This weekend, supporters of President Barack Obama who believed that theirs was a vote for change experienced shock, disappointment and disillusionment when the administration announced that it would uphold a policy of denying constitutional rights to the 600-some detainees of Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan — a policy that prevailed under former President George W. Bush. This decision seems to go directly against Obama’s anti-torture, pro-human rights rhetoric, the symbolic closing of Guantanamo Bay and his repeated insistence that his administration seeks peaceful relations with countries in the Middle East. This is a direct betrayal of the expectations and values of the many who supported him, and it is liable to create doubts among other nations about just how much change Obama is bringing to Washington.
Several personnel at the Bagram Air Base were investigated in 2002 and later prosecuted after autopsies revealed the deaths of Mullah Habibullah and a 22-year-old farmer and part-time taxi driver known as Dilawar — both Afghani civilians suspected of terrorist activities — to be homicide induced by severe blunt force trauma. Dilawar, it was later revealed, was found innocent.
Despite these past infractions of human rights, the administration argues that, because Bagram is located in an overseas war zone, its prisoners, who may be a threat to security, can be considered part of continuing military involvement (as opposed to Guantanamo, which is not located in a war zone). The administration also says that keeping the detention center open is a matter of security and that prisoners will be released when they no longer constitute a threat to that security (arguments that sound eerily similar to Bush’s justifications for allowing Guantanamo Bay to remain open).
This is not the legacy that President Obama promised to uphold in his campaign or in his inauguration speech —in which he even addressed the issue of torture — and it is certainly not something that bolsters the United States’ image abroad or fulfills the promises that Obama made at home. It is, in effect, a violation of the promises he made, an insult to the hope and optimism he instilled in his supporters and a warning sign to tenuous allies and potential enemies with whom he had hoped to build bridges. It says to the world that the United States only supports human rights when it is convenient, that inspiring words about equality and humanity should not be trusted and that change will only ever be halfway.
President Obama should remember that the United States is still fragile and bruised from recession and disappointed hopes, looking to define its future as a virtuous, prosperous nation, and that much of the outcome of that quest will depend on decisions such as this one.