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Slavery in Guantanamo

Slavery in Guantanamo

We Americans like to think the war against slavery was over a long time ago. But when we gave up slavery, did we also give up mastery?

A New York Times report by William Glaberson on April 26 discloses that the justice department has now moved to choke off the minimal legal protection still available to "enemy combatants" at Guantanamo. If approved by the D.C. court of appeals, the new proposal would restrict each prisoner to one interview to authorize a lawyer, and three subsequent visits by that lawyer. It would give a team of intelligence agents and military overseers the power to scrutinize mail sent by the lawyer to his client. Finally, it would remove the lawyer's right to examine secret evidence used against the prisoner. "One after another they have closed the heavy iron doors upon him, and now they have him, as it were, bolted in with a lock of a hundred keys, which can never be unlocked without the concurrence of every key; the keys in the hands of a hundred different men, and they scattered to a hundred different and distant places." Lincoln spoke those words about the Dred Scott decision and the effect of denying constitutional rights to the black man. We are seeing the same pattern today, with one difference. The racism unofficially sanctioned now is racism against Arabs.

Torture and slavery have something in common. They are expressions of a power that admits no restraint on itself. They issue from the instinct for domination, hardened by a savage self-protectiveness. Yet a slave might always assert his freedom by choosing to die. This last resort has been denied to the Guantanamo prisoners. If they refuse to eat, they are force-fed intravenously. We keep them alive, and starve them of justice, and kill them by inches. Is this done to prevent their becoming martyrs? But they are already martyrs from the terms of their imprisonment. The force-feeding is really the last refinement of state coercion and cruelty.

The problem of Guantanamo is a problem for American society at large. How many fine careers, in how many professions, have been advanced by warm compliance with the new license regarding torture? Think of the authors of the "torture memos," John Yoo, Jay Bybee, and others. Think of John Roberts, whose opinion against the prisoner Salim Ahmed Hamdan, when Roberts sat on the D.C. circuit court of appeals, came seasonably less than a week before his nomination to the supreme court. Or think of the stars and writers of the series 24, which insinuates at once the glamour and the dark necessity of torture.

"Our children," someone said, "are less likely to be hurt by repeal of habeas corpus than they are by a terrorist bomb." This was a muttered comment (nothing more) by a liberal and an opponent of the Iraq war. Yet it revealed a psychological process -- the rationalization by which we barter liberty in order to maintain a vague conceit of security. Better to keep up the arbitrary imprisonment of a few hundred persons, who neither look nor think like us, than to diminish the muffled impression of safety. The train of thought is a sedative; it adds to the gentle suffocation of American freedom under the consensus of fear; but there is anyway this much justice in the tangle of self-deception and cynicism that holds us captive: we cannot possibly break free of it without also freeing others.

David Bromwich teaches literature at Yale. He has written on politics and culture for The New Republic, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, and other magazines.

© 2007

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