We have come so far from taking and holding prisoners, based on their own alleged bad acts, that we are justifying holding them forever based on imagined connections to the bad acts of others. Brian J. Foley, at the Boston University School of Law, recently called this process of creating terrorists by possible future proxy "national security state alchemy."
Is there a slim but real possibility that some of the men released from Guantanamo will join the battle against us? Of course there is. But does that mean we should do away with individual fact-finding for each detainee in favor of sweeping geographic conclusions? It shouldn't. The Pentagon now says that 20 percent of former Gitmo detainees have "returned to the battlefield." Justin Eliott argues these numbers have always been tricky. Very, very tricky. And they depend on what it actually means to rejoin "the battle."
After the events of Dec. 25, it's clear that any connection between any former Gitmo detainee and any act of terror can be posited as causal. As a Gitmo detainee you can be said to have "returned to the battlefield" if you accidentally met the Christmas bomber or golfed with his dad.
Thus Thomas Joscelyn, at the Weekly Standard, argued Monday that former Gitmo detainee Moazzam Begg might well have been instrumental in radicalizing the crotch-bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. According to Joscelyn, Begg is connected to Abdulmutallab by a 2007 event hosted by the Islamic Society at the University College of London, of which Abdulmutallab was president. Begg didn't participate. But a senior researcher at the organization he founded after his release from Guantanamo did. Joscelyn concedes that there is no direct proof Begg radicalized Abdulmutallab. But who needs proof? Looking for links between Abdulmutallab and released Guantanamo prisoners has become an elaborate game of Clue. Maybe Colonel Mustard radicalized him in the conservatory with a lead pipe! And since it's not possible to disprove such conjecture, they all start to sound equally plausible in these panicky moments in which we are desperate for connections and clues.
Even more frightening than the attempt to connect the Christmas bomber with Begg is Joscelyn's argument that Begg radicalized him by way of lectures and videos. If the United States now wants to take the position that those who depart Guantanamo are aiding and abetting terror simply by speaking out about their experiences at the camp, nobody can ever be released again. (Of course, we used to call such activities "speech.") And yet the Pentagon counts among those who have "returned to terrorist activities" former prisoners who have publicly made anti-American statements.
For those of us who had hoped to see Guantanamo disappear into history's rearview mirror, the events of this week show that the defining sins of Guantanamo will plague the camp indefinitely. The implausible connection between the Yemeni detainees and the Christmas bomber kicked things off. Then came yesterday's federal appellate court decision curbing the rights of habeas corpus petitioners there (a ruling that—in the words of a concurring judge—"goes well beyond what even the governmenthas argued in this case"). We are so terrified of imagined connections between the detainees and future acts of terror, we can't possibly let any of them go.
If one accepts the claim that Guantanamo itself, in the words of the president on Tuesday, "has damaged our national security interests and become a tremendous recruiting tool for al Qaeda," every last prisoner at the camp becomes a walking argument against his own release. Not just because of what he may someday do to harm the United States, but because of what he may say to someone else who may in turn someday do something to harm the United States. We never should have built the camp in the first place. But as of today, we can never shut it down if every prisoner there becomes the sum of the very worst things we can possibly imagine.