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Tyrone Simpson on the Carceral Regime

Guantanamo: Notes on Innocence, Knowledge, and the Carceral
by Tyrone Simpson

Innocence

   Among the most insightful theoretical paradigms I have encountered to decipher the tacit and sometimes unconscious workings of American culture came from Lauren Berlant’s meditation on the intimate public sphere. Berlant explained how familial and domestic tropes provided an unquestioned template for good citizenship.   The official national discourse exalts the presence of virile and gallant fathers; fertile, nurturing, and non-prurient mothers; and obedient and gift-craving children. The insatiable needs of the latter are to serve as the consumptive cynosure that would buoy the success of American capitalism into the next generation. Playing the honorable heterofamilial role, Berlant ventures, had the collateral effect of mass civic bankruptcy. The quest to sate particularly nuclear needs left little energy to pursue important, less personal matters beyond the hearth. One would lack the patience the study the laws of the land, monitor the efficacy of social institutions, or police the machinations of government, even in the unfortunate case that its leaders began to trample upon the public good. In other words, all the attention to the familial or to what Hollywood’s latest instance of neoliberal propaganda calls “the pursuit of happyness,” would make for immature public citizens—ones grossly ill-equipped in providing the necessary restraints to its national leadership. To put it bluntly, for an inexcusably long time, American citizenship has been debilitated by a civic infantilism that has exalted innocence as its preeminent virtue and it is such infantilization that so disturbingly characterizes the Bush presidency and enables the inhumanity of Guantanamo.
   To begin, the reign of innocence reached horrifying proportions upon the “election” of the contemporary executive, whose ascension we orchestrated to exorcise his overly libidinal predecessor. Though this Bush lacked foreign policy experience, such geopolitical naivete, as well as his “likableness,” seemed to be sources of enchantment for the electorate. The nation’s revelry in his ignorance and its own was brought to a jarring halt with the 9/11 attacks. In fact, those sanguine with American supremacy read the destruction of the Trade Center as an assault on domestic innocence. The conflagrative collision of aircraft and edifice seemed to insist that Americans had done nothing to deserve its blitheful innocence while the rest of the globe endured myriad forms of chaos and discomfort (as an ambivalent patron of corporate news media, I could not help but descry in the attacks’ instantaneous displacement of the disappearance of D.C. intern Chandra Levy—and all the salacious sexual speculations attached to it—from the nightly lead as a sobering homiletic about cultural gravitas). Despite this spectacularly murderous appeal for the US to be more mature, administration and populace took to tantrums. In the pre-emptive war policy that has made us occupiers of Afghanistan, Iraq, and significantly more active tenants in Cuba, we have not only furnished the 9/11 attackers with a retroactive defense (zealous Islamicists sought to prevent certain and future encroachments of Western capitalism and its decadent secularism), but vindicated the thousands throughout the globe who urged magnanimity and restraint in the US response to the assault. To try and be tempered and gentle while nursing the deepest of national wounds would have been gallant and courageous. Yet with these excursions into foreign and sovereign soil, we citizens sought to recapture the pampered disposition disrupted by the jihadists’ successful conspiracy. Rather than seating ourselves at the negotiating table to measure a responsible international response, we balled our bodies up in the corner of our cribs and leased the title of patriarch to an untutored president to craft a new (maybe it is actually old) American persona on the global stage. With every act of torture, every Iraqi corpse, every dead soldier returned home, every supercilious comment abroad US incompetence and indecency, we come closer to recognizing how expensive our childishness after 9/11 was and truly will be.
   The insistence on innocence that begat our present moral disorientation most distressingly persists in the rhetoric brought to redressing the inhumanity at Guantanamo. Critics of the carceral practices there resort to a mawkish nationalism that does little to free us from the infantilism from which we so desperately need to graduate. Talk of “restoring the statue of liberty to us as our national symbol” or of how “fairness and due process are what America stands for” or of how “we can’t go down to the level of our enemies” ignores the multiple moments in which the US has deployed unfreedom, unfairness, and atrocious violence in order to preserve what it saw as its own national integrity or to augment the geopolitical omnipotence that it presently enjoys. [1] Such statements, for instances, allows us to turn a blind eye toward the imperial aggression that made Guantanamo a US jail, or the internment impulses that have traumatized indigenous and Japanese Americans in the past century, or the racist selfishness that characterizes the talk of Mexican immigration today. Additionally, turgid paeans to the American democratic tradition at this time handicap our ability to lay bare the treachery before us. We know that shortly after the US began its campaign in Afghanistan it started the legal gymnastics that would make of Guantanamo a government-resistant penal colony. Chicanerous maneuverings sought to make the detainees indefinite guests of a more shadowy State, keep them ignorant of whatever crime occasioned their arrest, defrock them of the right or legal wherewithal to challenge the charge. We also know in early 2002 the Pentagon gave word to intensify the interrogative ritual, and sent in the scientists to imbue the inquisition with the diabolical know-how to make inmates talk or crave death. We know that after the Supreme Court decisions of Rasul vs. Bush (2004) and Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld (2006), Congress and the president continue to disregard habeus corpus appeals and orchestrate military tribunals—effronterous gestures no doubt, not merely because they flout the pronouncements of the judiciary and of the globally-revered Geneva statutes, but because they follow the wanton pornographic violence of Abu Ghraib. Exacerbating the torment these facts bring to the national conscience are the penumbrous corruptions yet exposed to our scrutiny. Only this September did the President reveal an elaborate system of detention sites about the globe. His decision to outsource and secrete these abductions, it is safe to aver, also made in the interest of preserving the innocence of a fragile citizenry. To be clear, this episode of American militarism and jurisprudence is not an example, as Joseph Margulies contends (his legislative courage and prowess, thank grace, brought us Rasul), of “how war can upset a first class thinker.” [2] Sustained over the course of years, this all was cold, calculated, belligerent rationalism that was aware of its sins at every stage of transgression. In being so, it cannot be redeemed by being cast as a temporary divagation from otherwise honorable intents. Thus to extenuate state behavior at this time, enfeebles our critique and risks making us mimics of the “innocent” nationalists we seek to censure. Talk of how America has historically been better makes us sound like Bush, who, after claims of mischief at Guantanamo became publicly voluble, uttered, “The United States does not torture: It’s against our laws and against our own values.” [3] In short, even when made to foreground the patriotic impulses of one’s dissent—itself an act of infantilism in that it presumes the citizenry is not seasoned enough to hear criticism without
h
urling charges o
f betrayal– this is simply not the time to apotheosize the nation. Concern for our nation’s glorious reputation as the globe’s moral compass should not impel us toward justice more forcefully than the righteousness of justice itself. We must decry the obsessive pursuit of American innocence, especially at a moment when our ability to recognize and honor the innocence of others–namely the 55% of Gitmo detainees that have hardly lifted a finger in the name of jihad–seems so profoundly impaired. [4]

Knowledge

   At the center of the innocence that has led to our undoing is our Adamic yen for geopolitical ignorance—ignorance made evident by Americans’ new appreciation for maps and other representations of space after 9/11. Our benighted posture toward the world beyond our borders testified to the protracted epoch of imperial privilege that the 9/11 attacks sought to suspend. Theorist of modernity Anibal Quijano argues that the current cognitive imbalance that characterizes the relationship between the West and its Others began with the colonial project centuries ago. Quijano explains that Europe did not merely claim as its own the cultural valuables of the indigenous it colonized to support its capitalist enterprise, it also “suppressed the colonized forms of knowledge production, the models of the production of meaning, their symbolic universe, the models of expression, and of objectification and subjectivity.” [5] The result of this systematic and relentless deprecation of indigenous cognition was the notion that non-European peoples and cultures possessed nothing much worth knowing. These non-white tabula rasas, then, had little choice but ingest the wisdom and cultural habits of Europe and in performing such acquisitions held out the possibility of one day accessing benefits of modernity. This matter is so crucial to Quijano’s understanding of past and contemporary ethnic power differentials that it has moved him to conceptualize race as a “mental construction,” because the specious means of classification serve as shorthand by which to assess a subject’s capacity to know. [6] This epistemological presumption—one that made it entirely normal for the West to know little about its Others while its Others knew everything possible to know about the West–is precisely what produced the defenselessness that enabled the attacks. The mistake of Guantanamo is that our government misrecognizes the pedagogy of the terrorists’ bloody plot. Indeed, 9/11 called for a novel tutorial, one our leaders hysterically seek to satisfy not merely through the illegal inquisitorial island detention of hundreds of Arabs, but by the resource explosion in Middle Eastern studies at our nation’s colleges and universities. Yet the appeal contained in the attacks—if we can imagine them having rational content—was for there to be an epistemological exchange between the Islamic world and the Judeo-Christian one (for lack of a better term), characterized by mutual esteem rather than ethnocentric discipline. But the Guantanamo initiative repudiates this request and resurrects the colonial protocols of knowledge production that Quijano laments. We have extracted knowledge only to dehumanize and oppress. Pro-war Washington conservatives sedulously pored through Raphael Patai’s monograph, The Arab Mind, to identify values that would enhance the vulnerability of the detainees under interrogation. [7] Unsurprisingly, the torturous rituals of information extraction have produced a ventriloquial relationship between the interrogators and its Arab victims: the detainee only knows what the West’s representatives want him to know. According to journalist Jane Meyer, it was Muhammad al-Qahtani, the alleged “20th hijacker” of the 9/11 plot, who under the physical pressure of what Enlightenment thinker Cesare Beccaria once called the “spurious test of truth,” confessed that there was a viable working relationship between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein and there indeed lay WMD in the burning sands of Iraq. [8] The obliteration of Al Qahtani’s subjectivity under the bright white heat of Guantanamo, as we now know, doomed us to bring credulity to our own paranoid fantasies and commit one of the most extravagant military errors in modern history. Mesmerized by the spectacle of torture protocols and the haze of epistemological ethnocentrism, it never occurred to us that Al-Qahtani knew better.   

The Carceral

   Meditating on the differences in ethno-racial cognition brings to mind a soundbyte from the long decades of black cultural nationalism that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. “It’s a black thing, you wouldn’t understand,” rang as a trite micro-rebuke to the interracial comity that was to sediment after the tumultuous times of the 1960s. In all its curtness, the statement seemed to suggest that despite the centuries of sharing the same national space, white understanding of black life would have its limits. Certainly, it could be modestly familiar with the black cultural products of speech, song, dance, and cuisine; but it had no insight into black misery. For if it did, then its platitudes about fairness, equality, and freedom—indeed, the ideological accoutrement of innocence—would move it to change the way the nation conducted its business with respects to those who are dark– posthaste…And it hadn’t. Now, almost two full decades later, some argue that white cognition has yet to advance the American project beyond its racist limits, particularly because of how efficiently the latter transferred the production of misery from ghetto to prison. I offer this sample of domestic racial politics as a preface to my reflection on Guantanamo as a site of racialized incarceration and torture not to make of this global conflict a reductively Manichean drama, but to underscore the curious isomorphism between the prosecution of the War on Terror and the policing of US ethno-racial minorities (worn paths exist between the barrio and the reservation to the penitentiary as well). The particular form of depravity proffered at Guantanamo is so pronounced not merely because of the wrathful violence with which injured and fearsome whiteness is wont to respond, but because the architects of this gulag have gradually perfected their carceral practice on those within the US they have deemed to be a domestic threat.
   Regretfully, the narrative that begat Guantanamo is familiar. The State’s first step toward illegality was to change the rules. Rather than treating its adversaries as prisoners of war, the administration deemed its opponents “unlawful enemy combatants”. This more capacious classification would divest the detainees of Geneva protections and similar to the Rockefeller movement that began the hyper-criminalization of the US drug economy in the 1970s, would expand the likelihood that average people (not merely jihadists) would be vulnerable to arrest. This, combined with an exhaustive leafleting campaign that promised rewards for apprehended terrorists, has created a profit imperative for racial profiling, mass snitching, and perfidious betrayals. Critics of the detention policy claim that the US dragnet abroad is responsible for only 5% of the inmates. Warlord and civilian abductions have produced the balance of the detained population. [9] Made captive by the latter means, some prisoners proved so unworthy of interrogation that one frustrated military official questioned his colleagues overseeing the arrests in Afghanistan, “why are you sending all these Mickey Mouse prisoners? This is not what we created Guantanamo for.” [10]
   The State’s next gesture was to produce an uncrossable chasm—psychically and spatially–between its prisoners and anyone sympathetic to their plight. American prisons, particularly the newer ones, are situated on large swathes of distant deindustrialized land miles away from the urban centers from which they amass most of the

ir tenants and criti
cs. The choice to use Guantanamo, which one observer described as “floating in another world,” seeks to exploit the advantages of the very same penal logic. [11] Theorist of black ghettoization and imprisonment Loic Wacquant argues that this mode of ambivalent incorporation—that is, to possess certain bodies at a distance—is the classic technique used to extract resources from a population society deems undesirable. [12] What Americans gain from Guantanamo are the illusory commodities of innocence and safety. The vague knowledge that there are locked-up Arabs experiencing a great deal of discomfort somewhere spectacularly assures us that the 9/11 attacks and any act of resistance to America’s geo-economic will are unjust. The shoal of inmates shows that those who antagonize “freedom” will be harshly neutralized.
   The infernal viciousness of our carceral practices has gained full display in the prison structures the US plans to bring to the Guantanamo project. Known as “supermax prisons,” these architectural concoctions are known to make prisoner life excruciatingly unlivable. A Human Rights Watch 2002 report described detention facilities where
   “Prisoners confined in such facilities spent an average of 23 hours a day in their cells, enduring extreme social isolation, enforced idleness, and extraordinarily limited recreational and educational opportunities.” [13]
   As an agonizing subsidy to an interrogation process replete with assault, sexual humiliation, sleep deprivation, and freezing, the defense department has elected to house their wards in a frighteningly inhumane environment—one whose capacity for psychological destruction has been amply verified by the misery of the nation’s domestic prisoners.
   Unsolicited proof that the US seems to be following a racialized penological script came from Guantanamo’s embarrassing institutional cousin, Abu Ghraib. In one of the most under-analyzed coincidences in American political history, investigations into the abuse scandal at the Iraqi prison in 2004 revealed that former corrections officers, Staff Sergeant Ivan L. Frederick and Specialist Charles Graner supervised the cruel, dehumanizing mistreatment of the detainees that occurred there. [14] Putting aside how the Pentagon made patsies of these soldiers, the failure of the punditry to question whether Frederick and Graner were seasoned veterans, rather than unwitting freshmen, to the harsh interrogation protocols they oversaw suggests either an overly prim imagination or the willful avoidance of a horror to close to home.
   The point of this elaborate meditation on how the US has exported its racial ethos and carceral technologies to sites abroad is that indiscriminate talk of a dark, impenetrable enemy that is virtually unknowable compared to our World War II combatants, that hates America and its freedoms, that possesses a “doctrinal commitment to secrecy” and a superhuman resistance to conventional interrogation methods is a racializing discourse that has inexorably produced the atrocities of Guantanamo. [15] Our posture as a righteous and vengeful global sheriff could create no other outcome than the terroristic prison that stains our name. To believe otherwise stretches innocence to criminal proportions.
   The most unsettling matter about Guantanamo is not that the prison is the least obscure of a global system of US detention centers, or that the Pentagon has contracted behaviorists there to create “a menacing…disorienting environment that would produce a state of anxiety, fear, and dread” [16] for the detainees, or that interrogations have become more infrequent and made the detentions more senseless, it is instead that the jailers have bedizened the prisoners in orange jumpsuits, carceral attire that is also an export from penitentiaries at home. The dress suggests that they intend to kill these men…very, very slowly. And they have wagered that our irrepressible desire to be innocent will let them do so.

Notes
1a. quote by Joseph Denbeaux from introduction to “Journalists Beyond the Wire,” Guantanamo: How Should We Respond   [webcast teach-in] October 5, 2006. b. quote by J. Wells Dixon of the Center of Constitutional Rights from Brecher, Jeremy and Brendan Smith. “Torture and the Content of Our Character” The Nation (online) 9/15/06. c. quote by former F.B. I. official from Mayer, Jane. “The Experiment: The Military Trains People to Withstand Interrogation. Are Those Methods Being Misused at Guantanamo?” The New Yorker 07/11-07/18, 2006.
2. Marguiles, Joseph. “A Prison Beyond the Law” Virginia Quarterly Law Review 80:4 (Fall 2004), 37-55.
3. Bush, George W. “President Discusses Creation of Military Commissions to Try Suspected Terrorists,” Office of the Press Secretary, United States Government, 9/6/2006.
4. Willett, P. Sabin. “Who’s at Guantanamo, Anyway?” Princeton University, 9/27/2006
5. Quijano, Anibal. “Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America” Nepantla: Views From The South 1:3 (2000) 541.
6. Ibid, 533.
7. Hersh, Seymour M. “The Gray Zone: How a Secret Pentagon Program Came to Abu Ghraib.” The New Yorker 5/24/2004.
8a. comment by Jane Meyer during panel session, “Journalists Beyond the Wire,” Guantanamo: How Should We Respond   [webcast teach-in] October 5, 2006. b. Beccaria, Cesare. On Crimes and Punishments and Other Writings edited by Richard Bellamy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 40.
9. Marguiles, Joseph. “A Guantanamo Primer,” Guantanamo: How Should We Respond? [webcast teach-in] October 5, 2006.
10. Ibid. quote by Major General Mike Dunleavy, the first head of interrogations at Guantanamo prison.
11. quote by Michael Ratner, Center for Constitutional Rights from Kaplan, Amy. “Violent Belongings and the Question of Empire Today: Presidential Address to the American Studies Association, October 17, 2003” American Quarterly 56.1 (2004) 1-18.
12. Wacquant, Loic. “From Slavery to Mass Incarceration: Rethinking the Race Question in the US” New Left Review 13 (Jan.-Feb. 2002).
13. Davis, Angela Y. Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003), 101-102.
14. Hersh, Seymour M. “Torture at Abu Ghraib: American Soldiers Brutalized Iraqis. How Far Up Does the Responsibility Go?” The New Yorker 5/10/04.
15. Marguiles, Joseph. “A Guantanamo Primer,” Guantanamo: How Should We Respond? [webcast teach-in] October 5, 2006.
16. Ibid.

Works Cited and Consulted

al Dossari, Jumah Abdel Latif, correspondence, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. 10/14/05

Beccaria, Cesare. On Crimes and Punishments and Other Writings edited by Richard Bellamy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Bush, George W. “President Discusses Creation of Military Commissions to Try Suspected Terrorists,” Office of the Press Secretary, United States Government, 9/6/2006.

Brecher, Jeremy and Brendan Smith. “Torture and the Content of Our Character” The Nation (online) 9/15/06.

Davis, Angela Y. Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003).

Editorial. “Status Quo Gitmo” The Nation (online) 6/12/06.

Golden, Tim. “The Military Taking a Tougher Line with Detainees” New York Times, 12/12/2006.

Griswold, Eliza. “American Gulag” Harper’s 313 (Spring 2006), 41-50.

Hersh, Seymour M. “The Gray Zone: How a Secret Pentagon Program Came to Abu Ghraib.” The New Yorker 5/24/2004.

Hersh, Seymour M. “Torture at Abu Ghraib: American Soldiers Brutalized Iraqis. How Far Up Does the Responsibility Go?” The New Yorker 5/10/04.

Joynt, Anne. “The Semantics of the Guantanamo Bay Inmates: Enemy Combatants of Prisoners of the War on Terror” Buffalo Human Rights Review 10 (2004) 427-441.

Kaplan, Amy. “Violen

t Belongings and the Question of Empire Today: Presidential Address to the American Studies Associat
ion, October 17, 2003” American Quarterly 56.1 (2004) 1-18.

Mayer, Jane. “The Experiment: The Military Trains People to Withstand Interrogation. Are Those Methods being Misused at Guantanamo?” The New Yorker 07/11-07/18, 2006.

Quijano, Anibal. “Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America” Nepantla: Views From The South 1:3 (2000), 533-580.

Savage, Luiza C. H. “Prisoners with No Country: Why the US Can’t Shut Down Guantanamo Bay—Even If It Wants to” Maclean’s 119:13 (March 27, 2006), 28-9.

Marguiles, Joseph. “A Prison Beyond the Law” Virginia Quarterly Law Review 80:4 (Fall 2004), 37-55.

______________. “A Guantanamo Primer,” Guantanamo: How should We Respond? 10/5/2006.

Shapiro, Bruce, “A President Rebuked,” The Nation (online) 6/29/06.

White, Josh. “Writing by Suicidal Detainee Reveals Depths of His Despair” The Washington Post 3/15/2006

Willett, P. Sabin. “Who’s at Guantanamo, Anyway?” 9/27, 2006

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