Guantanamo the hyperreal

June 13, 2006

What a place Camp Xray at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba….isn’t.

Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba

Of course it’s a pity that three detainees managed to commit suicide without the guards being able to prevent them, as they have done in a few dozen other cases. Claims from Saudi Arabia that the two Saudis who took their own lives were murdered by the US and are therefore ‘martyrs’ are as predictable as they are idiotic.

Camp Xray, though, is becoming a hyperreal entity: it’s no longer what it is, it’s what people want it to be, a hyperreality emerging from the coalescence of rumour, allegation, hysteria and paranoia. Put another way, it is arguably the world’s first post-modern prison, constructed entirely from preferred readings of its ‘text’.

The story that provoked riots across the Muslim world, and left around a dozen people dead — that a guard had flushed a copy of the Koran down the toilet — proved to be false. The only people found to have desecrated the Koran in this way were some of the detainees. (No riots followed in the wake of these revelations.) TIME magazine’s shock-horror expose of the ghastly conditions and terrible tortures suffered by Gitmo inmates revealed that some had been forced — forced! — to endure the close proximity of a female*. How inhuman is that? Others were roused from slumber by the loud playing of pop music. Unbearable!

Now, courtesy of Week by Week, we get a look at what the camp is really like, in the words of a senior US official, Colleen Graffy (who, naturally, can be reliably assumed to be lying).

In an interview with the BBC in March, Graffy described the following non-hyperrealities:

Interrogations are based not on torture but on building a trust relationship with the interrogatee

The UN’s criticisms of the camp are not based on first-hand observations, but on accounts provided by lawyers for the detainees

It is standard operating procedure for Al Qaida operatives to claim they have been tortured. It’s in their training manuals

Their detention is subject to a formal comabatant status review, conducted annually, whose findings are appellable in the civil courts

When the US authorities are convinced that a detainee no longer wants to conduct jihadist activities (i.e. murder people), he is released

Some released detainees have reverted to type, engaging in terrorist activities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Russia

Only the hard-core jihadists, around 40 of them, wear the infamous orange jumpsuits. Most detainees are co-operative, mingle communally, and have full access to recreation and sports facilities.

It might not be a bed of roses, but, on this account, it’s not a gulag either, nor anything remotely resembling one.

*Welcome to America, where women wear uniform, hold senior rank, conduct interrogations, fly combat missions and drive nuclear-powered submarines.

Update: More hyperreality, this time likely with delusions. Tony Jones of Lateline wheeled in an interesting piece of work tonight to discuss the Gitmo suicides — one Prof Alfred McCoy of the University of Wisconsin, if I caught it right, who looks almost exactly like Batman’s butler (also named Alfred — could they be one and the same?). A classic CIA conspiracist, McCoy reckons the CIA has had psychological torture down pat since 1952, and is prosecuting the results at Gitmo, to the dismay of the much more genteel FBI. Apparently McCoy believes the CIA runs the international heroin trade (doesn’t everyone?). Recognising, however dimly, that he was being interviewed on Australian TV, the Prof went on and on about David Hicks, painting him as a role model for Gitmo detainees. Unfazed by Jones — looking ever more bemused — pointing out that Hicks has largely confessed his offences to the Australian Federal Police, McCoy, rather missing the point, lauded Hicks’ ‘resistance’, bravery and persistence and…..what, exactly?

Where does the ABC find these people? At least Tony Jones realised what kind of fish he had on the end of his hook.

Anyway, here’s a taste of McCoy’s CIA fantasticism.



  1. TO: Colleen.Graffy@pepperdine.edu

    Dear Ms. Graffy:

    I am writing to you to remark upon the incredibly ignorant statement you made regarding the three recent suicides at Gitmo. The lack of knowledge about the causes of suicide which you demonstrated in your profoundly stupid remarks leaves me breathless for the sheer lack of understanding of an issue which is the 11th leading cause of death among Americans. (Anderson RN, Smith BL. Deaths: leading causes for 2001. National Vital Statistics Report 2003;52(9):1-86.), not to mention what incarceration without hope of release for charges unknown must do to a person. How would you like to be locked up without any knowledge of charges against you, in a land not your own, without any sense whether or not you would ever leave alive? Perhaps you should try it.

    Annual rates of suicide in this country are over 30,000 per year, more than 650,000 Americans are hospitalized each year following suicide attempts, and over 116,000 are treated in hospital emergency departments for same. Among US males, suicide is the 8th leading cause of death for all US men and males are four more times likely to die from suicide than females. And this is not even beginning to quote numbers related to female and teen deaths. But don’t take it from me, Ms. Graffy, check out the website of one of your fellow-governmental agencies, the CDC–that’s the Centers for Disease Control in case you had failed to note its existence– http://www.cdc.gov/ncipc/factsheets/suifacts.htm . There you will see a tidy introduction to a subject in which you are woefully ignorant and which all your degrees have obviously not prepared you to understand or speak about.

    I come from a family which, in the last one hundred years, has experienced over a dozen suicides in its ranks. So, yeh, I tend to be rather sensitive to the issue. We are what you would call patriotic Americans, as a whole, and have done more than our share to contribute to the life of the nation in ways very big and small. To see you liken suicide as an act of warfare against the US would be funny if it were not so cruel and unfeeling. But then, cruel and unfeeling is probably how you have risen to the position you presently enjoy at State.

    Do us all a favor, Ms. Graffy, and shut your mouth about subjects for which you are woefully under-qualified and under-experienced to comment. Step outside of your fishbowl of an office and limited circle of acquaintances, take a drive sometime and see the world beyond the Beltway. Touch base with reality. You are in many ways as imprisoned as the people you are verbally abusing at Gitmo.

    Very Truly Yours,
    Robert Pell-deChame

  2. Rob, what a piece of total apologia.
    Let’s say we take your position, and no torture goes on at Guantánamo. Let’s say it’s run cleanly and without actual maltreatment. Let’s say all of the inmates are actually (cowboy voice) ‘bad guys’ and not just people the Northern Alliance shopped in to the US Army for the price of bounty.
    Why is it even slightly OK to keep people in prison, in secret, for over four years, without charge?

  3. It’s not exactly in secret, Liam, since they can have lawyers if they need or want them, and access to the civil justice system.

    However, I agree that four years is far too long, and that there should have been charges brought against them, and that their cases should be heard by an internationally recognised court.

    The point of the post, though, was to point out that Gitmo, on the evidence available in public, is a very long way from the hellhole and gulag it is regularly painted as being. It seems the inmates are well-fed, looked after, interrogated for the most part in accordance with ‘civilised’ norms, and treated with cultural sensitivity. Only the most hardened cases are subject to forms of sensory deprivation which, if regrettable and distasteful, nonetheless fall well short of physical torture.

    Whether the US did the right thing by shipping them to Cuba and holding them there in the first place is a different question (to which I would — probably — answer ‘no’). But let’s not make the place itself into something it isn’t.

  4. PS: what looks like casuistry is actually nuance, hahahaha.

  5. Good luck with the email, Robert. I too have some familiarity with the human tragedy of suicide of those close to me. But Graffy wasn’t making a comment about suicide generally, but its deliberate deployment for political purposes. Suicide bombers are also suicides. And recall Bobby Sands, the IRA hunger stiker, whose suicide was overtly and unabashedly intended to further a political purpose.

  6. Bobby Sands was found guilty by a court, Rob.

  7. Of a criminal offence, if memory serves. His endeavour was to force the British government to accept he was a political prisoner. Therefore his suicide was political in purpose and intent.

  8. My point exactly. If the prisoners in Guantánamo could be charged with actual crimes instead of just being held there incommunicado, there’d be that much less possible criticism.
    It makes it that much easier for them to argue that they are political prisoners.

  9. They are not held incommunicado. They have lawyers who talk to them and represent their interests — in Hicks’ case (his lawyer is a Major in the US Marine Corps) very aggressively and successfully.

    Sands was different. He was found gulity of ‘criminal’ acts in UK territory under UK legal jurisdiction. Nothing complicated about that. It’s a bit different coming up with a legal way of dealing with combatants seized in Afghanistan and Pakistan engaged in warfare on terms not envisaged by the Geneva Convention.

    I’m not saying the US’ solution is perfect, but it was a tough one for them. Personally I think the US should have treated the captives as ordinary prisoners of war, taking into account the changed nature of 21st century warfare; but the US has arguments against that: no uniforms, non-state actors, etc. It would have been better PR, for a start, and that’s probably more important, in the long run, than fine points of international law.

  10. Rob, I refer you to Cam Riley’s fine argument:

    Guantanamo Bay exists as a camp under executive decree. The location was specifically chosen to be outside of judicial overview – not being part of US sovereign territory. Bush has also negated legislative legitimacy for the camp by claiming his power to hold inmates there indefinitely are part of the emergency powers in the war powers resolution.
    The camp was specifically designed by the executive to be an area devoid of law. The language, unlawful combatant, which describes the inmates is a reflection of that desire.
    This is why any argument on Guantanamo Bay, or unlawful combatants, in relation to the Geneva Conventions is meaningless. When the camp is setup to be completely absent of law, then domestic law, let alone international law, is simply irrelevant.

    If it’s so right, why isn’t it in actual US territory?

  11. Well, as I said above, Liam, I’d probably agree that shipping them to Cuba instead of the continental US was the wrong thing to do.

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