The view from the prison cell
Where does feeling the pain of the Guantanamo prisoners get us?
As five British detainees from Guantanamo Bay head for home, former Beirut hostage John McCarthy compared their experience with his five years of captivity in Lebanon in the 1980s. ‘I can have some understanding of what it is like to be forced to wear a hood or blindfold and to be chained up as these prisoners appear to be’, he told BBC Radio Four’s Today programme (1).
McCarthy said that the Guantanamo detainees’ experience was in some ways worse than his; where he knew he was being held in Lebanon, ‘they may not even know where they are on the planet, which would add to the terror I would imagine they experienced’.
This is how Guantanamo is discussed today – as big, bad America senselessly abusing detainees. There is a desire to empathise with the detainees, and to argue that ‘America abuses people’. What is missing is any interrogation of the historical and political context for Guantanamo – which, lest we forget, was America’s Afghan war in the wake of 9/11.
Report after report has detailed the harsh conditions in Guantanamo. Journalist David Rose gave a point-by-point description of the cells: ‘Each box is a little larger than a king-size bed: 56 square feet. Next to the hard steel wall-mounted bed, covered with a thin foam mattress, is a toilet, a hole in the floor, facing the open grille of the door. The guards are supposed to pass by the cell every 30 seconds. Next to the toilet is a small sink and a tap, so low that the only way to use it is to kneel. It produces tepid, yellow water from a desalination plant.’ (2)
We have been told that the detainees are taking anti-depressants, and that some have tried to commit suicide. Extensive interviews with detainees’ families have described the anxiety caused by their sons’ indefinite detention. Articles predict that the ‘traumatised detainees’ will ‘face a difficult time back in Britain’; one report even discussed the ‘personal tragedy’ that one of the British detainees will return to, after three close members of his family died while he was away.
Guantanamo has no doubt been a horrendous experience for detainees and their families. But the public empathy with their plight signifies something quite different. It has become a way of avoiding debating the rights and wrongs of world politics, and instead taking an easy moral stance. By empathising with the suffering of the detainees, you no longer have to analyse the conflict that landed them in Cuba in the first place; you can simply assume the moral high-ground and bash the evil overseer, America.
This desire to feel the pain of victims is something that we see everywhere today. It is epitomised by the journalism of attachment, which seeks to empathise with the parties to a conflict rather than report things objectively. Only last week, Liberal Democrat MP Jenny Tonge broadcast on the Today programme from the Middle East, attempting to ‘understand’ the pain and suffering of both sides (see Suffering for herself, by Josie Appleton). A similar approach is even taken on TV history programmes and in museums – the Holocaust exhibition at London’s Imperial War Museum, for example, attempts to convey the horrors experienced by its victims, rather than seeking to understand and explain the rise of Nazism.
Of course, in the case of Guantanamo, the USA’s behaviour has been irrational. Far from being the outcome of a state pursuing its war aims, the capture and interrogation of al-Qaeda suspects has appeared senseless and arbitrary. There seems to be little rhyme or reason to the processes by which people ended up in the camp – Mohammed Hagi Fiz, a toothless Afghan man in his seventies, was released in 2002; an Afghan suffering from schizophrenia was sent on his way with a supply of medication (3).
The five British citizens being released are now described as ‘low threat’, and UK home secretary David Blunkett says that none of them represents a risk to British security. So why have they spent the past 18 months chained up in a cage? Why are only these five being released, and not the other four Britons? No wonder Amnesty International describes the releases as a ‘lottery’.
UK foreign secretary Jack Straw justified their detention at Guantanamo in terms of the ‘valuable information’ that ‘has been gained, which has helped to protect the international community from further al-Qaeda and related terrorist attacks’ (4). Yet the system of interrogation within the camp seems just as chaotic. Army interrogators reportedly asked the same questions, over and over: ‘Where is Osama? Do you know any of the al-Qaeda leaders? Have you met them?’ One of the British detainees is said to have cracked, and admitted that he was planning to drop anthrax on Westminster from a military drone aircraft fired from Suffolk.
When it comes to Guantanamo, there is little to choose between the irrational and random behaviour of the USA, and the emotional empathy of McCarthy and co. A bit of reasoned debate would be a welcome third way.
Trapped in Guantanamo Bay, by Josie Appleton
(1) John McCarthy slams Guantanamo, BBC News, 23 February 2004
(2) Even death row is preferable to this, Guardian, 22 February 2004
(3) People the law forgot (part two), Guardian, 3 December 2003
(4) Jack Straw’s statement on Guantanamo Bay prisoners, Guardian, 19 February 2004
(5) People the law forgot, Guardian, 3 December 2003
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