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August 21, 2009

Standish in the Line of Fire
Posted by Adam Blickstein

Chris Bodenner over at Sullivan's blog flags an important story out of Standish, Michigan, where the possibility of turning the soon to be shuttered Standish Maximum Correctional Facility into a detention facility for Guantanamo detainees, has made the small town an epicenter for the often hyperbolic and politicized detainee debate. Of course it doesn't help the cause of having a rational and reasonable conversation over the issue when Pete Hoekstra, no stranger to politicizing national security debates, is also running for Governor. Which is why it shouldn't be surprising that a recent town hall there turned into a three ring circus replete with stark mischaracterizations and over the top rhetoric. According to the Washington Post:

"He [Hoekstra] told me things that really scared the heck out of me," Munson said. "He told me about soft targets and safe zones, that if they came to this country they would have rights, visitors and friends would come who could be jihadists."

Hoekstra, ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, told those in the crowd that they have much to fear if the detainees are transferred to Standish, a town of 1,500 about 150 miles north of Detroit.

But what is more striking about the coverage is the lack of balance in the Post piece as compared to the local Standsh paper, which covers the townhall with a far more skeptical eye then the Post, whose only counterbalance is a wavering local political official who asserted that federal officials said they "would not send detainees to Standish in the face of intense local opposition." But the the context and tenor of the town hall are important to gauging the overall coverage of the event and the issue, and the Standish paper includes a few extremely important points the Post misses:

Hoekstra was asked later if a federal detention center in Florence, Colo., which also houses terrorists, was ever the site of an attempted jailbreak by terrorists’ allies.

Hoekstra said that the Colorado facility, which he said only detains terrorists captured on American soil, not in foreign countries during wartime, had never had an incident like that.


One person in the crowd, Brent Snelgrove, a Standish businessman, agreed that there was a lack of information, but showed displeasure with one-sidedness of the meeting.

“I’m disappointed in this panel,” he said. “I don’t see both sides of the conversation

“20 years ago I heard some of the same concerns… almost identical,” he added.

This is key. The Post's coverage makes it appear that, from the town hall, there is consensus in the commmunity that turning the Standish facility into a domestic detainee prison is a bad idea. There is not consensus:

The group wasn't protesting the prospect of Guantánamo Bay terrorism suspects coming to the town about two hours north of Detroit: They're picketing over their prison's scheduled closure.

The Gitmo detainees are welcome, if they keep the 604-bed prison in this city of about 1,200 up and running.

"If it keeps jobs in the community, it would be fine," said Dave Horn, 29, of Bentley, who was among those picketing over the scheduled Oct. 1 closing of the 19-year-old state prison.

But reading the Post's piece makes it seem like an open and shut case. And this has been the problem with both cable and print news coverage of town halls across America this summer: often the loudest, and most vocal, and usually most factually invalid arguments, get taken as gospel simply do to audible superiority. It's undercut the healthcare debate, but the detainee debate is almost more susceptible to this kind of action and coverage simply because the issue is far more visceral for folks, with good reason. But as Hoekstra said:

"It's possible that people will come to a different conclusion than I have," he said. "But this is too big a deal to make a decision based on only partial information."

Yes, Rep. Hoekstra, I agree too big a deal to make decision based on partial information, which is why it is essential the Administration put forth a clear and concrete plan (and strategy--both in implementation and media) so that the process of closing Guantanamo and transferring detainees is done so in a responsible, transparent and safe manner. But it is also too big a deal to imbue it with false information and political fear mongering, something Rep. Hoekstra seems to have no problem forcing to the forefront of the debate for his own political gain. And this kind of political grandstanding from a gubernatorial candidate in the context of closing Guantanamo will make it politically very difficult to utilize the Standish facility as a place to detain and possibly try terror suspects currently being held at Gitmo.

It's pretty clear that for the GOP, making "death panel" arguments across the political spectrum in order to incite public panic and skew the media coverage seems to be the only strategy they have left.


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