another country. Pass legislation allowing them to be tried under special rules. Use military tribunals to try them. Something. But continuing to exploit the overly broad post-9/11 powers to detain people indefinitely is not being true to our American values. Congress should move to repeal those powers so that no President has to deal with the temptation to exploit them.

Morality is not viable without courage. It is not tenable without risk. It’s easy to be moral when you feel invulnerable. Maybe the hardest thing to be is a better person than those who would seek to harm you. No one said this would be easy.

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