On Monday, federal officials visited Illinois to consider housing Guantanamo Bay prisoners in the Land of Lincoln. The current proposal is to house about 100 Gitmo prisoners in the Thomson Correctional Center, located in Thomson, Illinois – about 150 miles west of Chicago. While many know that the Gitmo prisoners need to be transferred somewhere, the idea of housing terrorists in Illinois has many residents, specifically Republican lawmakers, worried.
Illinois Congressman Mark Kirk, the leading GOP candidate to fill President Obama’s old Senate seat, blasted the idea of bringing terrorists to Illinois, saying, “As home to America’s tallest building and her busiest airport, this is not a risk we should impose on Illinois families.”
In fact, every Republican in Illinois’ delegation to Congress has come out against the plan, fearing that hosting terrorists in our state could prove to be very detrimental to Illinois. But how much of this claim is valid, and how much is just fear-mongering?
This is a quintessential case of the “Not in My Back Yard” phenomenon. “Nimby” occurs when government projects that benefit the greater good are opposed because they could harm those whose backyards are the sites of these projects. The Nimby threat identified by Republicans is twofold: terrorists will target Chicago, and Thomson isn’t capable of holding them. These claims, however, don’t have much substance.
First, Kirk fears that Chicago would receive “attention from the Jihadist world,” particularly because other terrorists could be flying through O’hare International Airport to visit the detainees at Thomson. It’s clear that Kirk is looking out for the security of Illinoisans, but it’s really for naught; terrorists already know that Chicago is a lucrative target, and they already use our airports. This may be hard to accept, but blocking the use of Thomson won’t prevent terrorists from thinking what they’re already thinking, or doing what they’re already doing. Kirk’s argument that using Thomson will finally open up terrorists’ eyes to Chicago is an unlikely reality; their eyes are already open.
Second, many also fear that having terrorists in Illinois is a major liability because it can create a strong terror cell that Thomson can’t handle. This is also based on a flawed premise. Thomson Correctional Center is a maximum security prison that currently uses around 10% of its available space. At similar Illinois prisons, inmates are in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day and are not able to interact with each other. Inadvertently fostering a base for a terrorist network at Thomson is not possible.
Similarly, there is concern that a terrorist could escape. If the federal government were to use Thomson, there is a plan to outfit the Gitmo wing with extra confinement and security measures, creating a Supermax security atmosphere. No inmate has ever escaped a Supermax prison in America.
It’s equally important to understand the benefits of bringing Gitmo detainees to Illinois, considering that Governor Pat Quinn, both Senators Durbin and Burris and a plethora of Democrats across Illinois support the plan.
While no real imminent threat would be placed upon Illinois for housing terrorists, the state could economically gain from the proposal. For example, approximately $1 billion could be funneled into Illinois as a result of the federal government’s purchase of Thomson. The plan is also good news for those in Carroll County, where Thomson resides, because it would decrease joblessness. The unemployment rate in Carroll County is 10.5%, which is higher than the national unemployment rate of 10.2%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. To make up for the fact that Thomson is virtually unused right now, nearly 3,000 jobs will be added at the prison.
The salient issue of this debate is more psychological than anything. Illinois politicians aren’t speaking out against hosting detainees in Kansas, or Michigan, the latter of which is nearly as close to Chicago as Thomson is. It’s only when their own backyards, their own states, are in danger that they really start to care. For example, Thomson is on the Illinois border with neighboring Iowa. Had this prison actually been built a few miles west on the other side of the border (and not in our backyard), would Illinois Republicans still care? Probably not.
Guantanamo Bay is an international symbol of torture and dehumanization, despite what many government officials will tell you, and that’s just one of the many reasons it’s being shut down. But those prisoners need to go somewhere. By bringing the detainees to Illinois, we would have nothing to lose and a lot to gain.