It’s A Gray Area: It’s time to take back America’s moral high ground

President Obama has recently renewed his plans to try to close our military prison at Guantanamo, Cuba, and has also promulgated new guidelines for our government’s use of drones to assassinate people in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen.

Good. It’s about time!


Not only is our prison at Guantanamo a huge and festering sore upon the soul of our country, it is also ridiculously expensive.

Throughout my lifetime, America has professed to hold the moral high ground. We may not always have lived up to that promise, but I believe that mostly we have tried.


Until now.

In many places around the world, Guantanamo has become a symbol for injustice. Men have been held without trials, or even charges being brought against them, for more than 11 years. Most people have seen pictures of these men in shackles, and have heard stories about how they have been waterboarded and otherwise tortured while in custody.

During those 11 years, some of the prisoners have been sent back to their native lands, including England, where they have promptly been released without causing any harm to anyone. Of course, others who have been released have subsequently engaged in terrorist acts against our country.

But if hearings had been provided to them, maybe we could have determined who the actual terrorists were and were not. And besides, it should offend us as Americans that we are holding anyone off the battlefield for years without affording them the due process of law.


Now there are 166 prisoners left at Guantanamo, of whom 100 are on a hunger strike based upon this situation. The world has also noticed this strike, adding to our country’s self-inflicted public relations nightmare.

As if that isn’t enough, the Pentagon is requesting $450 million in next year’s budget to maintain and upgrade Guantanamo. That means that it is costing the taxpayers more than $2.8 million per prisoner peryear! In this time of deficits, this certainly is not money well spent.

During his initial campaign for the presidency, Obama said he would try to close Guantanamo immediately. In fairness, I believe he tried, but was outflanked by Congress’ refusal to spend any money for prisoner relocation. But now in his second term, Mr. Obama is talking about trying again. Better late than never. Even though Congress recently voted once again to keep Guantanamo open, he should maintain his resolve.

Obama could start by announcing that all prisoners for whom Congress does not allow relocation expenses will simply be released. By following this course, he will be placing the responsibility for the possible release of dangerous people exactly where it belongs. In fact, that is what he should have done from the beginning.


The second national moral failing and self-inflicted public relations nightmare is our drones program. As you know, Obama recently acknowledged that drones are not a “cure-all for terrorism,” and that they are not always “wise and moral.” As such, he has now elevated the standard to be employed for our drone attacks from against a person who is a “significant threat to U.S. interests,” to a person who is a “continuing and imminent threat to U.S. persons.”

If that policy is followed, it would be a big improvement, but once again, in the eyes of most of the world, these drone strikes are acts of terrorism.

For a moment, just project how you would feel if one of your family members or friends were to be killed by an unseen missile fired from the sky by a foreign government inside your country. If you are like me, you would be outraged. And you would want revenge! And that is not even discussing the large number of occasions in which other people who just happened to be close to a targeted person were also killed as “collateral damage.”

It is not at all an exaggeration to say that we have recruited more terrorists by these drone strikes than we have killed. The hatred we have engendered against us, primarily from Muslim countries, is strong and deep.

Even more basic, Obama was also recently quoted as saying that “All wars must end.” But are we at war with Pakistan or Yemen? Fundamentally, one cannot effectively declare war upon a tactic or an idea like terrorism, any more than one can successfully fight a war upon a thing like drugs, or a condition like poverty. In addition, under Article I Section 8 of our Constitution, we can be “at war” only after Congress has issued a formal Declaration of War.

It certainly is true that Obama did not initiate the drone program, although he greatly expanded the program started by President George W. Bush. But, actually, I do not fault any president for actions like these. The pressure upon presidents to keep us safe during their terms in office is crushing. Instead, the fault lies directly with Congress and the courts. In these matters, those venerable institutions have failed in their responsibilities to keep us being a nation of laws.

In summary, the best way to lead the world in fighting terrorism, in addition to relying upon intelligence, is to be who we naturally are: world leaders in moral standing and integrity. This is our history, and we should all encourage our elected officials to return us to that station.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired Orange County Superior Court judge. He lives in Newport Beach. He can be contacted at