Smalltown USA's Guantanamo hopes
Why the town of Hardin in the US state of Montana wants to take in terror detainees.
Last updated: 16 May 2009 21:41
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Could terror detainees from Guantanamo be housed in this prison in Hardin, Montana?

Barack Obama has ordered the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to be closed by early next year, and as the fate of the remaining 240 prisoners is decided some could be moved to the US for trial or continued detention. 

Al Jazeera's Rob Reynolds travelled to the town of Hardin in the US state of Montana to find out why it has offered to take in some of the detainees.

In depth
They call eastern Montana "big sky country" - a vast sweep of prairie stretching from horizon to rugged horizon. Towering thunderclouds roiled the sky as we approached Hardin, population 3,400.

It is a long way from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But if people here get their way, up to 100 detainees now held in Guantanamo will soon be living in a brand new prison on the edge of town.

I toured the empty, never-used jail with Greg Smith, Hardin's economic development director.

It is a windowless, low-slung tan concrete hulk surrounded by a double row of high mesh fence topped with gleaming coils of razor wire.

Earlier this month, Hardin's town council voted unanimously to offer the US government a deal: Send Hardin the detainees that most foreign countries and other cities the US are afraid to take.

"Why not us?" Smith asks. "They've got to go somewhere."

He dismisses security concerns over housing inmates former Bush administration officials famously described as "the worst of the worst".

"We have some very hardened criminals in our own country that have committed some heinous crimes, and they are in communities all across this country," Smith argues.

A desperate town

Smith says the prison represents his town's
quest for a piece of the "American dream"
It is an unusual offer - but Hardin is an unusually desperate town.

Decent, well-paid jobs are scarce here on the prairie. The unemployment rate is more than 10 per cent in Big Horn County, and even higher on the neighboring Crow Native American reservation.

Hardin's streets are full of empty storefronts and shabby houses. Intoxicated men and women stagger out of the numerous bars and alcohol stores lining the main road. This town has been down on its luck for a long time.

"We're the poorest county in the state and one of the poorest counties in the nation," Smith says.

He estimates at least 100 new jobs would come from filling the prison, a real boost to this small, beleaguered community.

Smith describes the town's quest to become a new penal colony as "a piece of the American dream."

"Like anything in America, we're looking for opportunities," he says. 

Mixed opinions

"I don't really like the word terrorist but ... it would create jobs, bring people into the town and increase home ownership"

Clare Carleton, Hardin resident

The prison, built to hold 464 inmates, was authorised five years ago. Hardin officials raised $27m in municipal revenue bonds to build it.

But then, a new governor was elected and decided not to use it. Now the bonds are in default.

Hardin has pleaded with state officials to send them prisoners, any kind of prisoners: inmates from out of state, sex offenders, criminal illegal aliens. Every effort failed.

The proposal to install a "Big Sky Gitmo" has attracted considerable local, national and international media attention.

But at the Bighorn grocery store a few hundred meters from the prison, people voiced mixed opinions.

"For this area, I think it'd be a economic boom," said Cindy Book, a local woman, while Hardin pizza restaurant owner Clare Carleton says she thought long and hard before deciding to support the prison plan.

"I don't really like the word terrorist but ... it would create jobs, bring people into the town and increase home ownership," she said.

"I think it's really going to help our community."

But local Ron Williamson worries about the proximity of detainees to the Crow Indian Reservation, where he lives. 

"They'll be bringing in terrorists, that's what I think!" he declared.

Heated debate

But Montana's senators and congressmen have blocked Hardin's Gitmo gambit, fearing the state's reputation would suffer. 

And while the prison in Montana sits empty, the debate over what to do with the Guantanamo detainees is heating up in Washington.

The Obama administration is not saying where it intends to put them, but politicians from both parties have made it clear it's a case of "not in our backyards".

Congress is considering a measure that would bar detainees from being brought to US soil, while at a recent senate hearing, lawmakers seemed scared that detainees might run wild, terrorising the countryside. 

"We have to make sure streets and neighborhoods are not going to be the repository of Guantanamo prisoners," said Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat senator.

Eric Holder, the US attorney general, tried to calm those fears, promising: "We are not going to put at risk the safety of the people of this country."

But Richard Shelby, Republican senator for the state of Alabama, asked Holder in an incredulous tone: "Do you know of any community in the US that would welcome terrorists, would be terrorists, former terrorists incarcerated in Guantanamo?"

Hardin's 'holy grail'?

Many in the Hardin community feel the prison
could turn their fortunes around
Of course, there is one such community and it is determined to keep on trying.

Greg Smith clearly sees the Guantanamo detainees as a kind of modern-day holy grail.

"If you're gonna believe in something, you have say, OK, I'm willing to put it in my back yard," he said.

There is something strange and somehow dismaying about the idea that the national disgrace many feel is represented by Guantanamo could be transformed into a positive benefit for anyone. 

Guantanamo, to many Americans and the majority of people abroad, is synonymous with the disregard of human rights, indefinite detention, torture, and despair.

A last stand

Before we left Hardin, we drove about 30 minutes to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

On June 25, 1876, 263 soldiers and other personnel of the US Seventh Cavalry, commanded by the dashing Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, attacked a large encampment of Lakota Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians.

Custer and his men were then annihilated in one of the Native Americans' greatest military triumphs.

But of course it was a Pyrrhic victory; within a few years almost all of the Great Plains Indians were either killed or herded onto prison-like reservations, their traditional way of life shattered forever.

It remains one of the greatest tragedies in American history.

I sensed an almost eerie connection, somehow, between the wars that devastated the Indians and the devastation of the so-called war on terror; a link between Custer's last stand and Hardin's quixotic quest.

In the 19th century, pursuit of the US concept of "manifest destiny" and unbridled power led US policymakers to ignore the human rights of native peoples, treating them as sub-human.

In the 21st century, America is again embroiled in wars against people it does not fully understand, extending its military power worldwide with what many see as little regard for the long-term consequences.

As I stood regarding the white marble headstones that marked the places where Custer's men fell on that day so long ago, a cold gust of rain swept over the prairie.

It was time to leave big sky country, its tragic history, and its troubled present.

Al Jazeera
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