RICHMOND

Our war with Islam gives no hint of how many centuries we still have to endure before somebody pulls the nuclear plug deliberately or because they cut the wrong wire (blue or red?). But the immediate question is are we going to hold the 166 Guantanamo prisoners until they die off naturally or are we going to bring some common sense into the predicament?

Right now we are feeding a large percentage of them by sticking tubes up their noses and down into their stomachs in the attempt to bluff our way through their hunger strike. It is reported they are being fed Ensure, which boasts of 24 essential vitamins and minerals, and six flavors, including butter pecan and coffee latte. People we know live on Ensure so we have seen that they work.

Hunger strikes are not common, but they were used for umpteen years by Northern Irishmen jailed by the British and Palestinians jailed by Israel. In my youth I was fascinated by the Irish fasters for their ability to go all the way with their strike right through the death phase and be the sung heroes of their comrades. In my later years I see only the sadness rather than the physical drama.

President Barack Obama was quite forceful in his press conference recently when he pledged he would go at the Guantanamo problem forcefully. The problem is that he seemed even more determined during his first campaign for president. He made a stab at it, but Congress balked him with ungainly laws that practically made it impossible. However, he has now been in office five years and there are still nearly 200 prisoners who have been penned for a decade and nothing promising on their horizon.


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It costs nearly a billion dollars a year to keep these relatively few prisoners in confinement. It was a prime matter for comic jokes for some years but there are no jokes that can be made out of this national embarrassment. There was a time when Americans could hold their heads up and brag that we didn't torture people, that our laws respected the treatment given our enemies as well as our friends. There was a time when we didn't invade a country just because our president and the advisors around him had grandiloquent illusions of making the world safe for big business.

Eighty-six of the prisoners, 56 of them Yemenis, have been cleared for release. Yemen has said it would take all of them. The rest are Uighurs, a Turkestan minority in western China, who were training to fight the Chinese when they were caught in Iraq and Afghanistan. A few countries have allowed them to emigrate because they have nowhere else to go. We should do the same.

Then there are 30 men whose actions against us merited prosecution, but the military has fumbled terribly on this matter and we should send those prisoners through our federal court system for trial and possible punishment. That leaves about 50 men who have fallen through the cracks and they should get a trial and either be imprisoned or released somewhere.

Now it is quite possible that if and when we do release these men some of them will return to their old ways, sadder, wiser and filled with even more hate, but that is a chance we will have to take to close this chapter in our history. There are six men still facing charges before a military tribunal, but no one in the military seems to care right now.

The American Civil Liberties Union has made two suggestions about the prisoners. The president could name a senior official to take over the problem from the military and handle it civilly. Secondly, the president could order Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to get those who have been cleared out of town right now.

Then we could close Guantanamo down and divert all that money to the sequestered Head Start program. Just as we did for air travelers, we can see to it that those kids get to their careers on time.

P.S. I am personally a 101 percent American who hates our enemies unconditionally and am willing to accept extreme measures to ensure our winning our politically religious "wars." But there's a right and a wrong to our actions, and I want us always to be right even though I stand to the left normally.

Milton Bass is a regular Eagle contributor.