An Expensive Lesson

By Bill Mefford

In the 2005 film, Syriana, which focuses on the intersection between the United States’ quest to secure oil and our efforts to maintain world domination, there is a line I have always remembered. The line comes from a somewhat progressive member of the royal family in Saudi Arabia who is trying to take over once his father, the King, either dies or steps down. He is critical of the foreign “investments” from the United States and all of the strings that are attached, and he says, “When a country has five percent of the world's population but does fifty percent of its military spending, then the persuasive powers of that country are on the decline.” So true.

I thought of this line once again today, September 11, as we remember the horrific day 18 years ago and as I learned this morning on NPR that the costs that have been incurred for detaining those deemed “enemy combatants” at Guantanamo since 2001 have totaled $6 billion. Think about that. $6 billion for detaining a total of 775 people, mast of whom have been released because they were actually found to have done nothing wrong. Yes, a small number of the people detained there have committed atrocities, but because the federal government for the past three administrations have all maintained the classification “enemy combatants,” and because the government insists on pursuing the death penalty for the detainees, the costs will only continue to sky rocket.

And no, I am not saying we should simply open the gates and let the last 50-60 detainees go with no accountability, (though if there is nothing to charge them with in a US criminal court then yes! we MUST let them go!). But remove the classification of “enemy combatants” since few if any of them were captured on a battlefield, and let them be tried in a US court of law. That is what we should do with people who violate the law. Trying the detainees in a court of law would be a sign to the rest of the world that we believe in justice and accountability. Keeping them hidden from the rest of the world only maintains the narrative that the US has one set of rules for affluent people who are the “right” color and “right” religion, and another set of rules for everyone else.

But trying them in US courts will not happen for two main reasons. One is that far too many politicians have convinced themselves and much of the public that withholding justice from people and acting tough is politically more advantageous to them than ensuring that justice actually becomes a reality. The second reason is that most, if not all (though we do not know for sure) of the detainees have been tortured so that would negate any evidentiary findings and most likely would be cause for canceling their prosecution entirely.

And so I recall this line again: “When a country has five percent of the world's population but does fifty percent of its military spending, then the persuasive powers of that country are on the decline.” It costs a helluva lot to suppress global challenges rather than embrace them and seek collaborative solutions with other nations, even those we have disagreements with. It costs a helluva lot to live in fear because of past injustices the United States has committed rather than making amends and seeking reconciliation where we have greatly damaged other nations and peoples.

I keep thinking about the massive number of military bases we have around the world and the tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars we have wasted over the years in seeking cooperation and collaboration through domination rather than aligning our self interests with those of other countries and working for just and shared goals. Think of what the hundreds of billions of dollars could have gone to - the people helped, the poor lifted up, sicknesses cured, sustainable jobs created, the despair done away with; all of these which are core reasons why people choose violence and terror over peace and partnership. No, I am not advocating doing away with the military, but pouring billions of dollars into military world domination over being a partner seeking creative and just solutions is both ineffective and, frankly, sinful.

Militarily dominating other people, locking up people indefinitely we disagree with, committing torture - all of this shows that our persuasive powers are on the decline. It is not working. It is making money for corporations that are part of the military industrial complex, but those are the only people this is working for.

Guantanamo is a national shame and it is an expensive lesson that we still have not learned and thus, sadly and tragically, I am expecting we will repeat it over and over again.

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