The torture debate continues – with echoes of Algeria and Ulster

John Amato, over at the tremendous ‘virtual online magazine… OK, it’s a blog’ Crooksandliars, recently published an interview with Alfred W. McCoy, author of A Question of Torture. The interview was originally broadcast on Late Night Live – ABC Radio National, Australia. March 15, 2006, and as John points out, ‘considering the current events in the torture issue, it seems apropos to take another look at it now.’

McCoy is another of many to point out in simple easily-understood terms a number of key points in the torture debate, most notably, that the ‘ticking-bomb scenario’ so beloved of torture advocates, is an outright illusion that has never occurred in reality.

Others (of many) to point out not just the immorality and cruelty of torture, but its overall ineffectiveness – indeed, its contra-effectiveness – are Ray McGovern, 27-year CIA veteran, Clive Stafford-Smith, in his book Bad Men, Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum in the article The Torture Myth, Ruth Blakeley, of the University of Kent, in her powerful article ‘Why torture?’, and Jean-Paul Sartre, in the preface to Henri Alleg’s first-hand description of being tortured in Algeria by the French, The Question. Sartre, indeed, sums up the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario neatly:

“How are the torturers justified? It is sometimes said that it is right to torture a man if his confession can save a hundred lives. This is nice hypocrisy. […] Was it to save lives that they scorched his nipples and pubic hair? No, they wanted to extract from him the address of the person who had hidden him. If he had talked, one more Communist would have been locked up, no more than that. […] These tortures bring a poor return: the Germans themselves ended by realising this in 1944; torture costs human lives but does not save them.” (Alleg 1958: 22)

John Amato continues with a piece entitled: “Not Only Is This Illegal and Immoral, It’s Stupid. Six Days Without Sleep Doesn’t Produce Useful Information”, strengthening the argument of the uselessness of torture…

The important issue at stake is the hard-lined pragmatic question of result. If all the moral and ethical arguments against torture were wheeled out to argue against its use, and yet, as Cheney pa and daughter would have the US public believe, genuine intelligence is indeed gained through the practice of torture (sorry – enhanced interrogation techniques, including mock executions, waterboarding, sleep deprivation and drill attacks – see Newsweek article – and these are only the declassified techniques…)… if this genuine intel is gained, then there would be a gap in the moral/ethical argument. The great debate at present in the US, and spilling over into the UK with regard the alleged participation/complicity of the MI5 in the torture of British citizens or residents oversees, is whether a) these techniques have really produced this intel of such value to homeland security and b) if so, could that intel (and perhaps more) have been gained through empathetic interrogation. As would be expected, the argument in favour of these techniques is promoted by hard right wingnuts like Bill O’Reilly on Fox, versus, well, versus all those liberal pansies whom big Bill so despises.

Interestingly, the debate has stirred some puddles that clearly had never really settled in their cultures’ memories – the French in Algeria and the British in Northern Ireland.

The War of Images

Baudrillard, as would be expected, addresses the concept of image in the War of Terror in the article War Porn.

“The worst is that it all becomes a parody of violence, a parody of the war itself, pornography becoming the ultimate form of the abjection of war which is unable to be simply war, to be simply about killing, and instead turns itself into a grotesque infantile reality-show, in a desperate simulacrum of power.”

Brilliantly, he addresses the Abu Ghraib images:

“Truth but not veracity: it does not help to know whether the images are true or false. From now on and forever we will be uncertain about these images. Only their impact counts in the way in which they are immersed in the war. There is no longer the need for “embedded” journalists because soldiers themselves are immersed in the image – thanks to digital technology, the images are definitively integrated into the war. They don¹t represent it anymore; they involve neither distance, nor perception, nor judgment. They no longer belong to the order of representation, nor of information in a strict sense. And, suddenly, the question whether it is necessary to produce, reproduce, broadcast, or prohibit them, or even the “essential” question of how to know if they are true or false, is “irrelevant”.

Of the infamous photo of the hooded prisoner with electrodes on his outstretched arms, Baudrillard comments:

This masquerade crowns the ignominy of the war – until this travesty, it was present in this most ferocious image (the most ferocious for America), because it was most ghostly and most “reversible”: the prisoner threatened with electrocution and, completely hooded, like a member of the Ku Klux Klan, crucified by its ilk. It is really America that has electrocuted itself. (War Porn)


 It is worth considering this image in greater depth.

Baudrillard notes that the man is hooded like the KKK, and then crucified by them.

If the image evokes the KKK, is it the horror of them – the violence and racism – or some sense of justice? For the hood is not just the KKK – it is also the burka. The repeated rhetoric, used to justify the war on the Taliban in Afghanistan, is that the Muslim man imprisons the woman. Here, therefore, the liberators pull the burka over the brutalising man. Are the KKK hood and the burka now somehow interrelated in racial tones of supposed justice? And what of the crucifiction? Unlike Christ on the cross, this man is faceless and dressed in black. His crucifiction is thus a mockery, a travesty. He cannot look to the heavens or cast his light on his followers. He is darkness swallowed up by darkness.

My feeling, therefore, in tune with Baudrillard’s, is that these images provided more than simple moral outrage – they provided a degree of titillation shot through with a sense, somehow, of justice. The US soldiers or MPs at Abu Ghraib, in addition to venting their own (homoerotic) sexual fantasies upon the male prisoners, and in addition to constructing very carefully the precise form of sexual humiliation that would most disgust the prisoners, in this particular image, they have created their own particular, culturally and religiously-bound form of punishment. A dark-skinned non-Christian wife-beater is ironically hooded in a KKK mask that doubles as a burka, placed in public view on a soap-box, and is then crucified.

Millions of Iraqi children starved during the US embargo. Thousands of Iraqis dead in bombardment. The only news that really was any news were the images of Abu Ghraib. Is it because these images embodied greater meaning than simple photos of dead children?

They torture children, don’t they?

Perhaps David Icke is right. Perhaps world leaders are reptiles with the ability to shape-shift to appear human. Sometimes they don’t do a good job at the disguise.

If rendition, abuse, incarceration without trial, torture, murder, and all the other horrors of the War of Terror elicit neither excuses nor apologies from the war architects, then surely the knowledge that children as young as 8 have been routinely detained, abused (often sodomised) and even murdered (and we’re not talking about the death of children from bombs – something that happens in any conflict), at the hands of US military and CIA, would cause someone in power to offer even the mildest of condemnation. Alas no. Politics trumps essential humanity on every count.

If the British government demands that writers visiting a shool to read to a large group are required to obtain a Criminal Records Check prove that they are not paedophiles (see Guardian July ’09 – the essential argument being, again, guilty until proven innocent), and if the same government is demanding that its own politicians carry out a similar ridiculous vetting process (but I bet they claim the £64 on expenses) (see Guardian July ’09), then how can it possibly be that someone like Milliband issues no criticism or condemnation of the wholesale abuse and murder of hundreds of children? Milliband’s repeated poe-faced defence of witholding information (‘classified intel’) on the grounds that it would be a threat to national security is an insult to his own cabinet, to his government, and to the people of the UK.

Unless, of course, he is a lizard. In which case such human attributes as compassion, remorse, and forgiveness are simply alien concepts.

Am I reduced to this most fantastic of ideas as a means of reconciling myself to the utter brutality of this long and costly conflict?

“President Jimmy Carter wrote that the Red Cross, Amnesty International and the Pentagon “have gathered substantial testimony of torture of children, confirmed by soldiers who witnessed or participated in the abuse.” In “Our Endangered Values” Carter said that the Red Cross found after visiting six U.S. prisons “107 detainees under eighteen, some as young as eight years old.” And reporter Hersh, (who broke the Abu Ghraib torture scandal,) reported 800-900 Pakistani boys aged 13 to 15 in custody.” (President Carter: Many Children Were Tortured Under Bush

” Some of the worst things that happened you don’t know about, okay? Videos, um, there are women there. Some of you may have read that they were passing letters out, communications out to their men. This is at Abu Ghraib … The women were passing messages out saying ‘Please come and kill me, because of what’s happened’ and basically what happened is that those women who were arrested with young boys, children in cases that have been recorded. The boys were sodomized with the cameras rolling. And the worst above all of that is the soundtrack of the boys shrieking that your government has. They are in total terror. It’s going to come out.” (Seymour Hersh

The following is all copied from the article quoted above in Thepeoplesvoice.

— Iraqi lawyer Sahar Yasiri, representing the Federation of Prisoners and Political Prisoners, said in a published interview there are more than 400,000 detainees in Iraq being held in 36 prisons and camps and that 95 percent of the 10,000 women among them have been raped. Children, he said, “suffer from torture, rape, (and) starvation” and do not know why they have been arrested. He added the children have been victims of “random” arrests “not based on any legal text.”

— Former prisoner Thaar Salman Dawod in a witness statement said, “[I saw] two boys naked and they were cuffed together face to face and [a U.S. soldier] was beating them and a group of guards were watching and taking pictures and there was three female soldiers laughing at the prisoners.”

— Iraqi TV reporter, Suhaib Badr-Addin al-Baz, arrested while making a documentary and thrown into Abu Ghraib for 74 days, told Mackay he saw “hundreds” of children there. Al-Baz said he heard one 12-year-old girl crying, “They have undressed me. They have poured water over me.” He said he heard her whimpering daily.

— Al-Baz also told of a 15-year-old boy “who was soaked repeatedly with hoses until he collapsed.” Amnesty International said ex-detainees reported boys as young as 10 are held at Abu Ghraib.

— German TV reporter Thomas Reutter of “Report Mainz” quoted U.S. Army Sgt. Samuel Provance that interrogation specialists “poured water” over one 16-year-old Iraqi boy, drove him throughout a cold night, “smeared him with mud” and then showed him to his father, who was also in custody. Apparently, one tactic employed by the Bush regime is to elicit confessions from adults by dragging their abused children in front of them.

— Jonathan Steele, wrote in the British “The Guardian” that “Hundreds of children, some as young as nine, are being held in appalling conditions in Baghdad’s prisons…Sixteen-year-old Omar Ali told the “Guardian” he spent more than three years at Karkh juvenile prison sleeping with 75 boys to a cell that is just five by 10 meters, some of them on the floor. Omar told the paper guards often take boys to a separate room in the prison and rape them.

— Raad Jamal, age 17, was taken from his Doura home by U.S. troops and turned over to the Iraqi Army’s Second regiment where Jamal said he was hung from the ceiling by ropes and beaten with electric cables.

— Human Rights Watch (HRW) last June put the number of juveniles detained at 513. In all, HRW estimates, since 2003, the U.S. has detained 2,400 children in Iraq, some as young as ten.

— IRIN, the humanitarian news service, last year quoted Khalid Rabia of the Iraqi NGO Prisoners’ Association for Justice(PAJ), stating that five boys between 13 and 17 accused of supporting insurgents and detained by the Iraqi army “showed signs of torture all over their bodies,” such as “cigarette burns over their legs,” she said.

— One boy of 13 arrested in Afghanistan in 2002 was held in solitary for more than a year at Bagram and Guantanamo and made to stand in stress position and deprived of sleep, according to the “Catholic Worker.” (

Follow this link to TRUTHOUT.ORG, for a long extract from Henry A. Giroux’s forthcoming book, “Hearts of Darkness: Torturing Children in the War on Terror,” to be published by Paradigm Publishers.

Today (Aug 27th) in the Times, an article about Mohammed Jawad – ‘I was 12 when I was arrested and sent to Guantanamo’

The horror, the horror

Much has been written about the infamous pics that came out a number of years ago now of the abuses at Abu Ghraib. Little more can be said, unless it be said in a court, in helping to convict those high up the chain of command.

Nevertheless, there is one aspect of the images that strikes me as radically different from any other unpleasant images that one might see (Auschwitz victims, earthquake victims, etc.) and that we are fairly innoculised to since our early years… It is the twisted and macabre holiday-snap aspect to the pics.

The girl (I don’t think it’s Lynndie England) smiling over a corpse has the cheerful, innocent, smiling, demeanour of someone posing in front of the Eiffel Tower. She is quite pretty – she might even be with a friend and stops you in the street asks you kindly to take the picture of them with Big Ben in the background. Or perhaps one of those smiley photos of someone who’s just ordered their first regional dish in a restaurant – a paella in Spain – a haggis in Scotland – a pint of ale in England – thumbs up! Send it back to Mom.

The only images that in any compare are the horrifying and gruesome images of lynchings in the Southern States in the early 20th Century. Men in hats and loose suits and women in smart frocks standing casually and quite happily beside a hanged African American – his neck twisted evilly. A group of smiling fellas posing before a charred and still smoking corpse. Is that the Abu Ghraib ancestor?

The sheer horror of the photos is compounded by the gleeful and lighthearted poses – a warped collision of darkness and light – a twisting of meaning. We understand war photos, as we’ve seen them before. We understand holiday snaps. Can we understand them together?

Hopefully not.


Just in case anyone was in any doubt:

Torture has been prohibited for many, many years. The key document today that prohibits torture is the United Nations Convention Against Torture, and international treaty that almost every country in the world, including the United States, has ratified. The Convention Against Torture says that under no circumstance can torture be used: it is an international crime, and every country in the world must pass legislation to make it a crime. […] Torture is also prohibited by customary international law – that is law that has arisen by the practices of nations. It is an absolute prohibition: under no circumstance can you torture anybody, ever. […] Nor does the Convention Against Torture permit any excuses for torture. Article 2 says that “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever” – whether a state of war or a threat of war, political instability, or any other public emergency – may be evoked as a justification of torture. It goes on to say that an order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification for torture. That is an illegal order, and you can be punished as a criminal for carrying it out.

The convention is crystal clear: under no circumstance can you torture people, whatever you call them, whether illegal combatants, enemy combatants, murderers, killers. You cannot torture anybody ever; it’s an absolute prohibition. 

Michael Ratner, Guantánamo: what the world should know (Arris Books, 2004) 31-32


More directly, it must involve continuously reaffirming why torture is never acceptable under any circumstances, even as a limited warrant for exceptional situations. There are a great many powerful arguments to make in support of an absolute prohibition on torture, including: by nature torture is a unique kind of wrong – a form of rape that perverts human relationships and agency – that cannot therefore be morally justified under any circumstances; torture violates the principle of non-combatant immunity, which is the same reason why terrorism is morally wrong; torture leaves permanent damage to both the tortured and the torturer, and thus, is morally indefensible; the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario is a highly flawed thought experiment with virtually no real-world relevance; torture is a very poor tool of intelligence-gathering and can even be counter-productive; sociologically and historically, exceptions to the prohibition on torture have always led to its widespread use in non-exceptional cases and have undermined the moral community and the respect for human rights more generally; and its formal legal adoption by a democratic society, as advocated by Alan Dershowitz for example, would entail moral practices that are incompatible with liberal norms and rights, such as torture-training for interrogators and doctors, medical support for torture sessions, research and development in non-lethal torture and the manufacture of torture equipment and torture facilities, among others. (370)

Richard Jackson, Language, policy and the construction of a torture culture in the war on terrorism Review of International Studies (2007), 33, 353–371


This concept of homo sacer allows us to understand the numerous calls to rethink the basic elements of contemporary notions of human dignity and freedom that have been put out since 11 September. Exemplary here is Jonathan Alter’s Newsweek article ‘Time to Think about Torture’ (5 November 2001), with the ominous subheading: ‘It’s a new world, and survival may well require old techniques that seemed out of the question.’ After flirting with the Israeli idea of legitimising physical and psychological torture in cases of extreme urgency (when we know a terrorist prisoner possesses information which may save hundreds of lives), and ‘neutral’ statements like ‘Some torture clearly works,’ it concludes:

“We can’t legalise torture; it’s contrary to American values. But even as we continue to speak out against human-rights abuses around the world, we need to keep an open mind about certain measures to fight terrorism, like court-sanctioned psychological interrogation. And we’ll have to think about transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies, even if that’s hypocritical. Nobody said this was going to be pretty.”

The obscenity of such statements is blatant. First, why single out the WTC attack as justification? Have there not been more horrible crimes in other parts of the world in recent years? Secondly, what is new about this idea? The CIA has been instructing its Latin American and Third World military allies in the practice of torture for decades. Even the ‘liberal’ argument cited by Alan Dershowitz is suspect: ‘I’m not in favour of torture, but if you’re going to have it, it should damn well have court approval.’ When, taking this line a step further, Dershowitz suggests that torture in the ‘ticking clock’ situation is not directed at the prisoner’s rights as an accused person (the information obtained will not be used in the trial against him, and the torture itself would not formally count as punishment), the underlying premise is even more disturbing, implying as it does that one should be allowed to torture people not as part of a deserved punishment, but simply because they know something. Why not go further still and legalise the torture of prisoners of war who may have information which could save the lives of hundreds of our soldiers? If the choice is between Dershowitz’s liberal ‘honesty’ and old-fashioned ‘hypocrisy’, we’d be better off sticking with ‘hypocrisy’. I can well imagine that, in a particular situation, confronted with the proverbial ‘prisoner who knows’, whose words can save thousands, I might decide in favour of torture; however, even (or, rather, precisely) in a case such as this, it is absolutely crucial that one does not elevate this desperate choice into a universal principle: given the unavoidable and brutal urgency of the moment, one should simply do it. Only in this way, in the very prohibition against elevating what we have done into a universal principle, do we retain a sense of guilt, an awareness of the inadmissibility of what we have done. (Slavoj Žižek On torture and terrorism)


Moreover, I am again tempted to conduct a simple mental experiment: let us imagine an Arab newspaper making the case for the torture of an American prisoner – and the explosion of comments about fundamentalist barbarism and disrespect for human rights this would provoke! (Slavoj Žižek Welcome to the Desert of the Real, 104)


It is as if not only the terrorists themselves, but also the fight against them, now has to proceed in a gray zone of legality. We thus have de facto “legal” and “illegal” criminals: those who are to be treated with legal procedures (using lawyers and the like), and those who are outside legality, subject to military tribunals or seemingly endless incarceration.

Mr. Mohammed has become what the Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls “homo sacer”: a creature legally dead while biologically still alive. And he’s not the only one living in an in-between world. The American authorities who deal with detainees have become a sort of counterpart to homo sacer: acting as a legal power, they operate in an empty space that is sustained by the law and yet not regulated by the rule of law. […]

In a way, those who refuse to advocate torture outright but still accept it as a legitimate topic of debate are more dangerous than those who explicitly endorse it. Morality is never just a matter of individual conscience. It thrives only if it is sustained by what Hegel called “objective spirit,” the set of unwritten rules that form the background of every individual’s activity, telling us what is acceptable and what is unacceptable.

For example, a clear sign of progress in Western society is that one does not need to argue against rape: it is “dogmatically” clear to everyone that rape is wrong. If someone were to advocate the legitimacy of rape, he would appear so ridiculous as to disqualify himself from any further consideration. And the same should hold for torture.

 (Slavoj Žižek, Knights of the Living Dead, March 24, 2007 – also available here)

Waterboarding IS drowning

I am confused, not about whether waterboarding is torture or not – it is – but about why it’s described as ‘simulated’ drowning?

 Surely having water poured down your throat and possibly into your lungs is drowning.

Nothing simulated about it.

Malcolm Nance, a US security expert familiar with waterboarding as a counter-insurgency training technique, said:

‘Let’s not mince words – waterboarding is out and out torture, and I’m deeply ashamed that President Bush has authorised its use and dishonoured the USA’s reputation.’ (Amnesty International)

Here’s the powerful, elegant and pseudo-slick-ad by Amnesty, STUFF OF LIFE

Guantánamo isn’t Gitmo

Guantánamo and Gitmo are two radically different beasts. 

This is important – especially when considering Obama’s executive order to close Guantánamo. 

Here follows (if copyright allows) a brief article that I published in the Guardian in March ’09 entitled GITMO ISN’T GUANTÁNAMO


Gitmo isn’t Guantánamo

Though Obama has promised to close Guantánamo’s detention facility, the US naval base still lingers – as do US-Cuba tensionsMistaken assumptions are regularly being made that President Barack Obama has planned to close the US military base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. This is not so. He has promised to close only the base’s detention facility – which has no bearing on US-Cuba relations.

While attention is focused on Obama’s gargantuan $787bn (£548bn) economic stimulus plan, the effect of the putative closure of Guantánamo Bay Detention Facility on US-Cuba relations has generally been overlooked.

Having browsed ad nauseam message boards, discussion groups, blogs and forums from both the US and the UK concerning the closure of Guantánamo, I have been struck by a pattern of perceptions that appears endemic. The pattern goes something like this: All detainees in Guantánamo are terrorists. Guantánamo is somehow owned or controlled by Cuba. As such, the detainees are lucky they are under US protection rather than being in the island prison of Cuba itself. And Obama is set to close down the entire operation at Guantánamo Bay.

All of the above are wrong.

First, in the absence of due process of law, the guilt of most of the detainees has not been established. Second, the base is reluctantly leasehold from Cuba – creating an ambiguity of sovereignty and jurisdiction that Judith Butler, back in 2002, described as contributing to “Guantánamo limbo”. Third, the detainees are not under US protection, but rather are incarcerated without charge or sentence. Fourth, on his second full day in office, President Obama publicly signed an executive order to suspend the proceedings of the Guantánamo military commission for 120 days and to close the detention facility within the year. He has not pledged to end the lease of Guantánamo Naval Base.

In November of last year, Raúl Castro explained to actor Sean Penn that he would be willing to discuss with President Obama the return of Guantánamo Bay to Cuba. He suggested that a mutual and neutral space for the meeting could be, ironically, Guantánamo Bay itself. Castro also voiced this opinion in the Russian press prior to his recent state visit, and the idea has been embraced by his brother Fidel Castro, who recently called for Obama to return Guantánamo to Cuba, arguing that the base was a violation of Cuban sovereignty. Cuban foreign minister Felipe Pérez Roque and Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez have also publicly declared this view.

Obama, for his part, has indicated that he is keen to normalise US-Cuba relations. Yet he has also suggested that lifting the trade embargo, and easing the travel and remittance restrictions for Cuban-Americans, would only be possible after political reforms in Cuba – in particular, amnesty for political prisoners. Raúl Castro declares this to be tantamount to exhorting change in the Cuban political structure.

We have now entered the old game of tit-for-tat. The US accuses Cuba of imprisoning political opposition, while the Cuban Five remain behind bars in US penitentiaries. The US accuses Cuba of suppressing dissident voices, while Cuba points to the continuing human-rights abuses at Guantánamo. Cuba retains the label of “rogue state” and supporter of terrorism, while the US refuses to allow Luís Carriles Posada to be extradited. The game is a tired one, and shows no sign of ending.

Meanwhile, detainees in Guantánamo have recently declared a mass hunger strike, the embargo against Cuba is maintained, travel to Cuba by Cuban exiles remains restricted and expensive – and communication between Cuban and US leaders continues to be conducted through the intermediation of Hollywood actors., Monday 2 March 2009 14.00 GMT

The slaves of Guantánamo – Zomai: “There, where the light is not allowed”

The detainees of Guantánamo Bay Detention Centre share much with the slaves who, over a century before, lived and worked in the lands of eastern Cuba.

 The first link in this chain occurred to me with the closure of a Birmingham firm that made handcuffs, leg-irons, manacles and “nigger collars” to shackle slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries, and handcuffs used on Gitmo detainees in recent years. 

Moazzam Begg also reflects on the historical parallels on a Stop the War meeting at Goldsmiths’ University London.

I also found a brief Huffington Post article in which David Bromwich contemplates the similarities between slavery and torture, arguing that:

“Torture and slavery have something in common. They are expressions of a power that admits no restraint on itself. They issue from the instinct for domination, hardened by a savage self-protectiveness. Yet a slave might always assert his freedom by choosing to die. This last resort has been denied to the Guantanamo prisoners. If they refuse to eat, they are force-fed intravenously. We keep them alive, and starve them of justice, and kill them by inches. Is this done to prevent their becoming martyrs? But they are already martyrs from the terms of their imprisonment. The force-feeding is really the last refinement of state coercion and cruelty.”

Let’s consider some of the similarities.

The following aspects of the treatment of human beings refers both to enslaved Africans of the Atlantic Slave Trade, and detainees of the War on Terror, especially in Guantánamo Bay. We should be aware, of course, that Gitmo represents the tip of the iceberg of those detained in secret detention centres around the world. 

I have outlined all the similarities between the two historical periods in a page of notes that I used for a seminar given for the School of History at the University of Kent in February ’09.


Just as the Europeans did not plunge into the interior of Africa to capture people for slaving, but traded for people already enslaved from raiding parties by other African nations, so too, were many of the detainees of Guantánamo captured for bounty and sold to the US ground forces, often outside of the arena of combat. 

Clive Stafford-Smith transcribes the verdict of one of his clients held at Gitmo, Ahmed Errachidi: 

‘I was not “captured”,’ he said scathingly. ‘I was in a car going to Lahore so I could get a plane out. We were stopped by the Pakistanis. […] There was an American who was speaking English, which I understood. They were talking about prisoners. The Pakistani had a small case and I heard them counting out money. Imagine the feeling of being sold, and becoming his! Later an Arab-American military policeman in Bagram told me that I had cost them five thousand dollars. I am a hostage and traded commodity.’ (Bad Men, p.168). 

The journey from initial capture to detention still in the home territory often very long, and often the captives subject to torture and abuse. 

A factor of captivity being the enforced notion that the captives will never again see their family, village or community. In the slave-trading port of Ouidah, in Benin, captives were forced to march around the ‘Tree of Forgetfulness’ prior to being held in the dungeons in preparation for the Atlantic crossing. The objective of this tree-circling was to enforce amnesia – especially so that the spirit would not pine for home. 

Slave traders rounded up men, women and children, at times trapping them with nets.  

Their catchment area stretched deep into Africa, even as far as Ethiopia and Sudan.  

Once caught the slaves were forced to walk in chains, hundreds of miles to Ouidah.  

Once there, they were subjected to a brutal process of brainwashing.  

They were made to walk around a supposedly magical tree, called the Tree of Forgetfulness  

Taken down the slave route that I followed, they were made to walk around a supposedly magical tree called the Tree of Forgetfulness.  

Men had to go round it nine times, women and children seven.  

This experience, they were told, would make them forget everything – their names, their family, and the life they had once had.  

As if this was not enough, the slaves were then locked into a dark room, built to resemble the hulk of a ship.  

In the local language this room was called Zomai, meaning literally: “There, where the light is not allowed.”  

Its foundations are still visible and the place still seems to exude evil spirits and terror. (BBC

Captives in the War on Terror have reportedly been drilled with the same sense of forgetfulness, forced to accept the reality of their permanent captivity.

“I certainly believed that I was going to spend the greater part of my life and perhaps even face execution, which was what I was told quite often.” (Moazzam Begg, interviewed in documentary Taxi to the Dark Side [watchable on YouTube, if it’s not soon pulled for copyright]).

In captivity the captives are mixed and separated from kin – dividing language, religion, culture, homeland, even race – and thus reducing solidarity based on shared cultural traditions. Bagram Air Base, Kandahar, and other holding facilities housed men in specifically mixed environments. The detainees of Guantánamo apparently represent 46 different countries, and numerous different and mutually unintelligible languages. 

Extraordinary Rendition. Atlantic Transportation.

Bound and transported across the Atlantic in brutal conditions, often chained, manacled, beaten, sensorially deprived. ‘The European and American slave ships’, writes James Walvin, ‘represent slavery at its most brutal and inhuman’ (Slave Trade p. 1).

And taken to the tropics – indeed, the bay of Guantánamo was a principle entry port for the slaving vessels in the 18th C. 

Once in Cuba, the captives (slaves or detainees), are stripped (if they are not already nude), examined, and reclothed in the new uniform of captivity. 

The deliberate mixing of language, culture, etc. continues. 

Once in captivity, slaves/detainees are housed in barracoons, chained, manacled, overlooked by a watchtower, guarded by dogs, punished for infringements, abused. In the barracoons, living conditions are harsh, mosquitoes, rodents, and disease are rife. 

“It wasn’t a full day in Gitmo if you didn’t see a banana rat, more likely a platoon of them. Take a rat, make it uglier and more possumlike, and there you have the unofficial mascot of Guantánamo Bay. They feared almost nothing and were so numerous that their droppings had to be the principal component of Gitmo soil.” (Erik Saar and Viveca Novak, Inside the Wire, p.33). 

The captives are different from the captors, in terms of race, language, religion and nationality. They are treated as children (detainees in Gitmo are offered Disney movies and McDonalds Happy Meals as rewards for collaboration in interrogation). They are labeled as barbarous.

In captivity, slaves/detainees suffer disorientation, homesickness, despair. They have no defense, and no means of understanding the roots of their captivity. Escape is impossible. Suicide is common. Their body itself does not belong to them. Slaves took the names of their masters, families were separated, newborns were treated as livestock offspring, etc. In Gitmo, biological functions, such as bowel movements, are in public view. In particular, in captivity, the nature of the abuse often takes the form of sexual abuse.  Whilst many writers have analysed the particular relationship between general physical abuse and sexual abuse in the US treatment of detainees, one article entitled Whores on Terror  in issue 137 of the Beast viscerally examines the sheer horror of this abuse, asking in particular:

What’s so sick about it is that the sexual nature of the torture seems so unnecessary. I mean, even if we were going to torture them, we could have stuck to waterboarding, pulling some fingernails or just beating the shit out of them. But menstrual blood smeared on their faces? Ass rape? What kind of people do that? What possible purpose does that serve that outweighs becoming known as the country that ass-rapes people? We couldn’t get enough answers, or false confessions, or whatever we were looking for, from regular brutality? We had to go all BDSM on these people?

A chief and interesting difference is the concept of PRODUCTIVITY. Slaves worked the cane harvest, the mills, the docks, the coffee plantations, the domestic duties, etc. What is the product of the Gitmo detainees? A fascinating, if slightly wild and ultra-literary study by Susan Willis called Guantanamo’s Symbolic Economy deals particularly with the idea that the detainees of Gitmo are working on the Intel Harvest – they are the producers of intel. Although the reality of this is that the intel gained from the interrogation is mostly worthless (despite Cheney’s [both Pa and daughter] ceaseless protestations to the contrary), nevertheless, Willis’s proposals are thought-provoking. 

Erik Saar expresses this lack of productivity – and the high price such absence has cost: 

“I felt as if I had lost something. We lost something. We lost the high road. We cashed in our principles in the hope of obtaining a piece of information. And it didn’t even fucking work. […] What the fuck did I just do? What the fuck were we doing in this place? […] Most of America was asleep, but I was wide awake, defending freedom, honor fucking bound. There was no honor in what we had just done. We were grasping, and in doing so we had spit on Islam. Our tactics were way out of bounds. What we did was the antithesis of what the United States is supposed to be about.” (p.228-9)

Above all, captives are denied their basic identity, their names, their background, and their voice. 

Slaves/detainees are still transported even after the supposed end of the ‘trade’.

“On May 1, President Bush stood on an aircraft carrier with a big banner hung behind him declaring MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. […] That month two more flights left the island carrying a total of eighteen detainees home. But another one arrived bringing new captives; I wasn’t sure how many were on board, but I heard there was a net gain.” (Saar p.230). 

“LONDON (Reuters) – Abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay has worsened sharply since President Barack Obama took office as prison guards “get their kicks in” before the camp is closed, according to a lawyer who represents detainees.” (

We’ll soon be able to celebrate the anniversary of the promise to close Gitmo within one year… 

Here’s an illuminating article published in Huffington Post in Jan ’09.


The Rebel Rock Stars

What does it mean to a people to have metal guitarists as leaders? Camilo could be the 5th Beatle in the Hey Jude photoshoot – or he could have replaced the beardless Paul…



Or perhaps he could have strummed country metal riffs with Lynrd Skynrd. Could he perhaps have added guitars to Tommy Iommi with the Sabs at the time of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath?



Quite a band – anticipating the 70s image by nearly a decade.

This is an often overlooked attribute of the revolutionary movement back in the 50s. Ginsberg’s beard had not yet grown bushy, but by the end of the 50s an unfettered, counterculture wildness had grown powerful in the US. The Beats are certainly evoked by the Cuban rebels, something reflected in the rousing and rhetoric-filled article of Herbert Matthews in 1957 following his clandestine rendezvous with Castro in the Sierra Maestra (and which began the lengthy controversy over whether he had depicted Castro as a modern-day Robin Hood – see Antony DePalma’s The Man who Invented Fidel Castro). This was the same year that Ginsberg’s HOWL was printed in the UK and was seized in the US on grounds of obscenity. September, 1957, saw the first publication of Kerouac’s On the Road. A spirit of non-conformity, Whitman-esque nature-roaming and rock n’ roll was rising in the sap of the US. This was precisely the spirit that Castro (initially via Matthews) tapped into in the early days of the Revolution.

How does one reconcile the paradox of rebellion and conformity? This is a permanent state of confusion at the heart of Cuban culture. ‘O pueblo mío insurrecto’ sings the voice of Nancy Morejón in one of her poems. The pueblo is insurrecto but the individual cannot be. Or can be only along the lines of the official insurrectionary attitude. A quote seen in many public offices and on street murals is of Salvador Allende: “Ser joven y no ser revolucionario es una contradicción hasta biológica”. Wonderful sentiment – wonderful line – difficult to enact within a state structure that determines what is deemed the acceptable revolutionary and what is deemed revolutionary against the revolution – hence counter-revolution.

The relationship between Western counter-culture and Cuba is a fascinating, and again confusing, history.

Support for the Revolution has been an act of non-alignment with western hegemony for decades.

In the year 2000, Fidel Castro himself inaugurated a statue of John Lennon in Vedado, Havana – in a park now called Parque Lennon.

Todo cambia – said the park warden – todo cambia. When one imagines that in the 60s the music of the Beatles was suppressed (not necessarily prohibited) owing to its decadent western sentiment. Todo cambia – this is a beautiful remark by the park warden (especially seeing as he’s probably said it a thousand times since taking the role of guarding the round spectacles that were constantly being swiped from Lennon’s face). Todo cambia could probably be the title for a (another) biography of Castro. Todo cambia being a reflection of his astonishingly canny ability to remain constant to some things and to adapt to others with a style of adaptation that makes it seem that he had always had that perspective. Think how he declared the Revolution a socialist one only after Playa Girón, yet made it out to have always been a socialist one – even right back to the wars of independence of the 19th C. This, despite the fact that Martí was sceptical of the rise of socialist ideas before the turn of the century. Castro’s homage to Lennon, and Alarcón’s references to Lennon’s persecution at the hands of the FBI and CIA, nine years ago, can be seen either as a splendid process of evolution, adaptation and reconciliation – or can be seen as a good PR stunt. Well, the two are the same. PR is about showing a particular image, and that is precisely what Castro has done since July 1953. He has constantly been a master of the image – something I address in the article about Lezama and the Revolution.

Are such things paradoxes and contradictions, or are they simply aspects of a complex and mutable political society? Parque Lennon is a 5-min walk from the statue of Martin Luther King on Calle 23. Two campaigners for peace celebrated in a land that still praises ‘TRABAJO, ESTUDIO, FUSIL’ (work, study, gun).

There’s even a political t-shirt that I’ve seen folk wearing with Che and Lennon side by side. What does it mean to have Fidel claim that he, like Lennon, has always been a dreamer? What does it mean to have Lennon sharing a t-shirt with Che? Lennon who declared the war was over as a means of having the war declared over – Che who declared that a revolution without guns is madness. If Ghandi, Lennon and Dr. King are revered alongside Che and Fidel – is there a discord? Allen Ginsberg,


meanwhile, declared that:

America I used to be a communist when I was a kid and I’m not sorry […] America when I was seven momma took me to Communist Cell meetings they sold us garbanzos a handful per ticket a ticket costs a nickel and the speeches were free everybody was angelic and sentimental about the workers it was all so sincere you have no idea what a good thing the party was in 1835 Scott Nearing was a grand old man a real mensch Mother Bloor made me cry I once saw Israel Amter plain. Everybody must have been a spy.

The strong leftwing sentiment of Ginsberg’s poem at once accords with the Cuba of 3 years after its publication. Gentle and hopeful. So when Ginsberg visited Cuba as an officially invited judge of a Casa de las Américas literary award, he discovered that counter-culture in one society does not necessarily mean cultural support in a counter-cultural society. Emilio Bejel summarises the case:

And it was in 1965 that American writer and gay activist Allen Ginsberg visited Cuba. In spite of his sympathy for socialism and the Cuban Revolution, Ginsberg had several disagreeable encounters with officials and expressed his rejection of the authoritarianism that was dominating Cuban politics at the cultural level. In his characteristically iconoclastic manner, Ginsberg broached the gay topic with some of the leaders, and the reply he received was often quite negative. He was finally expelled from Cuba. (Emilio Bejel Gay Cuban Nation, 25)

The episode is also briefly covered in two Ginsberg biographies that I’ve read: Barry Miles, Ginsberg: A Biography (London: Virgin Publishing Ltd. 2001), and Bill Morgan, I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg (Viking, 2006). To date, the most extensive coverage of the episode was written by José Mario, who writes from his first hand involvement with Ginsberg in Cuba. Having read Ginsberg extensively, plus biographies, my feeling is that he acted splendidly as the great clown, the great court buffoon, and cared not two figs which apple carts he upset, nor whose corns he trod on.


Where is Guantánamo Bay?

 Guantánamo is a foreign country from whichever perspective you look at it. Send ’em to Cuba, you hear in the US (remember Mitt Romney’s beautiful ‘I’m glad they’re not on our soil. […] I think we ought to double Guantánamo…). In general, in the US, Gitmo is certainly in Cuba.

Ask a Cuban about the detention facility and they’ll have the same sense of distance and ignorance about it as anyone else. Guantánamo is not Cuba – it’s the US. It’s another country. Even for the folk who live, work or are incarcerated there, it’s another country. It’s another world.

What do Cuban people tend to say, not about the US occupation of the Bay (that much is fairly obvious), but about the abuses at Gitmo? Oddly enough, protests are minimal. From my recent experience, it seems that protests are a state exercise (posters protesting against the incarceration of the Cuban Five are everywhere). Individual or community protests against the Cuban state are understandably minimal, as the penalty for such activities is quite severe. I suppose, moreoever, in the UK we are accustomed to protesting in the presence of the those whom we’re protesting about; whether marching along Whitehall and past the gates of Downing Street; whether in front of the US Embassy or the Israeli Embassy; or past the Houses of Parliament in protest of the war. So I suppose, the absence of a direct audience in Cuba would make a protest less focused.

No Cuban that I have spoken to, nor any article I’ve read in Juventud Rebelde or Granma, shows any expectation of Guantánamo being returned to Cuba. Yes, it is leasehold (although in perpetuity), and thus is not so different from pre 1997 Hong Kong. But it is very different.

There is a conference being organised by Guantánamo city UNEAC in September/October this year entitled something like ‘somos todos de Guantánamo’. What could the objectives of this gathering be? It seems highly pie-in-the-sky for citizens of Guantánamo or Caimanera to assume that they have anything in common with any individual along the lengthy and complex chain of command in the base, from commanding officers, to interrogators, camp wardens, military police, McDonalds and Starbucks employees, gardeners, etc. Could they infer that they have something in common with the detainees? This seems even more fantastic. Who owns the land? Cuba. How does ownership differ from sovereignty? This is the tricky question, as sovereignty is seen as allied to jurisdiction. Whose jurisdiction? NOBODY’S – THAT’S THE WHOLE ISSUE. Outside of Geneva protocol, outside of International Law, outside of US federal law, outside of Cuban jurisdiction, outside of the jurisdiction of any of the native countries of the detainees. Who owns Guantánamo Bay? Guantánamo Bay. Whose jurisdiction? Its own. Whose sovereignty? Its own. What an extraordinary beast.

Perhaps it’s really not of this earth.

Something Clive Stafford-Smith said that stuck in my mind, but which I cannot find reference to, is that one arrives on the Windward side of the Bay, and in order to visit Camp Delta, one is taken across the Bay in a ferry. He likens this to being rowed across the Stygian Lake by Charon…

More to follow