Thursday, May 28, 2009

On Guantanamo

National Journal asked for contributors to respond to the question "What Do To About Guantanamo?" There are currently 8 responses, all interesting in their own way, some more for what it says about the commenter than what it says about the conundrum of Guantanamo. Col. W. Patrick Lang (Ret.) of Sic Semper Tyrannis posted the following response:

Guantanamo has become a kind of national Rohrschach test for the American people.

It is a place seen within the mind's eye as a projection of what is inside us. I have been impressed since just after 9/11 with the depth of the illusion of personal security within which most Americans lived before the attacks. A friend called then from across the country to say that "now we all live in your world," referring I suppose to the life I had lead in the security services. The caller was a well traveled international businessman. The "blue funk" level was incredible for months. People acted as though each and every one of them stood on the ramparts on watch against the Saracen hordes. I remember repeatedly being stared at with hostility on the DC Metrorail system by men who could not take their eyes off the modest beard I then had. Supposedly grown up people would say things like "Say Muzlim, not Muslim!" Why? They imagined that to pronounce words correctly made one a kind of collaborator.

Now, we have the media encouraged phenomenon of the masses' inability to deal with the idea of prisoners charged, tried and imprisoned on our soil. This is fear of the boogy-man come back once again. This is behavior for children who need a night light. I heard a member of Congress from Kansas say on the floor of the US Senate that prisoners could not be sent to Leavenworth because the "purity" of the post and Army school at Ft. Leavenworth would be ruined by their presence. No matter that the federal prison that adjoins Fort Leavenworth is full of some of the worst people who ever lived.

And then there is the issue of the actual guilt or innocence of some of those now held without charge by the United States. When people here are asked if they think that all those held in our prison in Cuba are guilty, they generally fall silent, unable to respond. Of those who do, many of them clearly do not care if the imprisoned are guilty of anything. They might be... They are Muzlims... Keep them there and then my children will be safe...

Boumedienne, the Algerian former prisoner now living in France is a good person to remember. He, clearly, had done nothing wrong, but was imprisoned by us without charge for SEVEN YEARS. Neverheless, most Americans do not care...

It is going to take a long time for us to live this down. We should get on with it.

We should get on with it. This is what ties Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib to black sites and extraordinary rendition - the inability of the people in power and the faux-innocents in the public to come to terms with the fact that atrocities were performed by Americans under our flag as an explicit policy of our government.

We cannot pretend it didn't happen. We cannot continue to squall that we're just protecting ourselves from the current Big Bad of the zeitgeist. We cannot pretend that we're doing good by covering up the evidence of evil. We cannot pat ourselves on the back for being enlightened enough to elect a Black president while we obsess about the "Muzlim" other.

Guantanamo, and all the other festering pockets of national shame connected to it, will not go away on its own. It cannot be quietly swept away, which is what the current administration would probably prefer to happen precisely because it is a reflection of something that this nation is, not even some dark side or ignorant underbelly, something not-US. It is inherent in our language, which is to say in our way of life.

Wittgenstein's observation, "A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in language and language seemed to repeat it inexorably," gets to the heart of the language game that is "Guantanamo." Using that (or Abu Ghraib, or extraordinary rendition, or war crimes) as a starting point, and you will be drawn into the hall of mirrors populated by those who both react to the images and create the new reflective surfaces that contribute to the sense of inexorability. There is the argument about security, there is the advice about not being hasty, there is the concern over precedent, there is the outrage over violations, each participant playing his or her role in the language game.

I do not mean that this is "just words" or that people are merely "playing" at being scared or cautious or concerned or outraged. Part of the language game, what makes it tenacious and gives it strength, it that it is real, the warp of the social fabric. Am I not now this very instant engaging in this game? If it was not real for me, I would not do this.

The picture, and especially the pictures, has its rules of enagagement, a known and familiar mode of objection, rejoinder, riposte, counter argument, and so forth, a mode of life fervently defended by the various participants in the language game that is "Guantanamo." This is what confounds Pat Lang's common sense advice to "get on with it" - the nation is invested in this mode of life, the opponents of this picture as much as the advocates and defenders.

The only way to cease being captive to this picture is to invent, if you will, a new language game in which this artifact can both be made into us (something ineluctably American) yet shifted in such a way that we no longer look into the reflection of ourselves that brought us to this pass in the first place. Lang's observation, "They imagined that to pronounce words correctly made one a kind of collaborator," points at the socio-psychological construction of the game, how we understand that words make us complicit in this mode of life rather than that one.

Perhaps we will simply tire of the game and abandon it, like something with a few missing pieces offered for "$1 or best offer" at a garage sale. It would be the normal way a society disposes of an unpalatable picture. Again, it's not merely that "they" want to cover it up and "we" want to live in the truth and the light. It is that to "get on with it" may be a language game this nation is not capable of playing, from any position on the political spectrum.

The disappointment over Obama's performance on this picture (among others) stems in part from the expectation that he would be a game changer, crafting a new language game yet enabling us to recognize ourselves even as we are made different than we were. I posit that the deep well of left wing resentment against Bill Clinton stems from his failure to perform a similar transformation in how we imagine ourselves, while the resentment from the right shows how close he came to making the rules of the game change.

We remain captives of Guantanamo.



Anonymous said...

The answer to Guantanamo is simple - obey the law.

The problem is that obeying the law will result in an outcome that is unacceptable to too many people.

So the wound festers.

Koshem Bos said...

9/11 has ushered, mainly through Bush's dreams of war and 'you cannot mess with the US', doom and happiness of which Guantanamo is both a result and epitome.

A strong belief in force over law and victory over values is almost universal. It will overcome a balanced, careful and valued approach to danger and damage any day of the week.

The hysterical scare of the Muslim terrorists is manifested by the stupefying screams of politicians who claim that even burying "terrorists" in maximum security prisons is tantamount to letting them loose in the middle of Manhattan.

In an atmosphere dripping with scare and lack of even a smidgen of media offering a reality and values voice, Guantanamo is here to stay as our picture for years to come. It's our life embraced warmly and willingly with opposition of only a tiny insignificant minority that is not encouraged or supported by a president who is value-light.

MOBlue said...

The national policy of promoting fear continues even after Bush has departed. By inciting fear, the politicians and we the people can avoid taking responsibility for the crimes that our nation has committed.