Guantánamo: where there are no shades of grey

One of the books that detainees at Guantánamo Bay are reportedly banned from reading is 50 Shades of Grey, the international bestseller from the US writer EL James.

Could it be that the US military authorities have decided that James’ erotic thriller is actually pornographic (so-called “mummy porn”) and therefore unsuitable for the camp’s 155 detainees? Er, I’d almost rather not know about the reasoning here ... but then again, I actually would. Because these kinds of micro-decisions are perhaps revealing of the larger mindset at Guantánamo.

For example, officials at Guantánamo regularly talk of “compliant” and “non-compliant” detainees at the camp, as if there’s some kind of virtue in a detainee acquiescing in their unlawful captivity for years on end. “Compliant” detainees - held in Guantánamo’s Camp Six - are given “privileges” such as access to communal facilities and to newspapers, videos and books (though not 50 Shades of Grey). “Non-compliant” detainees are put into the camp’s infamous orange jumpsuits - “as a visual reminder” to the guards of their non-compliance - and held in maximum-security solitary confinement. To comply, or not to comply, this is the question that the Guantánamo authorities apparently want to make the big question for the detainees.

Meanwhile, the Gitmo authorities go on making decisions over the lives of the detainees. If a detainee refuses food - as part of a hunger strike or for some other reason - the camp’s medical staff decide whether to feed that detainee (they are “enterally” fed as part of what the camp authorities call a “common medical procedure”). The detainees may not agree with this decision or the language around it, and recognised international medico-ethical standards forbid the force-feeding of detainees who can make an informed decision over refusing nutrition, but ... well, the detainee is strapped down and the nasal feeding tube is forced up the nose and down into the stomach anyway.

Similarly, a detainee may be desperate to talk to a journalist on one of the (relatively) common media tours of  Guantánamo, but the camp authorities prevent this insisting that such contacts with journalists “violate their privacy” (apparently round-the-clock monitoring and lengthy body searches ahead of meetings with lawyers don’t interfere with a detainee’s privacy).

So, having set the camp’s framework question (compliance or non-compliance), decided when a detainee should be fed (or force-fed), and judged the suitability of reading materials and when a detainee’s privacy is being invaded or otherwise, the US authorities have also taken care of all legal matters as well. Having designated the detainees “enemy combatants” in a supposed “global war” with al-Qa’ida, the US authorities have decided that “military commissions” at Guantánamo should be the preferred trial system, not courts on the US mainland. And, if it’s been determined that there’s not enough evidence for these trials (for example, if there’s an over-reliance on evidence produced by torture) then the detainee will either be held indefinitely (apparently until they die), held until they’re eventually transferred out (subject to a range of apparently secret US “security” conditions), or - in a recent twist - possibly re-assessed and then lined up for a long-overdue plane flight out of Guantánamo if a review panel (comprised of officials sitting in Washington) decides that this should happen.

It’s abundantly clear, then, that Guantánamo is all about control. Of liberty, food, reading matter, the law, the media, and language. Above all, of language.

During an interview with the BBC’s Rutila Shah in November, the current deputy commander of Guantánamo - the entirely self-controlled Brigadier General Marion Garcia - is at pains to reframe the conversation throughout. She won’t accept phrases like force-feeding (“you’re using interesting terminology”) and when the BBC’s questions become too insistent Garcia pulls down the shutters (“that’s where we’re gonna end it”). Meanwhile, during the same programme a guard speaks of the mental stress to her fellow guards of “being in enemy contact”, as if the detainees were somehow armed protagonists in a battle zone and not men behind bars who have mostly yet to be charged, or tried, or of course found guilty of a single crime.

Five years after the newly-elected President Obama promised to close Guantánamo within a year, it still holds 155 detainees. Of these 76 have been cleared for transfer, but remain there nonetheless, including the former south London resident Shaker Aamer. By all accounts Aamer is in very bad shape after almost 12 gruelling years of Guantánamo  captivity - including numerous reported beatings, long spells in solitary (“single-cell” housing) and protracted hunger strikes (“enteral feeding” sessions).

I don’t know which books - if any - Aamer has read at  Guantánamo, yet I somehow don't imagine that 50 Shades of Grey would have been top of his “to read” list even if it wasn't banned (“screened”) by the camp authorities. On reflection it’s probably not the racy goings on between Ana and Christian that makes 50 Shades apparently unsuitable for Gitmo’s caged would-be readers, but its provocative title.

At Guantánamo there are no shades of grey, just the orange (naturally) of the non-compliant detainees’ jumpsuits and the black and white of US military practice. They are right and the rest of the world is wrong. We should stop quibbling and just submit to this world view ...

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