If there is a single affront to human rights in American - one that defines the term un-American - it has to be the Guantanamo Bay military prison. For a decade, admirers and critics of the US alike have condemned it as a mockery of justice that is self-defeating in the fight against terrorism. It remains a place without hope for 166 inmates - some cleared - imprisoned without charge and denied both a fair trial or the possibility of release. Congress has frustrated a pledge by President Barack Obama to close it, try some prisoners and repatriate others.
He has vowed to try again, prompted by a hunger strike by 100 of the inmates against their harsh plight. If the response of the Guantanamo authorities to this non-violent protest does not bring the whole issue to a head, one wonders what will. More than 20 prisoners are now being force-fed through tubes inserted through their noses into their stomachs. Apart from the violation of their rights, the American Medical Association says this breaches the profession's core ethical values.
After 9/11, moral values and international rules were easily seen as inconvenient to the so-called war on terror, a stand reinforced years later by murderous attacks in London and Madrid. Until the recent Boston marathon bombings, the US had not suffered another attack on its own soil, thanks partly to tough security. But the abuse of human rights, including torture, has served al-Qaeda's ends by inflaming Muslim opposition and making it harder to win hearts and minds.
Obama now says, rightly, that Guantanamo does nothing for international co-operation in counterterrorism and is a recruiting tool for extremists. That outweighs the risk in setting inmates free that some would commit some act of violence. It is time for Obama to lead the US back to the high moral ground from which it can best lead the fight against terrorism. Having failed to use his powers to override congressional opposition, it is time he made amends. He should use his authority to have the White House take control of Guantanamo policy out of the hands of Congress and Pentagon bureaucrats.