Saturday, April 20, 2019

Book Review: 'A Place Outside the Law: Forgotten Voices from Guantanamo' by Peter Honigsberg

Guantanamo: American Roadkill Factory

Peter Honigsberg has spent a decade chasing down detainees, soldiers and lawyers from Guantanamo.  He got 52 detainees in a total of 158 people to tell their stories on film.  A Place Outside The Law is the print summary of those efforts. What he found is that America imprisoned the wrong people, tortured them for over decade, and still prevents them from living normal lives today. And that includes the Americans.

“I wasn’t just being suspended from the ceiling, I was naked, starved ,dehydrated, cold, hooded, verbally threatened, in pain from the beating, and water drowning as my head smashed by hitting against the wall for dozens and dozens of times. My ears were exploding from the blasting harsh music, which is still stuck in my head. Sleep deprived for weeks, I was shaking and trembling. My legs barely supported my weight as my hands were pulled even higher above my head after I complained that the handcuffs were so tight as if cutting thorough my wrists. Then my legs start to swell as a result of long suspension, started screaming. And then the doctor comes. The doctor comes with a tape measure, wrapped it around my leg, and to my utmost shock, the doctor tells the interrogators no, that wasn’t enough. My leg should get more swollen.” Meanwhile, the man hanging in front of him died, and the guards just left him there, while the smell built up.

This was the routine at Guantanamo for 740 souls who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The USA decided to co-opt the locals in Afghanistan and Pakistan in George Bush’s undeclared “War on Terror”. They offered huge bounties of $3000-$5000 in US cash for terrorists. Immediately, people rounded up strangers and passersby – anyone who would not be missed locally – and sold them to the US forces. Only 5% of the detainees at Guantanamo were captured by Americans. Only two seemed to be actual terrorists. Nonetheless, the Bush administration pounded the media with them as “the worst of the worst.”

The detainees included a reporter for Al Jazeera, some Uighur would-be paramilitaries who wanted to learn to fight the Chinese who were overrunning their homeland, a man who was simply pulled off a bus between cities in Pakistan, some charity workers, and several adolescent children. They were all tortured for “actionable information” which they did not have. For years. For some strange reason, they also refused to sign confessions that they were terrorists, or even “enemy combatants”, a nonsense term made up by the Bush administration when it could not justify holding them legally without prisoner rights.

American physical torture is complemented by psychological torture. There could be total darkness so the prisoner couldn’t see his own hand in front of his face, total light that eventually causes blindness, loud noise, sleep deprivation, isolation, moving prisoners to new cells every two or three hours – for weeks at a time - and on and on. When the names of the detainees were finally leaked years later, US forces “redacted” letters from their families, sometimes leaving just one word visible. Even the word “love” at the bottom was blacked out. The detainees were made to understand they were finished as human beings and would never leave Guantanamo alive. The psychological damage was so severe, one prisoner is now described as having the personality of a piece of furniture. Suicide attempts were routine.

Guantanamo created these victims, who are still globally regarded as terrorists even though they have never even been charged with any crime. It also created victims on the American side. Guards lost faith in the armed forces. One male nurse, an evangelical Christian, has become a total atheist after watching and participating in the truly ugly force-feeding of detainees. One constitutional rights lawyer moved out of the USA altogether, she was so shocked that her own country could do this to people, deliberately, continuously and with total impunity, despite all the laws of the land and the world. And fight her over it. Another soldier, who didn’t want to torture people, was threatened by his superiors if he didn’t. So he did, and then was court-martialed for torturing detainees when he got out. There is PTSD, homelessness, alcoholism and drug addiction spread all over Guantanamo forces, even though they didn’t see combat.

President Bush enabled all kinds of torture by declaring that men captured in Afghanistan were not covered by the Geneva Conventions, which both the USA and Afghanistan had signed. (It also transpires that the USA never signed on to many of the Geneva Conventions, and still operates outside world law.) The farce culminated in the administration declaring that American law did not hold in Guantanamo, which unlike all the other 800 American bases offshore, is outside US jurisdiction and US treaties.

The government and the military made it as difficult as possible for everyone involved. The charges listed against the detainees could even contain no charges at all, just a recital of all the usual suspects from al-Qaeda. Hand written “confessions” were given to total illiterates to sign with a thumbprint, not even in a language they spoke. They detainees were taken to special cages to wait as much as a day before their lawyers came to see them. They were then strip searched before and after the appointments. Soldiers played games like bringing the wrong detainee to the meeting. Then of course, there wasn’t time to fetch the right detainee, and the lawyer had to leave. The armed forces recorded all the meetings (though they promised they didn’t), and forbade lawyers from bringing up torture and mistreatment of their clients as classified information. They took the lawyers’ notes from them, sent the notes to Washington for analysis and duplication (and eventually returned them). They betrayed the Uighur prisoners to the Chinese, handing over all the personal contact information the prisoners offered, thinking they were with allies against the Chinese. The Americans also realized that no one could be allowed to be declared not guilty at trial after spending 8-10 years in a cage, so everything they did was meant to prevent justice from being done and embarrassing the USA.

Honigsberg created a nonprofit, called Witness to Guantanamo to record the words. The project consumed a decade. It took its toll on Honigsberg as well. He was so shaken by the early interviews he had to stop for six months. He went to see his doctor about an Achilles tendon, and she told him he was suffering from vicarious traumatization.

His writing is clear and unadorned. There are no scene setters, no flowery descriptions, no background buildups, no ground rules to set out. Every paragraph has an ugly blow to land. And it does, directly and distinctly condemning the whole Guantanamo disaster several times per page. It is a very fast read, and as impossible to put down as any book I have ever read. Readers are witness to the land of the free at its worst.

With the president and everyone down the line declaring the detainees the worst of the worst, guards were ordered not to communicate with them, lest they be corrupted by these infectiously evil vermin. But over time a few did anyway, and what they learned surprised them. These were ordinary and interesting people. They were multilingual, quick to learn English. They had families, problems and cultural icons just like Americans. They were attached to their religion even more fiercely than Americans were to theirs.  They were just caught up in an American fictional horror story. One guard, who learned to mistrust the military and everything it ever told him, said: “If I was ever going to have an intelligent conversation, it was going to be with a detainee.”

There are 300 hours of film the project is posting online, through Duke University. After reading A Place Outside The Law, I cannot even imagine watching them.

Editor's note: This book is to be released on November 12, 2019. Its review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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