When Binyam Mohamed set foot last week onto British soil after seven excruciating years of imprisonment in Pakistan, Morocco and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, he left the airport with his hand shielding his eyes, obscuring the rest of his features as well. The facelessness of Mohamed is but a reminder of the overall facelessness of the detainees in US custody.
Few detainees are as well known by name as Binyam Mohamed – whose civilian lawyer Clive Stafford Smith has periodically publicised details of his torture, including the use of razors to cut his client's penis. Yet even in this case, we don't have a widely known face before us when we hear his name. Startlingly, not a single photograph of a Guantánamo detainee is imprinted on public consciousness in America. After seven years, 800 prisoners and valiant efforts by human rights advocates, pro bono lawyers and an outraged minority of citizens, we are still talking about detainees in the abstract.
In Mohamed's case, the anonymity was the detainee's own choice. Yet his current desire to go unseen perversely echoes the policy of facelessness that has characterised American detention policy from its inception. When Guantánamo first opened in January 2002, the US enforced a non-photo policy on visitors. Citing the Geneva Conventions, which they were otherwise eager to declare inapplicable to the detainees, US officials insisted that press photos reveal no detainee faces. Paradoxically, given an alleged desire to avoid humiliation, photos of the detainees when hooded, goggled and ear-muffed were allowed. Not surprisingly, the infamous photos of the detainees in orange jumpsuits, shackled and bent over on their knees in an outdoor pen, was released by defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld's office. Nothing could have more effectively portrayed the identity-less, impotent nature of the detainees and the potency of the US authorities.
The no-identifying-photos policy affected the ability of the media to reach the public with their stories about the detainees, relegating the press to telling picture-less, abstract, dehumanised stories. However illuminating the reporting – and it has often been superb – of journalists who have covered Guantánamo and US detention policy, the pictures of individual detainees would have made written accounts much more evocative.
This policy of facelessness has only been strengthened by the policy of namelessness that has dominated Guantánamo – in the form of the use of internment serial numbers (ISNs) rather than names as the primary means of identifying the prisoners within the detention facility. (Binyam Mohamed's ISN was 1458.) This practice, admittedly, is not uncommon in US prisons. But in a context where legal and moral mistreatment was allowed to thrive, the namelessness became a part of the intentional dehumanisation of the detainees as a mechanism of authorised cruelty.
However harmful, this enforced anonymity has been sustained throughout Guantánamo's existence. (No one can say if it will continue to apply to those prisoners who are not released when the detention facility is closed.) Even now, visitors to Guantánamo see almost no faces. They are kept away from the detainees – and if one of the prisoners does pass by, they are asked to look away (out of respect, they are told, for the detainee). Even now, ISNs are used within the camps at Guantánamo. And even when the public does know the names of detainees, such as Shafiq Rasul and Salim Hamdan, it is largely in reference to the legal strategies of supreme court cases – not the life stories of the individuals in whose names the cases have been brought.
Psychological studies tell us that the facial expressions of felt emotions trigger compassion and sympathy in other humans. When we see someone cry in a movie, we cry too. But America's policy of facelessness has contributed to a kind of public numbness, and has reinforced an appalling lack of human empathy toward the detainees. Having never been exposed to the faces of the individuals detained for years in Guantánamo and elsewhere, the American public – not just the arguably criminal instigators and organisers of the detention policy – has been rendered compassionless and, to some extent, morally inert.
In the days and weeks to come, as more and more detainees find their way out of Guantánamo, perhaps some of their faces and names will come before the public and thus help us to reckon with the past. Together, perhaps, the lawyers, the press and yes, the US authorities, can show us the expressions of those who have suffered in US custody. Without this ability to attach personal stories to the shameful episode of Guantánamo, it is all too possible that the harm it has caused will pass into history as only an aberration, rather than a full-fledged attack on human beings. Only by acknowledging the humanity of the detainees can the United States begin to reclaim the spirit of compassion that has fallen by the wayside in the wake of 9/11.