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Beyond Guantanamo:  the inhuman body of the iconic face

Tony Blair famously said that Guantanamo bay is ‘an anomaly’.  House of Lords Law Lord, Lord Steyn, called Guantanamo Bay a ‘legal black hole’.  Both these descriptions would help us believe that, if carried out, Obama’s pledges to close the place down, will be the end of it. 

But the twin testimonies of Guantanamo Bay survivor, Moazzam Begg, and ex-Guantanamo guard, Chris Arendt, speaking at the Cageprisoners event in Belfast last week*, indicated a much more complex picture. 

Both men described in graphic detail some of the horrors perpetrated at Guantanamo:  for example, the brutal force-feeding of the prisoners by nasal tubes – which a member of the audience indicated had first been perpetrated against the suffragettes – and the inhuman screams of the prisoners who had lost their minds due to the abrogation of all their freedoms. 

Moazzam Begg was calm and composed when he spoke, despite the devastation of his experiences, including witnessing the beating to death by American soldiers of an Afghan man.  This incident is documented in the film, Taxi to the Dark Side, which Moazzam referenced.  He felt that the denial of freedom and the torture perpetrated takes place because ‘the men at the top’ have sanctioned it:  there is a licence to brutality, whereby statements by leaders – such as Rumsfeld’s statements that he stands for eight to ten hours so why are detainees only made to stand for four? – constitute an implicit, if not overt, command to the lower ranks to step-up the torture. 

Rumsfeld’s remarks reminded me of the testimony of a Nazi concentration camp survivor who described being forced to work outside, naked and emaciated, in the freezing snow. He was asked by the Nazi who was supervising him, who was warmly dressed in layers of outdoor clothing:  ‘It’s cold today, isn’t it?’ 

Moazzam indicated his firm belief that Obama’s pledges would not alter the inhumanity symbolized by Guantanamo Bay.  His view is that the promised actions would be no more than cosmetic surgery or window dressing, because he sees Guantanamo Bay as part of a systematic process of dehumanisation which is not limited in operation to that one geographical site.  I agree with Moazzam in his analysis, for the reasons elaborated below.

Chris Arendt, former Guantanamo guard, whose testimony veered between stand-up gallows humour delivered in a self-deprecating, ‘camp’ style and traumatized confession, attempted to describe the breakdown of his own mind.  He had played a part in the system, having issued the prisoner movements within the camp, including the movements for people to be taken to be tortured.  His testimony of having ‘drunk all day, every day’ reminded me of the testimonies of African child soldiers who were given class A drugs in order to kill, and his young age, now only 24, must have reminded many of the song lyrics:  ‘In World War II the average age of the combat soldier was 26…In Vietnam he was 19….’ 

Chris insisted that what has been going on in Guantanamo Bay is no different from the Nazi concentration camps in terms of testing the limits of human endurance on human guinea-pigs.  He asserted that it was all the little things that broke people down as much as the brutal torture:  detainees being forbidden from having pens or writing; having only one Styrofoam cup which was taken away from them if they misused it; not being allowed to keep a toothbrush.

Both men seemed to agree that Guantanamo Bay was part of a systematically-planned process of dehumanisation and that the denial of freedom was something endemic and pervasive, rather than limited to instances of abhorrent torture. 

I share Moazzam’s view that the change of leadership in America is not the end of this system because I share this view of the problem being all-pervasive and endemic:  my intuitions also supported, for example, by the recent reports that Obama has granted the CIA permission to retain the right to use extraordinary rendition.  The philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, whom I admire, describes a juridical-political process whereby ‘states of exception’ become the law.   Put very simply, and not attempting here to do justice to the sophistication of his philosophy, for example:  it could be said that detaining somebody indefinitely is ‘exceptional’, but, by allowing indefinite detention even for one person, the exceptional state of indefinite detention becomes part of the law.  Equally, if torture is no longer seen as absolutely prohibited, and it can be used ‘exceptionally’, the exceptional state of torture then becomes the law. 

Guantanamo Bay was a state of exception which became the law.  The torture perpetrated there was not the reckless, one-off act of a madman, but a carefully orchestrated (‘state-of-the-art’, as Chris said) set-up where every denial of freedom was prescribed in regulations, down to the possession of pens and the number of paper cups, and that denial of freedom was part of a process with operational connections to many governments, locations and practices.  I therefore agree that it is not helpful to see Guantanamo Bay as ‘an anomaly’ or ‘a legal black hole’.

Dr Siddiqui’s excellent article for Cageprisoners this month wisely advises caution in interpreting Guantanamo Bay as ‘the cancer’ and Obama as ‘the cure’.  He notes that:

‘Guantanamo was only the iconic face of abuses in the global War on Terror. Soon after its inception in January 2002, numerous prisons were established on the same principle of holding and interrogating terrorist suspects.’ 

Thus the ‘exception’ has become the law:“The most pernicious aspect of Guantanamo is that the mindset engendered by its architects and supporters has spread globally and contaminated the political, legal and public domains which will require a far greater effort in redressing the violations committed by the Bush administration.  This mindset is encapsulated in the 1% doctrine espoused by D**k Cheney** and articulated in Ron Suskind’s book of the same name. Even if there is just a 1% chance of the unimaginable coming true, act as if it’s a certainty. It’s not about our analysis it’s about our response”…”

As Siddiqui highlights using examples of how UK anti-terrorist legislation has been used against Green and animal rights campaigners, once part of the politco-legal system, these ‘exceptional’ measures can be applied to any one of us, as they have become the law.  This is quite clear to me from the measures currently taken by European governments against asylum-seekers:  failed asylum-seekers are ‘exceptionally’ allowed to be subject to forcible removal, this has become the law and because it is the law almost any means can now be used to effect the removal of immigrants – sedation, stun guns, the separation of family members etcetera. 

Moazzam explained to us that although he is back in his home country, England, he is banned from travelling outside of the UK jurisdiction.  Chris Arendt, when I went up to thank him at the end of the talk, said, ‘I’m going outside for a smoke’.  These small facts – the inability to travel where you want even though you are told that you are now free, be that to the South of Ireland, to France or to Pakistan – and the ability to have a cigarette when you want one, or a drink, or take a break, or write a poem – for me captured the poignancy of the precious and precarious nature of human freedom. 

It is our small rights and freedoms which need defending for everyone as much as the bigger ones to refuse the creation of states of exception which can only lead us down the path towards dehumanisation and brutality.  The picture of Guantanamo as not an ‘anomaly’, ‘legal black hole’ or ‘mistake’, but as part of a web of inhumanity entails a frightening recognition of a more pervasive horror but this perspective also offers more scope for all of us to play a part in changing things.


*See link and also Fionna’s post.

**In trying to publish my post, Amnesty has blocked its publication using the word 'd**k'.  Call a spade a spade I say!!!


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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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