Will We Ever Close Guantánamo Bay Detention Center?

I’ve drifted away from blogging the last few months, but hoping to put up some original pieces soon. In the meantime, here’s a piece that I published over at Salon last month. Guantanamo has been on my mind ceaselessly, especially as I teach my Global War on Terror course this term.

I’ve been writing away, and so more pieces on other topics to be post over the next few weeks…

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January 11th marked the 12th anniversary of Guantánamo Bay Detention Center, which, according to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, is the “least worst place to house” men suspected by the U.S. government links to al-Qaida and the Taliban.

But Rumsfeld’s statement reeks of incredulity. Beginning with the Bush administration, the U.S. has done more than merely house them. Through its military and medical personnel, it has inflicted physical brutality, extended torture, solitary confinement, force-feeding upon these men, all the while remaining publicly indifferent, even righteous, about the absence of charges, due process and legitimacy of the imprisonment.

Of the nearly 800 prisoners who have been confined there, 115 remain. Eleven were released in the last five months, twice as many as were released the previous three years.

Yet, as artist and writer Molly Crabapple pointed out in her recent Guardian column noting the prison’s anniversary, we also know — we have for some time — that over half of all the detainees who have been imprisoned there were handed over for U.S.-paid bounties, rather than because they were hostile or dangerous enemies of the U.S.

Crabapple is not asserting this as a fantasy of her own making. She cites an important but not widely known report written by Seton Hall law professor Mark Denbeaux, lawyer Joshua Denbeaux, and several Seton Hall law students. The Denbeaux are legal counsel to several of the detainees. In their report, the authors show extensive evidence that over half (55 percent) of the 517 prisoners that they profiled committed no hostile acts against the U.S. or its allies. Of those 517, only 41 (8 percent) are “characterized” as al-Qaida fighters. One hundred ninety prisoners had no connection to al-Qaida, and 86 had no links to al-Qaida or the Taliban. And of those 517, 445 were captured by Pakistan or the Northern Alliance were handed over to the United States at a time in which the United States offered large bounties for capture of suspected enemies.

Offering a large bounty doesn’t disprove the assertion that these men were a serious threat. But when a government creates these classifications without external accountability, and it is supported in this by a supine judiciary, the circumstances do present a serious — overwhelming, unmitigated — doubt about whether these prisoners are a danger to Americans. The Denbeaux have made evidence of this doubt available since 2006.

What should have amplified this doubt even further for all of the serious, fact-finding, mainstream media is that the Combatant Status Review Board – enacted under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Defense, and which has no incentive to be critical of the U.S. government — also made the same evidence of this doubt available as early as 2005.

As striking was a second report published by the Denbeaux group. This report pointed out that of the 72 groups recognized as terrorist organizations by the Department of Defense, 52 of them (72 percent) are not on any of the terrorist-watch lists maintained by the State Department. By this measure, the DoD keeps its own list of terrorist groups that are neither reviewed, confirmed nor double-checked by any other government office. As the Denbeaux report concludes,

This inconsistency leads to one of two equally alarming conclusions: either the State Department is allowing persons who are members of terrorist groups into the country or the Defense Department bases the continuing detention of the alleged enemy combatants on a false premise. (my emphasis)

Given that we have had few further terrorist acts committed within the confines of the United States by foreign nationals in the last decade, the second conclusion is more likely.

What is striking about this truth today is that it is possible to state it in print in established media such as the Guardian. Even as several more prisoners were released this past month, there appears to be a slight opening in the conversation, one enabling human rights advocates’ criticisms to echo for more than a few seconds.

This was not the case a decade ago, when early critics of the Bush administration’s policies tried to suggest that there was little proof that captives brought to Guantánamo were a danger to the U.S., and that the prison should not be treated as a “legal black hole.” Those critics’ voices included several U.N. high commissioners for human rights as well as Richard Goldstone, the former chief prosecutor of the International Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia, and American lawyers such as Michael Ratner, the head of the Center for Constitutional Rights and Michael Posner, the head of the Lawyers’ Committee. But their criticisms were drowned out by officials and polls indicating that Americans were overwhelmingly in favor of the prison and the inhumane treatment meted out to Afghan men.

Indeed, the original head of Guantánamo, Maj. Gen. Mark Lehnert, recently confirmed his own early doubts. Writing forcefully, Lehnert insists that Guantánamo never should have been opened, and many of the detainees should have never been sent there.

As cynics will suggest, that is how politics works, as even a casual perusal of American history reveals to us.  After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese descent were incarcerated across 10 prisons for little reason other than the fear shared by the U.S. government and non-Japanese populace alike. The fear, suspicion and contempt acted on by then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was that these civilians, if allowed to live in the populace freely, might turn their freedom toward aiding the “enemy,” the Japanese government.  This fear was pursued, despite the Roosevelt administration’s knowledge that these civilians, many with American citizenship, had few ties to the country of their parents’ origin.

These same residents had been scapegoated by the U.S. for decades. In 1913, in California, a law stripping Asian non-citizens of their businesses had been passed. That law was a mere continuation of decades of policies designed to manage the “Japanese problem,” as historian Greg Robinson’s book, “By Order of the President,” informs us. By May 1942, many Asians, residents and citizens alike, were being ordered to board trains and buses to whichever “internment camp” they had been assigned, with only what they could carry with their own two hands. At that point, nearly any Japanese American families who still owned businesses had to forfeit them as they were dispatched to stark campsites, thousands of miles away from their towns, any towns where they might be in danger of talking to other non-Asians. (See here for a remarkable pictorial spread published by the Atlantic several years ago that show some moments from that period.)  The internment had the extended benefit of politically and socially ostracizing the internees. Friends, if any remained or wished to claim that mantle, would have found it prohibitive to visit them.

I visited one of those former camps about six years ago—Manzanar Camp, which sits at the foot of the Sierras, just outside of Death Valley. A U.S. park ranger, with a degree in comparative literature from the University of California, Irvine, had painstakingly curated the camp, whose vast desolate grounds had been denuded of most traces of that shameful period (scroll down for photos of what Manzanar looked like in 1943). In the main auditorium — the only structure that was left standing — the ranger had retrieved or reconstructed several barracks in which these families lived. Each housed several families of four, five, seven, eight or more: grandparents, babies, young children, teenagers, newlyweds and others. According to accounts made by former inhabitants of other camps, such as Tule Lake in Northern California, the sheds would be marked by makeshift curtains to divide the rooms into smaller, closet-like sleeping areas, for some semblance of privacy in which occupants could retreat for a while. Other inhabitants remarked on the unceasing wind that threatened to drive them mad, along with the fine layer of sand that covered every possession, including tablecloths, beds, makeshift dressers or dry goods.

Outside the auditorium, the vast grounds were marked by signs indicating where the canteen had been erected, and the school for the children had been built. There were maps that indicated the order of other structures, including watchtowers to ensure that none of the civilian internees escaped. Also remaining were traces of some old Buddhist gardens, created by some of the internees in an effort to bring beauty and life in that desolate, dry place.

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Buddhist gardens in Manzanar (Photo credit: Falguni A. Sheth)

As well, there were several burial places, marked by stones. One was as small as 2 feet, marked by the usual ring of stones, and several toys, indicating that an infant was buried there.

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An infant’s grave in Manzanar (Photo credit: Falguni A. Sheth)

I remember that the map indicated a building marked as a fire station, which presumably held water to be deployed in the likely event that a blaze might decimate the brittle wood buildings that sat on the desiccated land.

Manzanar was one of 10 camps to which American citizens and residents of Japanese descent were incarcerated during the remainder of the war. There, as with the prisoners in Guantánamo, the internees attempted to challenge their resistance in a myriad of ways, procedurally and physically.

As well, there was another group, nearly forgotten, who were also victimized by the U.S. Several thousand Japanese Latin Americans were arrested by their own governments (mostly Peru) and shipped to U.S. camps, including one in Panama.  The U.S. had hoped to trade them to Japan in exchange for American prisoners of war (it was unsuccessful). Many of these men and women, like their U.S. counterparts, had little actual connection to Japan. They had their passports confiscated. They remained in these camps for the duration of the war. After the war, betrayed by their home countries, both groups were essentially homeless, due to no fault of their own. They had no desire to return to Japan or the countries that had betrayed them, and the U.S. had revealed itself to be a hostile land.

Even though I had previously studied the historical and political aspects of the internment of Japanese Americans, thanks to the effort of this ranger, that trip to Manzanar foregrounded for me the extreme consequences of the unthinking panic legislated at the executive and congressional level little over 60 years ago.

It reminded me of the collective panic that recurred just over 12 years ago, a panic cynically exploited by U.S. leaders and representatives. Though these functionaries might have been zealous to protect their country, they could not see past their immediate interests to the moral stanchions of judicial procedures and habeas corpus, or to the effects of their short-sightedness: the ubiquitous ether of injustice that still mars this country’s reputation.

It appears that this is how politics has worked again and again. But such politics can only work when leaders and functionaries can savor the successes of their deal-making with immunity; when their decisions are not expected to be compelled by moral dictates, when they are affirmed and rewarded for their egregious human rights violations by being reelected; when military commanders and politicians prioritize “the masculine logic of the security state,” as the late philosopher Iris Marion Young called it.

This country and its leaders have never figured out how to redress wrongdoing. The U.S., beginning with President Ronald Reagan, paid out $1.6 billion to the 82,000 descendants of the Japanese internees, along with an apology. But these “reparations” can not make up for the damage done to an entire people; and it has little effect if no lessons are learned from such recent mistakes.

As Carol Rosenberg points out, in the intervening decade, the suspicions against these prisoners have diminished, perhaps because the panic has abated and many more have had time to reflect on the hasty actions that have led to Guantánamo. Many prisoners have been released, finally. The next remedy is obvious, but it will take a moment of courage by the current administration to enact it.

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A version of this article was published on Salon.com on Jan. 16, 2014

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Victoria Brittain’s “Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror”

My blogging has slowed down considerably over the past few months for all kinds of reasons.  I hope to be back at it soon. In the meantime, here’s a book review that I wrote for Muftah.org, a great site that offers insightful articles and analysis on Middle East politics, culture, art, and other themes.

This article originally appeared in Muftah.org on August 26, 2013 and is reprinted with permission.

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In 2001, the British government accused “Mr. G” of being a terrorist. In withholding his full name, the government claimed even this basic scrap of humanity posed a security threat.  In 2004, the British government grudgingly conceded that imprisoning individuals indefinitely without charge (a lesson still not learned by the United States) was inappropriate.

As a result, Mr. G and a dozen others accused of “terrorism” were moved out of the infamous Belmarsh Prison – known as the British counterpart to the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay – and placed them under strict house arrest.

Under house arrest, known as “Control Order,” the British outfitted Mr. G with an electronic tag, which prevented him from freely leaving his home. Mr. G was also required to call the tagging company five times a day to confirm he was abiding by the terms of the arrangement. This required he make one phone call every four hours and forty-eight minutes, without exception. This meant Mr. G. was not able to sleep for more than several hours at a time.

Mr. G was permitted to leave his house for two hours a day to visit one of a handful of places in the small geographic area permitted by the Control Order, but he was required to call the company when he departed and returned home.

If he missed even one phone call or if the phone issued by the government malfunctioned (which frequently happened), Mr. G would be arrested and taken back to the Special Immigration Appeals Court (SIAC) for a hearing. SIAC, a Kafkaesque system instituted for the purposes of managing “foreign nationals that the Home Secretary wished to deport on national security grounds” (p.54), differs in key ways from the American military tribunals set up for Guantánamo detainees who have been granted trials. Under SIAC, special lawyers with high security clearances were able to see evidence but not meet their clients. In other ways, the SIAC resembles the US immigration system, in which immigrants can be deported without judicial review.

Of course, the tagging company could check on him at any hour of the day. The company often visited him late at night, which would inevitably involve waking up Mr. G, his wife and their young children.

Mr. G’s story is embedded in a larger phenomenon of discipline and harassment of many Muslim families, as told by Victoria Brittain, an acclaimed journalist, author, playwright and former associate foreign editor at the Guardian, in her harrowing chronicle of lawlessness by the British and US governments, Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror (London: Pluto Books 2013).

Shadow-Lives-CoverThough Brittain’s book focuses primarily on the often invisible and ignored women affected by the West’s so-called counterterrorism policies and military adventurism, it is impossible to tell their stories in isolation from the men who have also been affected; it is their plight – targeted, spied on, abducted, arrested, tortured, held captive and denied fundamental human rights in Guantánamo, Belmarsh and under house arrest. These bureaucracies, dominated by contempt and an astonishingly ungrounded belief that Muslims are inherent threats to national security, exacerbate already the trying circumstances under which these women must decide how to sustain themselves and their families.

The women featured in Brittain’s book must shoulder the burden of keeping their families intact and, all too often, face the maddening task of ensuring those they love and care for do not lose their mental bearings, as many of their husbands and sons already have.

In fewer than 200 pages, Shadow Lives reveals the compelling and tragic stories of multiple women and their families, who endure extraordinary alienation and punitive circumstances on a daily basis.

There is Hamda, whose elderly, wheelchair-bound and diabetic husband, Mr. OO, was a teacher and imam tortured by Jordanian authorities before obtaining refugee status in Britain, only to be subsequently imprisoned in Belmarsh.

There are the children of Abu Qatada, who look forward to daily calls from their imprisoned father, so they can tell him about their school day.

Farida, the mother of Talha Ahsan, describes her detained son’s reflective nature and voracious appetite for literature.  Ahsan was imprisoned in Belmarsh before being extradited to the United States and placed for several years in solitary confinement in a Supermax prison—despite suffering from autism.

Noor Elashi is the youngest daughter of Ghassan Elashi, a Palestinian businessman, philanthropist and former director of the Texas chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). In 2009, her father was convicted of materially supporting terrorism simply for running a charity, the Holy Land Foundation, which sent aid to the besieged people of Gaza.

Now a writer and advocate, Elashi remembers how her father Ghassan would take her to human rights demonstrations as a child, and recalls spending her teen years in courtrooms where her father was on trial.

Laila Al Arian, a journalist, whose own father was also convicted under the material support statute, cries when she thinks of another woman, Mariam, suffering from the absence of her brother Ahmed, who is confined in a Supermax prison in the United States.

For many men subject to the UK’s Control Orders system, house arrest has meant stark conditions and restrictions for their families as well.  Toys and computers are typically confiscated. There is “no Internet for homework, no mobile phones for calling friends,” explains Brittain. While these prohibitions may seem trivial by comparison, they are harsh measures for children.

Police are allowed to enter the house at any time, exposing children and their school friends to the intrusion, violation, and humiliation, stories of which often quickly spread through a community.

Under the Control Order system, Muslim men are prohibited from setting foot outside their own house, even to go into the garden, without permission. Visitors must be pre-cleared by the British Home Secretary.  The extreme psychological effects of this kind of legal, institutional, and systemic harassment are painfully present.

Women and children must learn to live with the knowledge that a family member extradited to the United States will remain confined for years. They witness strip searches, which violate the tents of their faith.

Many of the spouses of these unjustly detained men must ensure their accused family members abide by the conditions of the Control Order, leading to stressful, – if not outright absurd – scenarios.

At one point in the book, Josephine, Mr. G’s wife, tells of the tragicomedy of errors surrounding the delivery and installation of a new washing machine.

Because visitors must be pre-approved, the new appliance had to be dropped off on the street outside the family’s house. Josephine was left to push the washing machine inside, since her disabled husband was unable to help.  Josephine recounts,

Then I was ringing the solicitor, and she needed the name of the plumber who was coming after the delivery men, to get permission from the Home Office for him to enter, but the plumbing company could not say the name of which man would come.  It was stalemate. In the evening my solicitor hired a different plumber and told the Home Office his name, and he came, and the man from the Home Office came at the same time. Then after all that, the man from the Home Office just sat there on the sofa and never even went downstairs to see the plumber fixing the machine. So, we’d paid two plumbers. For what?

Brittain reports that Josephine laughed as she recounted this anecdote. Behind the smile, though, is the stamina and determination emblematic of all the women profiled by Brittain.

Their efforts are doubly striking, as many of them are migrants accustomed to intimate extended family networks in their countries of origin, but are completely isolated in their country of residence. Some have limited English-language skills and must learn how to navigate the bureaucracy that oversees their spouses’ incarceration.

These are but some of the details that emerge from the stories Brittain weaves. Together, they illuminate both the internal dynamics of strength and sorrow that grip affected families, as well as the suspicion, bigotry and hostility that serve as their constant ether that they must breathe in order to get from one day to the next.

Brittain’s book is as riveting as it is disturbing. Many writers covering the impact and implications of the Global War on Terror are often uninterested or incapable of integrating a structural analysis into attempts to humanize the myriad families whose lives have been deeply affected by post-9/11 fear, paranoia and hysteria.

The elements that form the building blocks of the Global War on Terror are drawn in extensive detail in Brittain’s introduction. They frame the personal stories told in her book.

Brittain discusses the genealogy of the U.S. war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, highlighting the transformation of an “anti-Soviet jihad” to an “anti-Saudi jihad,” and, ultimately, an “anti-American jihad.”

She augments this vital history with the story of post-colonial Algerian politics, Chechen struggles, Islamist conflicts in London, U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa, and the politics of Egypt and Pakistan and their evolution into a global struggle against the United States led by the Muslim Brotherhood—and eventually, Al Qaeda.

Continuing through the attacks of September 11, 2001, Brittain’s geneaology also explores more familiar post-9/11 politics of fear-mongering stoked by George W. Bush and Tony Blair.

She points to the key pieces of legislation, such as the USA PATRIOT Act, which created a legal apparatus that further removed national security from the protection of individual rights and liberties. The law would facilitate extraordinary rendition, torture, and the eventual documentation from Wikileaks that revealed “how slight the ‘evidence’ was against many of the men in Guantánamo, the vast majority of whom were held but never charged with a crime.” (p.15)

We learn of the passage of punitive material support laws and policies of profiling and surveillance.

In so doing, Brittain, incorporates stories of other men who have been targeted by the United States in the War on Terror. She introduces her readers to University of South Florida professor Sami Al Arian and an oncologist named Rafil Dhafir, both convicted of “material support for terrorism”: Al Arian for championing Palestinian rights; Dhafir for sending food and medicine to Iraqis in violation of U.S. sanctions.

She also includes the bizarre case of Aafia Siddiqui, a U.S.-educated neuroscientist who, along with her three children, disappeared in Pakistan for years. Siddiqui mysteriously reappeared in U.S. military custody in 2010 and was charged for firing at a U.S. soldier (and not for any terror-related charges). She was named as a co-conspirator by her husband’s uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, while he was subjected to torture. Despite the lack of corroborating evidence for the shooting, Siddiqui was convicted and sentenced to 86 years in federal prison.

The Global War on Terror is demystified and de-exoticized by Brittain’s deft narrative.  She presents the war as the latest incarnation of a decades-old global conflict, which has reinvented enemies as allies and cast entire Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian populations as criminals and combatants.

In her past reporting, Brittain has been closely involved with victims of the Global War on Terror. She has written numerous pieces defending men who have been targeted without a shred of evidence and detained indefinitely without charge.

In a recent article, she recounted the story of Omar Othman, aka Abu Qatada, an imam who lost an eight-year fight against deportation from the UK, based exclusively on classified evidence, and accompanied by much vitriol from politicians such as David Cameron.

Brittain has also co-authored a book with Moazzem Begg, one of the better known former Guantánamo detainees, who has since formed the advocacy group, Cage Prisoners, which publicizes the stories and champions the rights of those imprisoned at Guantánamo and elsewhere under the guise of the Global War on Terror.

There are many unforgettable stories in this deceptively short volume, too many to recount here in detail. They are rendered in exquisite and sympathetic detail, and illustrate the miraculous achievement of  keeping families together in the face of persecution.

Brittain writes of the structured home lives created for the children, and the easy intimacy between all family members. It is clear that Brittain considers these people friends and feels honored to be allowed into their world.

Shadow Lives is a book to be read by all who are keen to examine the unmentioned details of the Global War on Terror – even those who believe they are already familiar with the undue tribulations faced by the accused and their families.

It is a book to be examined by those who remain unconvinced that American and European counterterrorism policies result in inhumane or deep hardship for Muslims.

It is accessible enough to be read by teenagers and college faculty alike. It is politically and culturally informative enough for Western feminists and other political activists to learn something substantial from it.

There are deep ethical and philosophical issues embedded in every chapter of this book yet, to Brittain’s credit, these topics emerge organically through the details of each personal story of struggle and courage.  Her beautiful prose is the ultimate counterweight to the horrors she reveals.

In painting (‘writing’ is not an adequate term) these portraits, Brittain has soberly drawn us into the lives and livelihoods of sturdy, resilient, and resourceful women, each of whom is heroic in her own quiet, subdued way.

Shadow Lives is the ultimate account of a society that has traded the rule of law for violence and fear; a poignant reminder that the humanity we have been forced to sacrifice on the altar of security remains intact in the hearts of our innumerable victims.

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A Q & A with Glenn Greenwald

Apologies for having been offline for a bit. I was finishing some scholarly pieces and traveling far away from the lure of internet. In any case, I’m back and have just done an Q & A with Glenn Greenwald about the domestic and global impact of his reporting over the last few months. I would have liked to explore many other things, but we had time and technology constraints. It was published on Salon today. I’m reproducing it here, along with the link to Salon.

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Q&A with Glenn Greenwald: Americans’ reaction “surprising and gratifying”

Glenn Greenwald discusses how Americans see Snowden, and details the non-U.S. world’s anger at NSA privacy invasion

In the wake of his explosive reporting about the U.S. government’s surveillance regime over the last six weeks, I spent some time talking with Guardian reporter (and Salon alumnus) Glenn Greenwald Friday about the impact and scope of these revelations — as well as some other aspects of the fallout in the U.S. and internationally. The following is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

There was a Quinnipiac poll that came out two days ago reporting that over half of Americans regarded Edward Snowden as a whistleblower rather than a traitor, despite the fact that we’ve heard tons of calls for him to be arrested and tried for leaking state secrets. What do you think? How do you reconcile these? Do you think something substantial has changed in terms of Americans’ opinions about the state’s tracking?

I do. What was most amazing to me about that poll was the idea that he’s more of a traitor rather than a whistleblower has become pretty much the consensus of the United States government, both political parties, the leadership of these parties and the D.C. press corps. So the message that has just been continuously churned out from those large institutions is that what he did was bad and wrong, that he shouldn’t be treated as a whistleblower and that he’s really a criminal. So to watch a large majority of Americans reject that consensus and reach their own conclusion, which is that what he has revealed is a good amount of wrongdoing, which is the definition of a whistleblower, is both surprising and gratifying. I think it’s really a testament to how powerful these revelations are that they have disturbed Americans so much that they have just disregarded the message they’ve been bombarded with for six straight weeks now.

It feels like the message coming from Congress is pretty much the same: This is a legal program; there was nothing unethical about it; we need to do this to fight the terrorists. What do you think? Is there a space to challenge Congress on this?



Well, Washington has proven, over and over, that they’re not bothered by the fact that what they’re doing and thinking is completely at odds with mass sentiments of the public that they pretend to represent. So the mere gap between public opinion and what they’re doing isn’t, in and of itself, enough to change their behavior. But what they do start to respond to is serious pressure on the part of the American public over some of the things that they’re doing, and you do see some movement in Congress already to start to institute reforms, to put checks on these surveillance abuses. But I think that ultimately the real issue is the top levels of the Obama administration repeatedly went to Congress and lied to the faces of Congress, which is a felony, over what these NSA programs were and weren’t. And ultimately, I think the first step is going to have to be, are we willing to tolerate having top-level Obama officials blatantly lie to our representatives in Congress and prevent them from exercising oversight about these spying programs? And that, I think, has to be the first scandal to show that there are actually consequences for this behavior.

That would require them to call someone like [Director of National Intelligence] James Clapper to task in the same way – “You blatantly lied, we’ve got you on record, what do you have to say about it?” And that hasn’t seemed to have happened yet.

I think there’s clearly some influential members of Congress, not just the handful of dissidents, but people who genuinely wield some influence, both within the Congress and the Democratic Party, who are quite angry over what happened with Clapper. His credibility is clearly damaged. He hasn’t made very many public opinions throughout this period. He’s definitely on the defensive. I think the same is true for [NSA Director] Keith Alexander. Washington scandals tend to erode people’s credibility slowly rather than instantly, but I do think that Clapper’s credibility is irrevocably damaged, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some serious repercussions in terms of him leaving at some point in the near future.

Let’s turn to the other part of this. Yesterday, you reported some more details from these documents that Snowden has been sharing, including the fact that “Microsoft has helped NSA to circumvent its encryption to address concerns that the agency would be able to intercept web chats.” I’m quoting directly from the story. So it’s not just that NSA is intercepting emails and data, but there’s actually more and more proof that these companies have been working hand-in-hand with the NSA.

Right. The relationship between the private telecoms and Internet companies and the NSA is one of the crucial components of this entire story. The NSA really can’t do that much spying domestically or internationally without the ongoing cooperation of these private corporations. So with the revelations that we’ve published in the past week and a half – with Laura Poitras reporting in Der Spiegel about mass spying in Germany, in Europe, and the reporting that I did with O Globo in Brazil about a similar collection of communications in Brazil and Latin America, more broadly – the linchpin of all of this is that there’s some large telecommunication company, an American company, exploiting their partnership with foreign telecommunications companies to use their access to those countries’ systems to direct traffic back to NSA repositories. Domestically, the same thing is happening. All these companies like to say they only cooperate with the bare minimum way under the law with the NSA, but what the documents we published yesterday and reported on demonstrate is that Microsoft has continuous and ongoing meetings with the NSA about how to build and construct new methods for enabling unfettered access to the calls and emails and Internet communications that the NSA specifies that they want, and the technicians at Microsoft work hand-in-hand with the technicians at NSA to enable that, and that is really at odds with the public statements Microsoft and Skype and Outlook have made to their users about what they’re doing to protect their privacy.

Are these actions technically legal? What’s the implication that we should be walking away with? That there was “just” hand-in-hand cooperation, or that there was something illegal that’s being done?

Well, first of all, hovering over everything is always the Fourth Amendment, regardless of what Congress says is legal. The Fourth Amendment constrains what Congress and the government are permitted to do. One of the arguments from privacy activists and the ACLU and other groups has always been that the new FISA law, which was passed in 2008 with the support of all parties in Congress including President Obama, which was designed essentially to legalize the illegal Bush-Cheney warrantless eavesdropping program, is unconstitutional. And there have been all sorts of lawsuits brought to argue that this law that Congress passed is unconstitutional, and yet no court has been able to rule on the merits of it, because the Obama administration has gone into court repeatedly and said two things: Number 1: All this is too secret to allow courts to rule on, and Number 2: Because we keep everything so secret, nobody can prove that they’ve been subjected to this spying, and therefore nobody has standing to contest the constitutionality of it. So there’s this huge argument out there, which is that all of this is illegal because it’s a violation of the Constitution, that the Obama DOJ has succeeded in preventing a judicial answer to.

Secondly, under the law, the U.S. government is free to intercept the communications of anybody they believe with 51 percent probability is not a U.S. citizen and is not on U.S. soil. So they’re free to go to any of these Internet companies or just simply take off the cables and fiber-optic wires that they have access to, whatever communications they want of anybody outside the United States who’s not a U.S. person, and oftentimes those people are speaking to American citizens. The NSA is free to invade those communications without having to go into a FISA court and get a specific warrant, which is why when President Obama said nobody’s listening to your calls without a warrant, he was simply not telling the truth. That was completely false and deceitful, what he said, because even under the law, the NSA is allowed to intercept communications with American citizens without getting a warrant. The only time they need a warrant is when they’re specifically targeting a U.S. person, an American citizen or somebody on U.S. soil. So it’s a scandal in that – not just that they’re violating the Constitution, but also what the law allows, because of the level of abuse that it entails.

As you’ve pointed out in the last few weeks as well, this is about American citizens, but it’s also about non-American citizens, right? It’s about world citizens. A number of people have written stories about how it really tends to affect those who are much more vulnerable under American foreign policy and domestic policy – Muslims of various backgrounds. But it also affects Brazilians, the French, the Germans, and so it’s an international scandal. What has been happening in Brazil with regards to these revelations?

Right, so let me just say one quick thing about domestic versus international. Even domestically, there are indications that the law has been violated. I mean, the bulk collection of telephone records of all Americans, for example, has been done under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which even the Republican author of that [Jim Sensenbrenner] has said they never imagined it would enable bulk collection of records. It was only supposed to lower the threshold to be able to get specific records of people who were targeted with investigations.

But internationally, the response is so much different than it is in the U.S., you know in the U.S. there’s this obsession with what are Edward Snowden’s personality flaws: Why is he choosing the countries that he seems to be wanting to seek asylum from? Should the journalists involved in reporting these stories be arrested?

Everywhere else in the world, the focus is on the actual substance of the revelations, which is why should we allow the U.S. and its allied governments to construct a ubiquitous spying system that basically destroys privacy globally for everyone on the planet who uses electronic means to communicate. And in Brazil, ever since we published these stories last weekend about mass spying on Brazilians by the millions, in terms of emails and phone calls, it has completely dominated the news cycle of the political class. Not just in Brazil, but in Latin America generally there are formal criminal investigations underway to determine the culpability of Brazilian telecoms, to find out the identity of the U.S. telecom who enabled all this mass access into the telecommunication systems of Latin America. There’s real indignation and a genuine debate over privacy that is taking place throughout the world, much, much more serious and more substantive and profound than the one that has been led by American journalists inside the U.S.

I noticed the president and other high-level political officials in Brazil said that there were chills running down their spines when they were reading that Brazilians were being spied on [note: Actually, it was stated by Argentine President Cristina Kirchner]. Presumably the French government and the German government were also startled about it, but they don’t seem to have had as strong a reaction. Do you think that there’s a definite difference in degree or quality of response from the Brazilian government versus some of the Europeans, or that it’s pretty much on the same level?

I think that a lot of the indignation expressed by European governments is completely artificial and manipulative, designed to show their populations that they’re angry about this, when in reality they’re not. In part because they participate in many of these U.S. spying programs, and in part because European governments are incredibly and completely subservient to the dictates of the U.S. So, we saw that very vividly, when the French and the other EU states spent a week, you know, parading around, showing how angry they were at what the U.S. had done, but then immediately obeyed American orders to deny airspace rights to a plane that they thought was carrying the person who had allowed them to learn about this—Edward Snowden. And they did it by taking the very extreme step of denying airspace rights to a plane carrying the president of a sovereign state, Bolivia, and sparking anger in the continent, over what felt to them — Latin Americans — like the standard type of racism, colonialism and imperialism that they have been subjected to by the U.S. and its Western allies for… for centuries. And so, I think that the true colors of the E.U. states with regard to all of these issues was revealed very clearly in that incident, although the populations of the E.U. are genuinely angry. The contrast of Latin American governments is very stark. They are genuinely angry, because they weren’t aware of any of this; they weren’t participating in it, and often they were the targets of it. And so I think the repercussions of these stories is going to be very long term, and still has yet to be really appreciated, just in terms of the wedge that it has placed between the U.S. and these governments, and the change in how populations around the world think of the U.S. government.

This has been an occasion to call a number of Latin American states together to decide what to do, how to respond to the U.S. It seems to be a catalyst for further declaring their independence from American imperial dictates. Even Bill Richardson has said something to that effect, that this is really kind of going to be this pivotal moment there. That raises the issue of asylum for Snowden, which we know a number of European countries have rejected. Venezuela’s indicated that they’re quite open to it, I guess Bolivia as well. How is this going to play out? Snowden’s stuck in the airport. He is a stateless person, as he’s pointed out. I think by most legal contexts, he’s right. I don’t think he’s exaggerating in any sense. So, what happens here in terms of his seeking of asylum? And to these Latin American states’ responses to the NSA issue?

Well, there’s a really great article by the ACLU today by Jamil Dakwar, who’s the director of the ACLU Human Rights program, and another senior staff attorney [Chandra Bhatnagar] with the Human Rights Program, describing that the behavior in the Snowden case is basically threatening the right for people around the world to seek and obtain asylum, a right that is centuries old and is guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other conventions to which the U.S. is a signatory, because essentially what they’ve done is not just bully other states that have offered asylum to him or are considering doing so, but have demonstrated that they’re willing physically to block him from going to countries to seek asylum or obtain asylum, or even to use lawless or rogue behavior, like we just discussed with the effective downing of Evo Morales’ plane. And so the precedent that’s being set is that if you are a sufficiently powerful country, you can prevent weaker countries through bullying tactics from granting people asylum who are the subject of persecution.

I encourage everybody to go and look for that ACLU piece on it, and I hope you’ll link to it because it really, you know, demonstrates just how extreme the U.S. behavior in this case is. As far as whether or not he’s being persecuted, there are all kinds of liberal journals who generally support the Democratic Party and the Obama administration — from Mother Jones and The Nation, and lots of others — that have detailed that the Obama administration’s treatment of whistleblowers, people who leak classified information, is unprecedentedly vindictive and hostile and aggressive. Of course, the Obama administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers under espionage statutes than all prior presidents combined, including George W. Bush and Richard Nixon, and so the fact that Snowden is being persecuted is hardly in dispute. And Daniel Ellsberg made this point himself in an op-ed he wrote in the Washington Post a week ago or so, in which he said, “the fact that Snowden fled the U.S. makes all the sense in the world. He should have because the U.S. has changed radically in the four decades since I was on trial. I was allowed to be on bail and participate in public debates about my case. Snowden would be put into a cage, unquestionably, and never released and be silenced. And the justice system would treat him unfairly, which was never the case for Daniel Ellsberg, even in the Nixon years,” said Daniel Ellsberg. I think clearly there’s a case for persecution. He has a right to seek it, but the U.S. is blocking him from seeking that right.

Yesterday, there was an interview on “Democracy, Now,” with Peter Ludlow, who’s been reporting on the Barrett Brown case…Barrett Brown has now faced over 300 days in jail. He’s been pursued pretty vigorously by the U.S. government, especially in the face of an interview [with NBC’s Michael Isikoff] where he thought he was fairly protected because he had a bunch of high-level lawyers. They’ve also gone after his mother and you know it looks like — this is in a way, along with Assange, an important precedent for the fears that Edward Snowden has. It turns out that one of the things that he discovered, or at least that Anonymous discovered, was that this company, HBGary, was trying to plant information that would undermine yours and Wikileaks’ credibility at the same time, so it looks like the U.S. government is definitely aware of the kind of damage that whistleblowers can cause. Do you have any thoughts about the Barrett Brown case in connection to Snowden as well?

Sure, I’ve written about the Barrett Brown case. I think the broader point is that if you in some way are any kind of dissident to the United States government and the private corporations that essentially have merged with it in the intelligence and national security worlds, then you’re going to suffer serious repercussions in terms of legal prosecutions or other kinds of recriminations that are formal in nature, and it’s happened to every single person who has done that. I remember when those emails were first divulged about how they were going to try and put me in a position where I had to choose between cause and career, meaning if I continued to support Wikileaks they would try and destroy my career. At first I sort of swept it off as people who had been watching spy films until I realized that the corporations and companies involved in that planning were some of the most well-connected ones in the tech and D.C. worlds, you know, Palantir and others, and I took it more seriously, and what it really indicated to me was that this is how people in that world think — that if you oppose them in any meaningful way, even through constitutionally protected activities like whistleblowing or journalism — that you should be and will be punished, and the point of this is to create a climate of fear where people are intimidated out of opposing the U.S. government or working against its interests or opposing its policies, not through the ballot box, which they don’t care about, but through more aggressive action, and that I think is the lesson of Edward Snowden and Barrett Brown and Bradley Manning and Aaron Schwartz and a whole variety of other cases that we’ve seen similar to it, and the persecution of whistleblowers as well, that are all designed to bolster this point.

As you know, we’ve just entered the month of Ramadan, which is a very important month of fasting for Muslims. On top of just the general kind of human rights concerns about detaining political prisoners in Guantanamo, there are also, as we know, at least 45 Guantanamo prisoners who are being force-fed. Any thoughts about this?

You know the thing that has struck me the most about this whole last six weeks of political discourse, obviously I’ve been most focused — to the exclusion of almost everything else — on the NSA stories, is the idea that somehow Snowden is illegitimate for seeking asylum in countries like Venezuela or Nicaragua or Ecuador or traveling through Russia and China in order to get there, at the very same time the United States continues to maintain this incredibly oppressive lawless prison system at Guantanamo where people are dying from having been in prison for over a decade, with no charges of any kind, to the point where they’re actually committing suicide virtually through a hunger strike in protest of the helplessless of their situation.

During the same six weeks we’ve killed dozens of people again with drone strikes, have propped up the most oppressive dictators in the world. And the refusal to focus on how oppressive we are to Muslims around the world, specifically, and human beings generally, is just incredibly striking as we sit there and rail against and mock other countries for their supposed human rights abuses. At the same time we are supportive of — or at best apathetic to — the much more severe ones of our own government, and I think Ramadan is a perfect time to reflect on that, given how the vast bulk of that oppression and violence and aggression over the last decade has been born by Muslims around the world.

There’s been speculation that you’re really covering the story for personal glory, that you’ve never cared about Muslims before, that you’ve barely written about Muslims before and that this is really kind of about catapulting yourself and Snowden into the spotlight. Thoughts about this?

Anybody who says that is either extremely stupid or extremely dishonest — probably both. I have spent the last eight years writing about one topic more than any other, and that has been the persecution of Muslims domestically in terms of civil rights violations, civil liberty violations and the targeting of them internationally with all kinds of oppression and torture and state violence, and so anybody who claims that I’ve just suddenly discovered these issues or I only cared when Obama got into office, has to be one of the stupidest people in the world to say something like that. I wrote three books on George Bush’s civil liberties abuses, I have given all kinds of speeches to Muslim organizations around the world about the profiling and persecution that American Muslims and Muslims around the world face from exactly these same kinds of policies, including surveillance. So it’s almost just too stupid to even dignify by addressing.

Edward Snowden: The Great Criminal

As Edward Snowden’s name is bandied about, with a debate emerging over whether he is a hero or a criminal, whistleblower or traitor, the words of philosopher Walter Benjamin come to mind.  In his 1921 essay, The Critique of Violence, Benjamin discusses the law’s goal to pursue the monopoly on violence:

The law’s interest in a monopoly of violence vis-a-vis individuals is not explained by the intention of preserving legal ends but, rather, by that of preserving the law itself; that violence, when not in the hands of the law, threatens it not by the ends that it may pursue but by its mere existence outside the law.

Here Benjamin restates one of the fundamental goals of classical liberal political philosophy, at least for philosophers such as Hobbes and Locke, namely to eliminate the use of violence from everyone except the state and its duly appointed deputies. This is why in Locke, the state ‘agrees’ to protect the rights of individuals in exchange for individuals giving up their right of retribution and punishment. The right of violence becomes the sole provenance of the state, whether through the death penalty, prisons, or defense of the state itself.

However, as we also know, the state monopolizes and regulates the use of violence in the interests of those who have the most influence over the state: these wealthy men who decide the personification of the state. In the 1600’s English North America, this would have been white Englishmen. In the 1910’s, Benjamin was interested in the role of workers in challenging the monopoly of state violence.

Understood in this way, the right to strike constitutes in the view of labor, which is opposed to that of the state, the right to use force in attaining certain ends. The antithesis between the two conceptions emerges in all its bitterness in face of a revolutionary general strike. In this, labor will always appeal to its right to strike, and the state will call this appeal an abuse, since the right to strike was not “so intended,” and take emergency measures.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, unions aroused a widespread secret admiration from a public that was weary of the state’s imposition.  Today, as Occupy and other movements point out, the most influential are still the 1%–though the colors, sexes, and sexualities of this privileged demographic have been somewhat expanded.

For example, Locke’s story of slavery is more accurately read as the story of colonialism –and eventually—imperialism. Strangers attack Englishmen. Englishmen fight back and win. They have the right to kill the strangers, but grant them their lives in exchange for their agreeing (at least implicitly) to be slaves. It is, an apologia for the conquest of American Indians. But in the modern moment, it is a story that is replicated by Samuel Huntington in the “Clash of Civilizations.”

Back to Benjamin, who is thought to have committed suicide in Southern France as he was trying to flee from the Nazis.  Here is another excerpt from the “Critique of Violence”:

The same may be more drastically suggested if one reflects how often the figure of the “great” criminal, however repellent his ends may have been, has aroused the secret admiration of the public. This cannot result from his deed, but only from the violence to which it bears witness.

How might this apply to Edward Snowden? Snowden’s ‘crime,’ if you will, was that he disrupted the state’s ability to protect its monopoly of violence by exposing its widespread surveillance activities.  He did this despite the widely claimed fears of interested parties that doing so would “undermine national security,’ and in the face of the state’s insistence that these activities are justified and justifiably secret. In this sense, the fact that he challenged the prerogatives of the state itself, makes his alleged ‘crime’ so much more transgressive than, for example, merely lying to Congress about weapons of mass destruction, starting a war with a random nation in which tens of thousands die, or torturing rendered persons. None of these latter crimes are a threat to the state itself, and for that reason may be readily forgiven and forgotten.  Manning and Snowden are, however, ‘great criminals’ in that their actions embarrassed and undermined state power.  They can never be forgiven or forgotten.

So, for a significant portion of the public, there seems to be an–open or perhaps grudging…admiration of Snowden because he has dared to challenge the state’s monopoly on violence. He challenges the state even as he acknowledges that the state will use every resource at its disposal to exact its revenge. We know from the tragic example of Aaron Schwartz that challenging the Department of Justice will require endless resources, from millions of dollars of legal know-how and the filing of endless FOIA requests. We know from the example of John Kiriakou that even going through formal channels of whistleblowing—including being

 

“the first CIA officer to call waterboarding “torture”; to reveal that the CIA’s torture program was policy rather than a few rogue agents; and to say it was wrong”

 

will not stop the state, even a state led by a “transformative presidency,” from making sure that no one disturbs its monopoly on violence.

In this case, therefore, the violence of which present-day law is seeking in all areas of activity to deprive the individual appears really threatening, and arouses even in defeat the sympathy of the mass against law. By what function violence can with reason seem so threatening to law, and be so feared by it, must be especially evident where its application, even in the present legal system, is still permissible.

What makes Snowden so interesting is that it appears that he is an old-fashioned “believer” in the American project—someone who wanted to fight the good fight, to uphold American principles and ideals, as the US government has long professed is also its mission. He contracted to work for defense contractors who in turn worked with the NSA, and for that reason did not begin his (short-lived) post-military career with misgivings about the American imperial project. As he got to see the how its affairs were being misconducted, he continued to believe in “doing the right thing.”  What also makes Snowden remarkable is his awareness that

[T]he “US Persons” protection in general is a distraction from the power and danger of this system. Suspicionless surveillance does not become okay simply because it’s only victimizing 95% of the world instead of 100%. Our founders did not write that “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all US Persons are created equal.

Whether or not one agrees with his actions, whether or not his politics and ideology mesh with the ideas of the right or the left–it will always be a remarkable sight to a see a lone person stand up to the Leviathan, composed as it is of its myriad eyes, all watching, waiting, to clamp down on any threat, no matter how trivial to it relentless monopolistic pursuit of violence—and power.

_______________________________________

This piece was republished in Salon on June 19, 2013 as “Edward Snowden’s real crime: Humiliating the state.”

GiTMO Prisoners, Their Hunger Strikes, and Our Humanity

The Guantanamo Hunger Strike Should Remind Us of Prisoners’ Humanity

—and Reawaken Ours.

Recently, Olga Khazan, The Atlantic’s global editor, wrote a piece doubting the effectiveness of the hunger strike being led by Guantanamo detainees since February 7. The strike, begun in protest against the prisoners’ Korans being rifled, has taken on a much larger significance: It is a protest against the continual incarceration and brutalization of the prisoners, some of whom have been there, without being charged, since the opening of prison 11 years ago. The actual number of strikers varies, depending upon who is reporting. According to a military spokesman, there are 39 strikers, with 11 being force-fed nutritional supplements through their noses. The lawyer for Shaker Amer, one of the detainees participating in the hunger strike since it began, reports that there are 130 strikers.

Khazan’s main argument is that hunger strikes are most effective when conducted by a sympathetic group. It is, in several ways, a bizarre conclusion to draw. What does it mean to say that the GTMO detainees are an unsympathetic group? Unsympathetic to whom? To that crowd for whom unilateral Executive declarations of guilt—without public charges, evidence, or trial–are to be received uncritically, much like religious faith? Or perhaps to reporters like Robert Johnson who, as Glenn Greenwald reports, clearly believes Guantanamo is a vacation paradise with first class food. Clearly, that’s not the group to whom the detainees are appealing. After all, if that were true, they wouldn’t be atrophying in frigid cells, suffering kidney and urinary tract infections from nonpotable water, worrying about whether the next beating they received from a 300 lb guard was going to paralyze them for life, or whether they would ever be released.

On the other hand, a group of people who has been detained for 11 years without being charged–with anything–is a remarkably sympathetic group for those of us who are committed to the rule of law, who object to violations of procedure, and the imperious expansion of state authority. Judging from the length of this strike, as Amy Davidson states, something has gone very wrong at Guantanamo. But something went wrong 11 years ago, and has yet to be rectified—namely that ANY populace ANYWHERE would tolerate men being imprisoned without trials, evidence, charges for any sustained period time.

Khazan is correct that the GTMO detainees will receive no sympathy from the current Presidential Administration. That is precisely the motivation to strike publicly. Since when have hunger strikers ever had the sympathy of the institutions or regimes against whom they are striking? Neither suffragettes nor the students in the Tiananmen protests against Chinese state authorities, nor anti-colonial leaders such as M.K. Gandhi ever had a sympathetic ear from the authorities to whom they were appealing.

Yet the use of hunger strikes by the above groups is fundamentally different from hunger strikes conducted by prisoners. Even though groups such as Black prisoners in Soledad State Prison in 1970 or those in Walpole State Prison in 1980 were hardly ‘sympathetic,’ their acts were publicly compelling. I would suggest that it is because prisoners are among the most reviled of populations that a hunger strike by them is such a compelling act.

It is not hard be exposed to the sheer loathing of a group who has been been caged: the image—real or imagined—of a person caged, treated like a wild animal, is an effective way to pre-empt sympathy. For many, it raises questions about the moral and intellectual status of the prisoner. They must be guilty or behaviorally unpredictable, or savage, or cruel, or ready to hurt, maim, or rape you. These are the (intended) associations of imprisoning someone—regardless of whether the punishment was meted out procedurally. The imprisoned are reduced to terrifying, dangerous creatures. We saw this in the pictures of Abu Ghraib abuse scandal, as well as in the descriptions of prisoners that came from top officials. As Major General Geoffrey Miller, in charge of Guantanamo prison in 2004, was reported to have said of the detainees:

… [T]hey are like dogs and if you allow them to believe at any point that they are more than a dog then you’ve lost control of them.

The commanding element of a hunger strike as a form of protest is precisely that it doesn’t harm others physically. That absence of harm to others is part of the hunger strike’s command to pay attention: it is the antithesis of how a vilified population would be predicted to act in protest or outrage. Instead, the hunger strike is an act of harm to oneself. It involves deprivation to oneself—of nourishment. It involves a re-orientation of oneself: towards death.

There is the another arresting element of a hunger strike conducted by a prisoner: it is plainly the last resort of a being who has nothing else with which to bargain: no other tool, no other leverage, no other allies who can advocate effectively or successfully for those who are striking. The prisoner who engages in an hunger strike uses the only means left at his disposal–his life–which ostensibly is the only leverage that he can have control over. In that imagined spectacle—communicated only through lawyers and journalists–the hunger strike reintroduces us to the humanity of a person who is—at least physically—hurting no one else but himself. It brings up associations of martyrdom, suffering, moral decisions—uniquely human associations. A third and most powerful element of the hunger strike is the insistence that this one aspect of someone’s existence—one’s humanity, one’s ‘aliveness’—will not be ceded to any other authority.

That might be why, historically, there have continually been moral prohibitions against suicide, whether through religious teachings or state policies: ending one’s life is the one thing that—in ordinary circumstances–others’ authority cannot physically compel you to refrain from. This explains why, in prisons, the relevant authorities make every effort to deny a person the ultimate decision that is available to free people—the decision to live or die.

As Jonathan Hafetz said in a recent Guardian article,

A hunger strike provides detainees with a way to reassert some measure of control over their own lives. By refusing to eat, they force the world to recognize their existence and humanity and to confront the reality of their continued imprisonment. Legal rulings can be rationalized or ignored in a way that a dying prisoner cannot.

But in fact, even that control is wrested away: Notice that I didn’t refer to one’s “aliveness” as the only leverage which one does have control over. It used to be that the purpose of the state—as understood through Hobbesian or Lockean social contract theory—was to monopolize the power to kill: In return for ceding the right to kill in self-defense, you would be guaranteed protection by the state. Part of that protection included managing and controlling the freedom of others who were a danger to you–those who broke the law—hence, arrests, charges, trials. But alongside the discarding of procedure, the state is increasingly trying to monopolize the control of one’s life (aliveness), that is, to seize the only remaining leverage that a prisoner might have—the ability to control his aliveness.

In the current moment, as the Guantanamo prisoners strike, the state is trying to misappropriate this final degree of leverage from the Guantanamo prisoners—even though they may not—yet—be successful. That is increasingly the definition of imprisonment: to have not merely your physical and political freedom wrenched away, but to have your freedom to decide whether to live–or die—eliminated. We see the elimination of the control over one’s life in supermax prisons, solitary confinement, psychiatric wards. ‘By control over one’s life,’ I don’t mean one’s ability to move or make quotidian decisions—about food, destination, associations, prayer, or speech—although those too—but over one’s actual alive-ness, for lack of a better distinguishing term.

On Tuesday, Kevin Gosztola reported on some of the abuses of Guantanamo detainees, 86 of whom have been authorized for release under the Obama Administration. His report came from Clive Smith, an attorney for Shaker Amer. Smith filed a report to an American court that detailed his conversation with his client, a British citizen, by phone. Amer has been detained without charges since the prison’s opening 11 years ago–but cleared for release twice during that time. He is a liaison between guards and prisoners, and has been an advocate for the other prisoners. Amer charges that he and other prisoners are beaten by the guards, subjected to forced cell extractions, deprived of sleep—among other forms of torture–and run the risk of having their backs broken, limbs broken. As well, they must endure the impositions of medical professionals who are trying to disrupt the hunger strike. It is a form of torture: the forced feeding through tubes that are painfully inserted through prisoners’ noses; the refusal to listen.

“Good! They deserve it,” some will say—even though these prisoners haven’t been charged or tried or have ever had any evidence shown of their guilt. And that is one of the main reasons that the news about the hunger strikes in Guantanamo are gaining in momentum. As of now, the US government brazenly refuses to listen to or release even the half (86) of those detainees whose innocence has been—at least tacitly–confirmed through their clearance for release. But the increasing attention might force it to change its position: There are reports of protests by activists in Sana’a and Kuwait City agitating for the release of the men who have been subject to unimaginable tortures for the last 11 years—and are now facing death.

The (imagined) spectacle, the panic of the military guards, and the forced feeding of 11 detainees, should make us all wonder about the casual acceptance of the dehumanization of these prisoners. This dehumanization began with their initial capture and continues with their uncharged, indefinite, infinite detention, and coming to a head now: with their continued torture, beatings, and maltreatment—all for crimes that the Executive Branch assumes but has no evidence to support. But even more, it should impel us to forcefully reject the horrific policies conducted by this administration: by protest, by legal means, by public vocal outrage.

New York’s Finest Islamophobes

Here’s another piece I wrote today, published over at Salon. It’s based on a new report published today about NYPD surveillance of Muslims in New York.

New York’s finest Islamophobes

A new report sheds light on NYPD’s secret surveillance of Muslim communities. And what it reveals about liberals

Imagine living in a small American community, innocently minding your own business, while constantly worrying that your government is monitoring how you meet with others in your community, speak about your faith, express political views, and dress — for hints that you are a terrorist. As seen by a report released today, such harassment and violations of civil liberties are constant facts of life for American Muslims today.

The new report, Mapping Muslims, analyzes the effects of the New York Police Department (NYPD)’s infiltration into every facet of Muslim communities, from mosques, local shops, college organizations and more. The report — released by the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition (MACLC), the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility (CLEAR) project and the Asian American Legal Defense Fund (AALDEF) – interviewed 57 Muslims, mostly living in New York City. The interviewees included high school and college students, community organizers, lawyers, teachers, shopkeepers and others