Prison Hunger Strikes from Guantánamo Bay to Pelican Bay Show That Our 'Justice' System Is Out of Control
Continued from previous page
I am not concerned here with the kind of question that so often greets a complaint about unspeakable treatment—where should these prisoners at Guantánamo go? That is a red herring. I want to think about a bigger question—the meaning of the global war on terror. That problem gains its significance not only because of the legal justifications for an ever-growing network of overseas prisons (far from being “legal black-holes,” whatever lies we are told about their status), but also because of what it means to us here in the homeland.
Probable cause and due process protections of the Constitution are ignored and abolished for those labeled “terrorists” (i.e. people against whom no charges have been or ever will be brought), the “worst-of-the worst.” At the same time, the means used to achieve such aims ends up seeping into the precincts of the privileged. Under the perpetually shifting imperatives of what is heralded as security, a politically oriented persecution names and claims ever-larger groups of persons as “threats.”
So why do we forget about the prisoners of Guantánamo? Not because we do not care, but because their fate—to be held, forgotten, assaulted, and tortured—though more extreme than anything imaginable for us here on the inside, reminds us what it takes now to live, what it means to preserve our freedom, to keep at bay the inhospitable. We are in thrall to the casual but definite compromises that give our officials a broad license to kill.
What price freedom? The question is not frivolous. Fear is a vice that takes root. We must ask not how we allow the existence of “black sites” (our overseas prisons), “frozen zones” (in the borough of Brooklyn), “security housing units,” “special management units,” “supermaxes” (throughout the United States), but rather how we live and breathe with a status that exempts us for the moment from being labeled as security threats. For, even though safe today, we live on a slippery slope.
If the Guantánamo hunger strikers are force-fed by medical personnel to “save lives,” as officials there claim, we need to think more deeply about what it means to be dying or dead. To be living consistently in a “dying situation” is a fate worse than death. That situation of perpetual decay, anxiety and degradation, though largely hidden from us, comes into sight as these living, willful, sentient beings are forced against every fiber of their being to be disfigured, reduced to nothing more than organs that can fail, where pain is torture only if it causes death.
We live against this backdrop of benign assault, where sanitized language helps us to cope with restraint and its attendant terrors, more spectacular because legally inflicted. Our individuality, our ego, even our sphere of influence are infected by this collective harm. Is this the natural consequence of our belief in the powerful apparatus of virtue and freedom, justice and law?
The decisive factor is this: the mass of creaturely material exposed to state violence is what now constitutes our nation, legally and politically and socially. The non-entities, sometimes unnamed, always unrecognized and hugely silenced in spite of their resistance, are rapidly becoming who we are. The spirits of these disposables work powerfully on the minds and lives of the as yet included, the not yet ostracized. We need to hear their voices, for they are many.
I am reminded of Derek Walcott’s remarkable words in the poem “Schooner Flight”: “either I’m nobody or I’m a nation.” We are at a crossroads between a sanctioned status quo and the residue of whatever lies outside it. Though disappeared, these ever more generalizable ghosts possess us. They are our shadow lives. They alert us to a new kind of reckoning with the values we thought we knew.