The Uighurs: Coda
“WALLACE: Well, let me get — let’s take one example, the Chinese Uighurs, Chinese Muslims…
WALLACE: … who were arrested in Afghanistan, brought to this country. The Pentagon says they’re not enemy combatants. At least one federal judge has said they’re not a threat. But if they go back to China, they’re going to be prosecuted.
GINGRICH: Why is that our problem? I mean, why — what — if the — if the — what — what is it — why are we protecting these guys? Why does it become an American problem?
WALLACE: So what, send them to China and…
GINGRICH: Send them to China. If a third country wants to receive them, send them to a third country. But setting this precedent that if you get picked up by Americans — I mean, the Somalian who was recently brought here who’s a pirate — I mean, if you get picked up by the Americans, you show up in the United States, a lawyer files an amicus brief on your behalf for free, a year later you have citizenship because, after all, how can we not give you citizenship since you’re now here, and in between our taxpayers pay for you — this is, I think — verges on insanity.”
Obviously, we can’t send them back to China. They would be tortured or killed there, and knowing that, we are forbidden under international law to send them there.
The Uighurs became our problem when we imprisoned them. We were the ones who set up a system whereby we paid bounties to people for turning in foreign fighters. We were also the ones who decided (pdf), against decades of precedent, not to hold Article 5 Tribunals to determine which of the people we captured were actually combatants and which were not. That is: we set up a system in which people had incentives to turn in the innocent, and then we decided that we could dismantle our normal systems for telling the innocent from the guilty.
We have kept these men in jail for seven and a half years. They have wives and families who spent (pdf) the first four years of their imprisonment not knowing whether they were dead or alive. Some of them have children they have never met — children who are seven years old now. If this is not our problem, I do not know what is.
I was brought up to believe that when I made a mistake, I should admit it and try to do whatever I could to make it right. I think this is true of me, and I think that it is true of my country. We should not let innocent people languish in prison just because we are afraid, despite all evidence to the contrary, that they might do something bad. It’s foolish — it’s not as though no one will be able to keep track of the Uighurs if they are released. But more than that, it’s cowardly and ignoble.
I would hope that my country is better than that. I hope that we have the minimal decency not to allow ourselves to be convinced by demagogues that we should be afraid to admit our mistakes and try to make things right. I would hope that we would actually investigate charges that people were “trained mass killers instructed by the same terrorists responsible for killing 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001” before we decided to let them rot in jail for no good reason.
I’d hope we would have the grace to do this even if the person making the charges wasn’t someone who blamed liberals for a murder in which a woman cut another woman’s abdomen open and stole her unborn child.
And I would hope that politicians would show some leadership and remind us that we are better than this. (Here I want to give a shout-out to Rep. James Moran, who has been very strong on this issue.) We do not have to be at the mercy of our most groundless fears. We do not have to let bullies like Newt Gingrich or blowhards like Jonah Goldberg dictate the terms of debate.
We can be better than that.
My main motivation for doing this is just the thought: the Uighurs are innocent, and they deserve better than this. But it’s also worth noting what rides on this, and what is, I suspect, motivating some of the politicians who are using the Uighurs to score political points.
Barack Obama wants to close Guantanamo. To do so, he needs to find countries to take some of the detainees in. Many countries are quite understandably asking: if the United States won’t take them in, why should we?
The Uighurs are the most obviously innocent of all the detainees. Uighur communities have offered to take them in and help them resettle. There are a lot of things in their favor. If Republicans block their release in this country, they can block the release of any detainee in this country. And if they do that, then the task of closing Guantanamo down will become much, much more difficult, perhaps impossible.
We should not let that happen without a fight.