What do you do with a problem like Gitmo?

Pop quiz. You have 245 suspected terrorists and enemy combatants housed 90 miles off the shore of the largest “democracy” in the world. They are being denied basic human rights and have been subjected to cruel and unusual torture techniques in contravention of the Geneva Convention. The world community is split on whether they are a threat to international security or victims of an illegal war started by a single-minded world leader bent on spreading his ideology — by force if necessary — throughout the Middle East. You have already publicly denounced the facility and called for its closure. What do you do, hotshot? What do you do?

If you are Barack Obama, you don’t say a thing and hope your advisors (many left over from the single-minded ideologue) can come up with a “Hail Mary” political play that can satisfy both the progressive human rights lobby and the conservative national security hawks.

President Obama has declared a Jan. 22, 2010 deadline for the closure of the infamous prison complex located in Guantanamo Bay on the southeast tip of Cuba. The area has seen a continued U.S. presence since 1898 when it was first used as a location for a field hospital for U.S. Marines wounded during the Spanish-Cuban-American War. The base was used as a refuelling station under the Batista Regime, and since the 1959 Cuban Revolution it has been a center for intelligence gathering on the socialist government of Cuba.

In 2002, the Bush administration created Camp X-ray, the first of five detention camps to be constructed on the base since the start of the “War on Terror.” Camp Iguana was added in late 2002 to hold juvenile enemy combatants. A U.S. spokesman at the time claimed it held unlawful enemy combatants under the age of 16. It was closed in 2004, and re-opened in 2005 to hold 38 prisoners who were no longer considered enemy combatants, while they awaited diplomatic efforts to either repatriate them or find countries willing to take them.

When Barack Obama signed the order closing the base, the question was asked: “What do we do with these prisoners?” The sticking point of course is that some are still considered dangerous threats to U.S. and world security. While others at the base may no longer be considered a danger to the U.S., the problem is that many are now unwelcome in their countries of origin. Finding a third-party nation to accept these detainees has proven difficult as well, with the U.S. resorting to farming out some of the prisoners — those who are no longer considered a danger — to countries like Bermuda and the South Pacific island nation of Palau.

Canada has been very reluctant, and at times truculent, in regards to our own citizen being held at the camp, namely Omar Khadr. The Harper government has repeatedly gone to court to fight earlier orders to force it to repatriate Khadr on the grounds that they feel he represents a danger to Canada. Those efforts have been unsuccessful.

The question of transferring the prisoners to U.S. soil has angered many conservative politicians in the U.S. who fear that this would result in the prisoners being granted basic human and legal rights under the U.S. constitution, and thus undermining U.S. intelligence to torture out confessions from these individuals. Others claim that the move to the U.S. allows prisoners to demand due process and force the matters into federal courts instead of military tribunals, thus allowing for the possible compromise of sensitive intelligence and its sources.

In the end, what I would like to ask Obama and the U.S. Congress is this: should the priority be to avoid the embarrassment of having no legally admissible substance to show for the years of interrogation and torture that occurred in the camps at Gitmo? Or should the U.S. attempt to be, as Ronald Reagan suggested, “a shining city upon a hill whose beacon of light guides freedom-loving people everywhere?” We as a world community are watching and waiting to see what the shining example of democracy will do when faced with a test of its core principles of truth, justice, and liberty for all.

Stephen Milner is a mature student studying sociology.