- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Barack Obama might take a caution from the story about the man who died and showed up at the Pearly Gates.

The maitre d’ told him that his death was particularly timely because he qualified for the weekly special. He could sample that other place down below, then paradise, and decide for himself where to spend eternity.

He took the down elevator and the doors opened onto a lush fairway, where everybody was breaking par. The restaurant at the 19th hole was the best in town, the roast beef just rare enough, the ham tasty and the broiled sheep’s eyes tender and flavorful. The wines were the best that Kendall-Jackson or Lafitte Rothschild could supply, served by 73 of the most beautiful women the man had ever seen. “Yes,” the guide said, “not all are virgins, but we’re very multicultural now.” The party seemed to go on for days.

Finally, he was escorted to the elevator for a long ride upstairs. Paradise turned out to be lush and green as well, and he was reunited with many of his old friends. The food was the best, the wines similar to those served below, but he eventually tired of shooting only holes-in-one. He reluctantly said thanks, but he wanted the livelier life downstairs. He was directed politely to the down elevator for the long descent to oblivion. The door opened at last on a scene of anguish, misery and utter desolation, similar to scenes of Sherman’s Christmas bombing of Savannah, the leveling of Berlin and the great firebomb raid on Tokyo. The man was struck dumb by the difference in what he had seen only a few days before.

“I don’t understand it,” he told an assistant devil. “I was here the other day, and it was nothing at all like this.”

“Ah, yes,” the assistant devil said. “Last week, we were campaigning. Now, we’re governing.”

Indeed, only yesterday Guantanamo was a hell-hole that Mr. Obama couldn’t wait to shut down, perhaps making it up to the prisoners with a picnic (no ham sandwiches) before returning them to violent precincts in Kirkuk and Kandahar, there to make radical Muslim merriment with roadside bombs and beheading knives.

But this week, closing Guantanamo, like heaven, can wait; maybe there are bad guys in the cages after all. Maybe the campaigner spoke too soon in the debates of spring and summer and on the hustings of September. Maybe a little rough questioning of certain tough guys is sometimes necessary to prevent another 9/11 (or something far worse). Summer was a time to campaign. This is January and time to govern.

The president-elect sends signals demonstrating his own confliction. Last week, he conceded that it would be “a challenge” to close Gitmo in the first 100 days; no one has yet figured out what to do with the 250 al Qaeda and Taliban guests plucked from battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq, most of them unrepentant thugs and some of them unrepentant witnesses to the thuggery. They’re too many to release at once, too many to find new prisons for, too many to be “shot while trying to escape.”

For now, maybe, they can be left where they are, so they can (in the famous euphemism of the London newspapers) continue to “assist police with their investigation.”

Monday, with a glance over his left shoulder at the impatient true believers who imagine that the war against terrorists is merely something dreamed up by President Bush to amuse right-wing red-hots, he sent out aides who speak only anonymously with the reassurance that he “might” issue the executive order closing Gitmo on Jan. 20, but the Associated Press reported that it’s unlikely “the detention facility … will [actually be] closed anytime soon.”

Mr. Obama first must decide whether to confront a group of Democratic senators, first among them Dianne Feinstein, who want to limit the president’s authority to prescribe interrogation techniques, particularly waterboarding, the simulation of drowning that can make hardened suspects spill their schemes for killing Americans in wholesale numbers. Presidential prerogatives can be airily discounted by presidential candidates, but actual presidents set great store by them.

Everybody’s against torture, but everybody’s for it, depending on circumstances. The argument is over where to draw the line. Perhaps saving the life of a senator’s grandchild, for example, could merit even a little waterboarding.

“When I took my SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, escape) training at Warner Springs, Cal., in 1976,” writes a retired naval aviator, “I watched as most of my class of about 25 were waterboarded … at one time it was a part of almost every naval aviator’s training. How bad a torture can it be? It certainly wasn’t lasting, nor lethal. Perhaps it is just effective.”

The difference, you might say, is between campaigning and governing.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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