Scare tactics put Gitmo debate on hold

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 Democrats and Republicans alike. 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.

The most recent steps taken by the White House to close Guantanamo include last week’s appropriation request of $300 million in the federal budget. About $237 million is needed for the acquisition of a potential facility, while the remaining $73 million is for the prosecution of five men involved in the September 11 attacks.

These actions have spurred the Gitmo closure plan back to life. Although President Obama signed an executive order arranging the facility to be shut down within the year, progress has slowed to a crawl due to a number of setbacks.

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Nevertheless, the Obama administration has continued to look for maximum security facilities in the U.S. to house the detainees. It now seems all but confirmed that at the top of the list 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 Republican who represents my hometown of Rockford and the surrounding areas in the House of Representatives.

Manzullo has supported the efforts of extreme members of his party such as Congressman Mark Kirk, the Republican nominee for President Obama’s old senate seat, who is now darkly warning of a “flow of terrorists” through O’Hare airport, leaving the Willis 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. I think they speak to a larger issue that is at play here. I’m talking about the sort of knee-jerk opposition to any Democratic proposal that has come to define the Republican Party since President Obama took office.

Putting 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.”

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.