Literature

“Courage and Encourage: Recording Dehumanization at Guantanamo, PEN World Voices Festival #PEN2013

tumblr_inline_mmebup59dC1qz4rgpThough it may be true that, at least in history, values, be they of a nation or of humanity as a whole, do not survive unless we fight for them, neither combat (nor force) can alone suffice to justify them. Rather it must be the other way: the fight must be justified and guided by those values. We must fight for the truth and we must take care not to kill it with the very weapons we use in its defense; it is at this doubled price that we must pay in order that our words assume once more their proper power.

Albert CamusChroniques Algériennes in: Essais p. 898 (Pléiade ed. 1965)(S.H. transl.)

The PEN World Voices Festival took place in the midst of a months-long hunger strike amongst detainees at Guantanamo Bay, the prison site that has been at the heart of many debates and scandals around the use of torture by U.S. Military. One of the panels, called “Writers and Resistance” and featuring attorney David Frakt, former General Counsel of the Navy Alberto Mora, author of The Torture Report and Director of Freedom to Write and International Programs at PEN Larry Siems, and Bosnian-American fiction writer Aleksander Hemon, examined the various ways in which American officials courageously wrote reports of detainee abuse.

At the opening of the panel on Saturday, moderator Lynne Tillman highlighted an important relationship between “courage” and “encourage,” noting that this is where PEN fits in—writers know that PEN has “got their backs,” and so they are encouraged to be courageous.

Mohammed Jawad was imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay as a suspected terrorist in 2003. He was subjected, among other treatments, to sleep deprivation techniques, euphemistically called the “Frequent Flyer” program, for about a year between 2004 and 2005. During these years it became clear to U.S. intelligence agents that Duwad was not an Al-Queda suspect; he was a teenager who had taken on a low-level assignment to throw a hand grenade because he wanted to get paid.

David Frakt was Jawad’s defense counsel. The prosecutor, Darrell Vandeveld, eventually said he could not ethically continue on the case and resigned—and became a public defender.

So why, if there was never any evidence that Jawad was a terrorist or affiliated with Al-Queda, was he kept at Guantanamo for several years? As Aleksander Hemon pointed out, torture seems fundamentally against American values of democracy and freedom, and holding individual rights and the law to be “absolute and sovereign.” Hemon wondered why the Military continued to use cruel tactics like sleep deprivation “when it was not shown to be producing substantial intelligence.”

Frakt said that there were “people in the Administration who simply did not view the detainees as human beings” of equal value as Americans. And Alberto Mora, who campaigned within the U.S. government for an end to the Military’s use of torture tactics and an outright outlawing of cruel treatment of detainees, concurred: the 9-11 terrorists, he said, “were seen as individuals who had opted out of the human race.” Mora, who had been inside the Pentagon when it was struck by one of the airplanes hijacked by terrorist on 9-11, describe the attitude in the Pentagon in the years following that national tragedy as “one of frenzied and purposeful activity . . . desperately trying to protect the country from terrorism.” It seemed, Frakt said, that this “incredible sense of urgency” allowed American officials to “cast aside their American values.”

It would be important, in terms of writing, for the record to show that the detainees at Guantanamo were not terrorists, Frakt said, and for Americans to know this fact. Many detainees remained at Guantanamo not because they were guilty of terrorism but because there was no place to transfer them to. Most significantly, Frakt said that it was necessary to correct the public view that torture had been justifiably used because the detainees were guilty terrorists with valuable information—whereas the case of Mohammed Juwad showed that this was not always true. Frakt pointed out that three-fourths of the detainees at Gitmo had been released by the Bush administration due to there being no evidence against them.

It was a discussion that echoed the bleak undertones of American culture in the ten-plus years since 9-11, and the constant self-questioning that was going on at all levels of society, within government and the Military, and outside of those institutions. Hemon suggested that Kafka was a useful epistemological framework for understanding forms of human behavior and cruelty that seemed impossible to completely understand: “a procedure that justifies itself by proceeding,” Hemon put it.

Frakt wished that there might one day be “some justice for everyone involved” in Guantanamo and other prison sites where torture tactics had been or were being used.

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