Tactics of Fear

President Obama has made shutting down Guantanamo Bay a priority since he began running for the Democratic nomination a couple years ago. The detention facility in Cuba has been the target of much criticism from both Democrats and Republicans. The interrogation methods used there have violated international law, damaged America’s standing in the world, and served as a recruiting tool for terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda that thrive on propaganda.

Just two days after assuming office, President Obama signed an executive order suspending military commissions at Guantanamo and ordering that the facility be shut down within the year.

But that was more than nine months ago and progress has been slow since then on the logistics of moving the detainees. A military judge ruled in January that Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri could not be put on trial, rejecting the White House’s request and creating an early hurdle for the administration. In May, the Senate voted 90-6 to block the funds needed to transfer the detainees to the United States.

Despite the volatile nature of this issue, some countries have agreed to accept a limited number of the detainees. A group of innocent Chinese Uighur Muslims were transferred to Palau. In June, Saudi Arabia agreed to accept three, while Iraq and Chad agreed to accept one each. A small controversy erupted that same week over the decision to send another four Uighur detainees to Bermuda – a British territory – without informing the British government. Other countries that have accepted prisoners include Italy and Ireland, not to mention some of the member states of the European Union.

In spite of these transfers, more than two hundred detainees remain at Guantanamo, which leaves meeting the January deadline for closing the facility increasingly less probable. Nevertheless, the Obama Administration has continued to look for maximum security facilities in the U.S. to house the detainees. One potential location is the Thomson prison here in Illinois.

Built in 2001 for $145 million, the Thomson maximum security prison remains completely empty. Many local leaders and politicians from Thomson Village President Jerry Hebeler to Senator Dick Durbin have supported the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to Thomson. At the local level, the move has the potential to bring in around $200 million and create 3,000 jobs, which would cut regional unemployment in half. And nationally, the move could help resolve the problems surrounding the closing of Guantanamo.

It comes as no surprise that plenty of people have opposed this move. One of the loudest voices of dissent has come from Congressman Don Manzullo, a man not known for his dazzling wit or intelligence. Manzullo recently came under fire for calling Islam a “savage religion,” a remark for which he hurriedly apologized once it began to receive national spotlight.

Manzullo has been even more outspoken about his opposition to the Thomson proposal. He has supported the efforts of extreme members of his party such as Congressman Mark Kirk, who recently bought the domain noterroristsinillinois.com as a campaign tactic, and who is now darkly warning of a “flow of terrorists” through O’Hare airport, leaving the Willis (Sears) Tower vulnerable to attack. Manzullo has also posted on his Twitter that he thinks that “Gitmo in Illinois” would give “evil the opportunity to… make dedicated jihadists lick their chops.”

These outrageous scare tactics are the sort of thing I would expect from a schoolyard bully, not a United States Congressman. It’s just another example of the sort of knee-jerk opposition to any Democratic proposal that has come to define the Republican Party since President Obama took office. I’ll borrow the sentiment from Saturday Night Live – Congressman Manzullo needs to grow a pair, and if he can’t then he should get Hillary to lend him hers.

In the broader context, the coarsening of the debate is not helping his party’s position at all. Just a few weeks ago, the Republicans lost the NY-23 primary for the first time since Abner Doubleday invented baseball. Americans want solutions, not fear mongering and knee-jerk opposition.

But even when you put aside his fear tactics aside for a moment, the arguments Manzullo is making don’t seem to hold much weight. Federal facilities already house many terrorists – including 216 international and 139 domestic terrorists. Thirty-five of these terrorists are housed in Illinois. None have ever escaped. There is also no evidence linking the imprisonment of terrorists to increased levels of local terrorism.

Manzullo also seems out of touch with his constituents in Thomson. Jerry Hebeler, the Village President, said after meeting with federal officials:

“We need this to help our community, our communities around us and us are hurting big… I would never chase jobs if I thought it would jeopardize the safety and security of my friends and neighbors. Bottom line is I want to make sure the bad guys are off the street. This is what maximum security prison is all about. From what I’ve heard so far, Thomson would be even more secure [than other places], and that’s what would make me sleep better.”

Local residents have expressed similar feelings. Their main concerns are jobs and the state of the local economy, which has taken a hit in recent years. They say that the potential for job creation is worth the minimal risk, in their mind.

In looking forward, I would urge Congressman Manzullo and other local leaders considering the Thomson proposal to maintain a much-needed tone of civility. There may be a legitimate debate to be had, but it’s not one that includes fear mongering and scare tactics.

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