Guantanamo's Faceless Victims

Few prisoners are as well known as Binyam Mohamed. US detention policy is designed to strip prisoners of their identities

When Binyam Mohamed set foot last week onto British soil after seven excruciating years of imprisonment in Pakistan, Morocco and Guantanamo 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

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 Guantanamo 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.

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 Guantanamo 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 Guantanamo 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 Guantanamo - 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.

harmful, this enforced anonymity has been sustained throughout
Guantanamo'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 Guantanamo 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 Guantanamo. 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 Guantanamo 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 Guantanamo,
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 Guantanamo, 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.

© 2023 The Guardian