Looking behind vitriolic speech and soundbites

I’ll have to be honest, until yesterday I didn’t put a lot of energy into thinking about the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. My feelings could be summed up in one word: bad.

Bad people, bad policy.

And then Rear Admiral Jim McGarrah spoke to Midtown Atlanta Rotary Club and implored each of us to avoid taking strong political stands on any issue based solely on information provided on television.

“Don’t take soundbites from anyone. Not Fox, not CNN, not even the papers,” he said. “This is a complex issue and it’s impossible to understand based on what you hear from politicians and talking heads.”

Of course McGarrah was right. But the context was especially apt. His admonition came at the end of an extremely enlightening speech about his role as Director of the Office of the Administrative Review of Enemy Combatants (OARDEC).

McGarrah discussed, in detail, his thoughts on Article 4 of the Geneva Convention, which defines the accepted treatment of prisoners of war.

I won’t begin to get into those details here but I will say that I left the meeting with a fuller understanding of the issue’s complexity. For one, I know that laws lag behind societal changes. They’re written once we figure out we have a problem. When the rules regarding the treatment of prisoners of war were written in 1949, there was no thought given to the treatment of actors from non-nation states with the ability to train and operate on a global basis. Such groups didn’t exist in the same way they do now.

Another point that stuck in my mind was McGarrah’s assertion that Guantanamo has become a symbol for an ongoing policy debate that will not be solved when the last U.S. captive leaves the shores of Cuba. There’s a deeper debate over how to treat people who do not associate with any particular nation but are suspected of funding or executing violence against nation states.

I can’t say that my opinion of Guantanamo has radically changed from my initial desire to see the detention camp shut down for good. But I have begun thinking about the issues surrounding enemy combatants in a more studious manner.

And I’ll do my best to avoid forming knee-jerk opinions on political issues based on a talking points from either side of the debate. As McGarrah reminds us, that’s a good lesson for everyone.

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