Guantanamo transfers: an empty gesture?

The transfer of 70 detainees to Illinois simply passes on the problem

So, what are we to make of the Obama administration's decision to transfer about 70 of the remaining 250 or so Guantanamo detainees to the US mainland?

The White House yesterday released a memorandum directing the federal government to purchase the prison, in order to "facilitate the closure" of detention facilities at the Guantanamo Bay naval base by securing the transfer of roughly 70 inmates (according to Senator Dick Durbin, D-Illinois) to the correctional centre in the town of Thomson, Carroll County, Illinois.

The decision to move the detainees to the facility at Thomson (population 559) is an interesting choice, on all sorts of levels.

In part, Barack Obama is doubtless being a touch wily and seeking to stall the barrage of criticism he will be in for, come 22 January and the passing of the year in which he said that he would have Guantanamo closed. It will also provide a good number of jobs -- some sources say up to 2,000 -- and $1bn of federal funding in an area feeling the economic downturn acutely.

But he will take considerable flak from the Republicans, some of whom are already talking of the "risks" the move poses to the American public. In an expensive pre-emptive pandering to such cynically stoked fears, the prison -- which already features cells built of precast, reinforced cement, will now be retrofitted to exceed even "super-max" security standards, according to a letter sent to the governor of Illinois, Pat Quinn, by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But this is hardly going to quell Republican concerns that Guantanamo detainees just shouldn't be in America, period.

A more serious question the Republicans might have addressed is whether the move will defuse Guantanamo as the terrorist recruiting station it has come to be viewed as around the world. The answer here is, of course, no. The question was never about the "where" of Guantanamo itself; it was always about the "how" of detainee treatment and the United States' commitment to international law. And unless steps are taken to expedite detainees' passage through open and transparent legal processes, nothing about the world's indignation against it will change.

Indeed, the use of the term "detainee management purposes" in Obama's order yesterday was chillingly reminiscent of the neoliberalist jargon deployed to such horrid effect during the Bush era. Moreover, as at the "old" Guantanamo, the "new" Guantanamo will be run not by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, but by the defence department, yet another way that these detainees are cleaved from the legal system.

But amid all the brouhaha about the decision, there are three important things to remember.

First, this is a response to the real difficulty the White House has encountered in finding other places to take the detainees. For all the love-in surrounding Obama's trip to Norway last week, for example, even the Norwegian foreign minister Jonas Gahr Støre has declined to take them, and in no uncertain terms. "Guantanamo is the United States' responsibility," he said last month.

Second, it takes some of the heat (and we ought not to be distracted by this) away from the fact that the move does nothing to resolve the fate of the detainees among this number who will continue to be held indefinitely. Nor does it deal with the question of the treatment of detainees slated for transfer elsewhere -- those whose transfer to Yemen is actively being discussed in particular.

Third, it reminds us that the real problems of Guantanamo still have not been addressed by the present administration. Obama was very good on the symbolism of closing the base at the beginning of this year. He has been less good at addressing the broader legal quagmire of Guantanamo (including the policy of rendition). Moving those who are to be tried by refangled military commission (which the Obama administration could have dropped, but has chosen to continue with) does not address that problem; it simply passes it on.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear