US President Barack Obama took an hour for his appearance in a windowless room at the National Archives Museum in Washington last Thursday. In his speech, he spoke of his "solemn responsibility" as president, and of the fact that America cannot just proclaim its moral values, but must live in accordance with those values.
It was a speech filled with idealism and passion, the kind of speech that suits Obama. But then, as the president was leaving the National Archives, it became clear that he would not have the last word that day.
Only a few minutes later, former Vice President Dick Cheney stepped onto another stage in Washington and questioned everything the president had just said. The country's most popular politician was being challenged by its most unpopular politician. The country's most powerful man was being raked over the coals by a man who is now out of power, the man who, on his last day in office, was confined -- almost symbolically -- to a wheelchair.
More than a duel of words between two men, their respective speeches represented the collision of two worlds. In the midst of the biggest economic crisis in more than 70 years, and just four months after Obama's inauguration, America is arguing about the right security policy in an era marked by the fear of terrorism.
The questions that are being asked in this stubborn debate are ones that Europeans hardly even dare ask. Isn't government torture justified, if only as a special right in strange times? Was it perhaps Bush's biggest mistake to make emergency law into the law of the land? Or are the purists right when they say that one cannot defend the ideals of democracy and the rule of law by challenging them?
Obama's announcement of his plan to close the detainee camp at Guantanamo Bay and the resulting vocal resistance from conservatives have divided the nation once again. The long shadow of his predecessor, who started two wars, left behind an internationally isolated America and established a culture of fear at home, is now falling on President Barack Obama.
After getting off to such a promising start, the 44th president is now in serious trouble. An ominous coalition of members of the intelligence community and Republicans is plotting against him, or at least it would seem that way.
As if by coincidence, on the day of the big debate a Pentagon report turned up that discloses that one in seven detainees released from Guantanamo in the past have returned to terrorism. And in the night before Obama's keynote speech, the FBI arrested several suspected terrorists in New York for allegedly plotting to blow up two buildings belonging to a Jewish congregation and to attack a military airport.
The barrage of fire aimed at Obama was not the most surprising thing that happened last week. What was truly surprising was the success of his adversaries. The mood in America has shifted -- first among the public and now in Congress. Ironically, Democratic senators opposed Obama last week when they refused to approve the funds needed to close Guantanamo. Of 96 senators, 90 denied Obama their vote.
In the great struggle over fear and civil courage, fear is winning the upper hand once again. "Obama is taking hits from all sides for his terror-fighting strategy," CNN commentator Wolf Blitzer said, summarizing the week's events.
It has suddenly dawned on the president's fellow Democrats that the Guantanamo detainees could be sent to US prisons if the camp were closed -- prisons in their districts. Since then, Democrats have become less afraid of terrorists than of the fury of their voters, who are determined not to have former Guantanamo detainees as their neighbors.
Citizens fear that jailing a terrorist in their backyard could turn their respective cities into targets for al-Qaida. And even if nothing of the sort happens, having a terrorist incarcerated nearby would certainly bring down local real estate values -- and two-thirds of Americans are homeowners.
In a letter to President Bush in June 2007, 140 members of the US House of Representatives demanded that it was finally time to close Guantanamo. At the time, defending human rights was the best way to gain voter approval. "Do I think (Guantanamo) should be closed? Damn right I do," thundered Wisconsin Democratic Congressman David Obey, the then-chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. Back then, it was easy to make such idealistic statements. Now Obey is back to leading the resistance -- but this time he is arguing against the closing of Guantanamo. Harry Reid, who as senate majority leader is the most important Democrat in the Senate, is among Obey's supporters.
The senate majority leader naturally wants to be part of the majority, and so Reid has put his political weight behind the opposition to Obama. "Democrats under no circumstances will move forward without a comprehensive, responsible plan from the president," he said last week, but Obama had no such plan to offer. Emboldened by their speaker, second- and third-tier senators suddenly felt free to speak their minds without inhibition.
But if everyone is saying that Guantanamo has to be closed, but not at the expense of their respective districts, then the very closure of the prison is up for negotiation. In this regard, it was perfectly consistent for Jim Webb, the Democratic senator from Virginia who was once mentioned as a possible running mate for Obama, to suddenly be calling the president's plan for Guantanamo into question altogether.