“In order to effect the appropriate disposition of individuals currently detained by the Department of Defence at Guantánamo and promptly to close the detention facility at Guantánamo, consistent with the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and the interest of justice, I hereby order. And we’ll then provide the process whereby Guantánamo will be closed no later than one year from now.”
So Barack Obama solemnly declared, almost two years ago to the day, upon entry to the White House. The closure of Guantánamo Bay was a promise Obama campaigned on, evidence of what weighed heavily on the collective conscience of American voters at the time. Nevertheless, this week sees the nine-year anniversary of the Guantánamo Bay prison. It’s still going strong. Population: 173 inmates. Why?
Not only has the Obama administration failed to close Guantánamo, legislation approved by Congress in December will prevent its prisoners being tried on US mainland, making it increasingly likely that many of the prisoners will never see a trial, let alone the outside of those prison grounds. This is also known as indefinite detention.
In 2009, a task force of government and intelligence officials and lawyers examined the cases of the remaining inmates and cleared 89 for release. A majority of the cleared cases are citizens of Yemen; consequently, they remain incarcerated at Guantánamo since Washington imposed a moratorium on releasing Yemeni prisoners after reports that the “Underwear Bomber” was recruited in that country. “Guilt by nationality,” Andy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files, calls it.
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The task force found that of the remaining prisoners, 48 should be held indefinitely — “too dangerous to release”, but with cases relying on evidence that wouldn’t hold up in court. “[I]f the government’s supposed evidence would not stand up in a court of law,” writes Worthington, “then it is not evidence at all, but rather hearsay and unverifiable information contained in intelligence reports, which is fundamentally tainted by the torture and abuse to which prisoners were subjected.”
Writing on the Giffords shooting earlier this week, Jeff Sparrow theorised that “since 2001, we’ve seen, in the context of the war on terror, a normalisation of violence that once would have been unthinkable.” He gave the example of torture, an abuse that has been widely reported at Guantánamo. Another example is the Collateral Murder video published by WikiLeaks; it should have had a traumatising, course-altering effect, but what it did was normalise the violence of war. The horror felt was fleeting, because other acts of violence soon followed. We witness our governments and armed forces take up weapons every day, yet pretend that this has no relationship to our daily lives. We have become inured.
It’s not merely acts of violence that have acclimatised us to things we would not have previously accepted. It is also the words of politicians, and we don’t have to look to other shores for examples of its use. It’s evidenced in the language of permissiveness of our own prime minister, who, when referring to the wearing of religious attire such as the burqa, assures us, “I can understand Australians that do find it a bit confronting; it’s a little different on our street.” Julia Gillard has made similar statements about fears surrounding asylum seekers. In expressing these views, Gillard is only one step removed from endorsing an act to follow that sentiment, the kind of act that follows from designating an entire section of the population as other.
Language can do many things, from promoting a national culture to waging a war to making an offshore prison invisible. When people feel insecure, the language used by our politicians and in the media, and the ideas underpinning them, can legitimise fears and manufacture reasons for insecurities. Violent rhetoric makes people fearful, and it makes people commit extreme acts, while simultaneously normalising the invasion of countries and continuous war. But the end result is always violence against ordinary people.
In the lead-up to the Cronulla riots, Middle Eastern Australians were demonised by shock jock Alan Jones, who appealed to his listeners to show up to “a rally, a street march, call it what you will. A community show of force”. One of Jones’ callers quoted his father’s war motto — “Shoot one, the rest will run” — and Jones laughed. Legitimising the fear is one step from legitimising the activity.
In the decade that saw 9/11, the construction of Guantánamo, the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the bombing of Pakistan and Yemen, other has come to mean Muslim. On Tuesday, for example, Republican Rep Peter King, the new chair of the Homeland Security Committee, alleged that Muslims are “un-American” and “unco-operative” with law enforcement and government; he also thinks “there are too many mosques” in the United States. Another example is the prevailing misconception that terrorism in Europe is caused by radical Islam. Not true, reveals Dan Gardner in the Vancouver Sun. In 2009, out of “294 failed, foiled, or successfully executed attacks” in six European countries, a Muslim committed precisely one. The year before it was none. But at the root of these fictions is the idea that every Muslim terrorist represents Muslims united, while every white terrorist is a crazed loner.
The reason that Guantánamo Bay is still open is directly connected to the Giffords shooting: our tolerance of government violence, in rhetoric and deed, has increased. This rhetoric has two certain consequences. It makes us accept government violence and it makes us fear others. It’s a language of violence directed towards certain types of people. Whether it’s the overemphasised violence of Muslims intending to commit violence against whites or the encroaching communist agenda or the justification for indefinite detention of 48 individuals deemed too great a threat to a nation of 310,232,863 people, we accept that we live in a violent era, and the state no longer needs to justify its actions. This government use of violence ensures that there are fewer rights for whole groups of people, which then allows the scapegoating of people who defend those with fewer rights.
In this climate, we are hurtling toward a culture of permissive and normalised violence, one in which black site prisons and perpetual war and fearing our neighbours will be customary. Governments that ignore the violence and illegality of life at Guantánamo Bay and in our own backyards should heed the words of Auden: “Those to whom evil is done/ Do evil in return.”
*Jacinda Woodhead is associate editor of literary journal Overland