Friday, November 19, 2010

gray zone

In the middle of working on the essay, "Double Speak: Poems from Guantanamo," it was somewhat weird to listen to the NPR/ABC hosted debate on whether or not the detainees should be treated as "enemy combatants" rather than "criminals." The debate, for the program "Intelligence Squared," was a joke, in more ways than one, perhaps. Because of whatever the format of the airing was (as an "Oxford style debate in the U.S.") stage laughter was cued in at various moments during the program, especially to highlight moments in intractable difference. A joke because the political difference between the debaters seems to amount to very little, in the end. And so little was brought to the table. A question for the audience about the definition of "enemy combatant" for example, yielded no clear answer from either side. Perhaps this murky realm of "political debate," the staging of a supposedly clear difference between two sides, is also exemplary of the results of the trial of Ahmed Ghailani, the first civilian trial of a Guantanamo detainee. Ghailani, who was convicted on only one count of the 285 brought against him in a 4-week trial that ended on November 17, 2010, was found guilty of conspiring in the 1998 African embassy bombings. The results of the trial seem to indicate that, in contrast to what those engaged in debate about whether or not so-called terrorists should be convicted in civilian or military courts had thought, hoped or feared, the civilian court put terrorism, not counter-terrorism on trial.

In the forty page transcript of this debate, there is one attempt to get near the import of the difference between civilian and military trial, and while I had thought that this might also include some wisdom as to what the demarcation of enemy combatant means, this was never approached, not by a long shot. Instead, the terrain of the debate was marked by attempts to prove that we are at war, and followed by the logic that since we are at war, and since the enemy is ununiformed, then the battleground is everywhere, and since the battleground is everywhere, then enemy combatants are also everywhere. This caused formed Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen to respond by saying this is "not about guilt." But his statement is more telling than any of the things that he or others might find it to be about. He means that once everyone is an enemy combatant, guilt no longer needs to be proved. All that is required is "reasonable belief" that individuals are members of al-Qaeda or the Taliban. The threat posed by treating these cases emerges at this point, since entering into civilian courts would threaten the security provided in the creation of the culture of the enemy combatant.

picture: Sidewalk, Los Angeles. Becky Bowden

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