A prison at Guantanamo Bay would have made sense if it had been run as a normal prisoner of war camp, subject to the Geneva Conventions and international inspection. Instead, it doubled as an interrogation center subject to its own arbitrary rules. The intense secrecy only gave credence to tales of prisoner abuse, founded or unfounded, and this in turn was compounded by the Bush administration’s plans for one-sided trials.

Instead in its more than seven years of operation, it has become a caustic international stain on the United States’ reputation as a champion of humane values and the rule of law. The Guantanamo Bay prison has become so horribly tainted that there really was no option other than to close it.

True to his campaign promise, one of Barack Obama’s first acts as president was to sign an executive order directing that the prison be closed within a year. He also signed two other orders that should go a long way toward reassuring our friends and allies that we have not totally strayed from our ideals. He limited interrogation techniques for all government agencies, including the CIA, to those outlined in the Army Field Manual and he prohibited the secret detention of captives in third countries.

Obama also delayed for 120 days all proceedings under Bush’s military tribunals while a task force tries to come up with a better way of judging the prisoners’ status. The tribunals, too, have been largely discredited and the alternatives would seem to be to come up with a new system, perhaps a special court; try the detainees in U.S. criminal courts; or bring them before a military court martial. The civilian courts have proved that they can try terrorism cases, assuming that the evidence hasn’t been gathered in a way that would force a judge to throw it out.

Obama was right to give himself a year to close Guantanamo Bay. Some of the prisoners could be released now if we could find anybody to take them. Others, the truly hardened terrorists, probably won’t be released under any circumstances. There is considerable opposition to bringing the prisoners to the U.S. mainland, but we are inescapably responsible for them. And it’s not like they’re coming here to a life of ease. After a U.S. "super max" prison, the detainees may look back on Guantanamo Bay as the good old days.

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