Gale Coskan-Johnson, Brock University
(Published December 14, 2015)
If you don't have a place where you can hold these people, the only other option is to kill them, and we don't operate that way.
(Cheney qtd. in “Cheney Backs Gay Marriage”)
In the earliest days of the prison camp [JTF-GTMO], when the men were denied paper and pen altogether, some of the prisoners nonetheless felt such an overwhelming desire to express themselves in verse that they would take a pebble and carve short two or three-line poems into the Styrofoam cups they were given at lunch time.
(Falkoff, “Conspiracy” 6)
Resistance inheres in the very gaps, fissures, and silences of hegemonic narratives.
(Mohanty, “Cartographies of Struggle” 83)
Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif (officially, ISN156) was an unruly prisoner. According to a United States Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM) investigation into his death, he had been “detained at Joint Task Force-Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO)1 … since [redacted] January 2002” and “had an extensive history of disciplinary and self harm attempts” (United States Government Joint Task Force i). Evidently, “many guards and medical personnel indicated that ISN156 was an exceptionally challenging detainee” (i). Latif’s “disciplinary events” took place between 2002 and 2012, during which time he was found to have assaulted the guard force, including having “lunged” at them and, “in the several weeks before his death,” he “threw rocks, striking the guard tower, the tower spotlight, and two guards” (62). He engaged in the “inappropriate use of bodily fluids” (evidently throwing the offending substances at guards and medical staff), ingested “inedible items,” and “attempted hanging, and cutting” (62). He was “known to make ‘melodramatic’ statements” (62), and he “frequently expressed suicidal ideations, including writing dark poems, talking about death, and making passive statements about suicide” (60). Evidently, ISN156 “shared a love letter with [redacted] that he had written for one of the guards,” but “[redacted] indicated that she informed ISN156 that he knew that kind of relationship was inappropriate and that she would not deliver the letter to the guard” (17). Latif went on hunger strikes “at various times during his detention … and at certain points required enteral feeding” (60). In the report on his death, “one guard noted that ISN156 ‘had always done weird stuff’” and sometimes would “put a sheet around his neck like a cape, run up the wall, and do a backflip off the wall” (6). Evidently, “line of sight duty”—which refers to Latif’s cell being watched at all times—was rotated differently from other detainees, a difference that “stemmed from behavior by ISN156—specifically that ISN156 would [redacted] and do all sorts of crazy things’ and that ‘they did not want guards to have to watch that for more than [redacted] at a time” (7, emphasis added). Guards “noted that it was ‘horrible’ to have to be on line of sight duty for ISN156 because of these types of actions, many of which ISN156 would do right near the cell window” (7). The USSOUTHCOM investigation into the death of Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, oddly enough, tells a story of the diverse ways that JTF-GTMO and its agents were the victims of ISN156’s remarkably unruly behavior.
This article is about ways of reading and ways of writing within and against dominant contemporary US public discourses. The article responds to narratives that circulate in and emerge from post-9/11 discourses of terrorism that have produced, proliferated, and normalized terms such as “indefinite detention,” “enteral feeding,” “black site,” and “enemy combatant.” Specifically, it provides a critical examination of the rhetorical practices of one JTF-GTMO detainee as they emerge from the “gaps, fissures, and silences of hegemonic narratives” (Mohanty, “Cartographies” 83). I call these narratives “hegemonic” because all of the public writing that emerges from JTF-GTMO, including official reports, detainee poetry, and the writings of habeas corpus lawyers, must be “cleared for public consumption by a Department of Defense ‘privilege review team’” (Falkoff, “Guantánamo”). These narratives are produced, reviewed, and/or cleared by agents of the state, and they participate in a state-based discourse that brings “the people” (McGee)2 into being through the dual address of a sovereign performative speech act, “a speech act with the power to do what it says” with “absolute and efficacious agency” (Butler, Excitable Speech 77). This state-based discourse has a dual address because it works not only to fix detainees in place as frightening figures of speech, but also to fix citizens as a “people” that will look to the state for security and protection from those figures.
The purpose of this dual address is to bring “the people” together by dividing them from “the terrorists.” However, my argument in this article is that the complexity and creativity of detainee uptake (referred to in the USSOUTHCOM investigation as “making statements,” “expressing ideations,” “writing,” “talking,” and “acting”) interrupts this rhetoric of division, and it counters the production of what Jasbir Puar and Amit Rai describe as “the pathologized psyche of the terrorist-monster” that “enables the practices of normalization” (117). In other words, detainee rhetorical practices re-figure and re-present the detainee in public discourse as a complex being with links to diverse communities. What is more, such practices have the potential to reconstitute audiences that are called into being by the sovereign performative, because they put pressure on the state’s production of “the domain of publically acceptable speech” (Butler, Excitable Speech 77). When detainees actively respond to the state’s address instead of remaining silent, they put public discourses in motion and reconnect themselves to communities from which US state speech has worked to sever them. Detainee speech like Latif’s becomes insurrectionary speech when it disrupts formations of US citizenship that make use of a monstrous but vanquished terrorist to reassure a fearful citizenry.
The central question that motivates this paper, then, is this: if rhetorical studies is driven by the conviction that “writing doesn’t just happen” but rather “takes place inside particular social contexts” (Trimbur xxxiv), and that a more ethical and just world “requires engagement beyond the traditional and canonical classroom” (Jacobi 486), how do we account for and attend to the site of symbolic communication that has arisen among the detainees of JTF-GTMO? How do we become ethical readers of stories like those of Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif? My response to this question is tentative and provisional, but it is also driven by a sense of urgency. The courts have had trouble prosecuting “enhanced interrogation,” and they have failed to prevent indefinite detention or the “agony” of the “enteral feeding” practiced at JTF-GTMO (see Kessler). While some in the judiciary continue the struggle to make such practices publicly visible (see Currier), the US state is able to “convert a suspect into a terrorist,” and its “methods are so convincing … as to make other rational citizens subscribe to the state’s ideas” (Tripathy 3). I thus work here to (re)imagine what detainee writing does and what kinds of audiences it brings into being, and to intervene in critical public and scholarly conversations interrogating the US state’s bipartisan commitment to the construction of racialized categories of individuals from which legal justice and human rights can be extra-legally withdrawn.
In order to bring these perspectives together in this article, I first recognize the value of critical work that articulates the forms of power through which detainees are victimized by the US state (Agamben; Burke; Butler, Precarious Life; Puar; Puar & Rai; Tripathy; Young). I examine this scholarship because it is important to be clear about the discursive constraints within which detainees act, speak, and write, though I refuse to accept the conclusion that such constraints leave detainees without voice. My refusal emerges from a strong sense of the complexity of public discourse and the surprising ways that marginalized voices can suddenly become intelligible. I briefly examine scholarship that works to describe how rhetorical practices bring various audiences into being (Charland; Edbauer; Warner), then I turn to Judith Butler’s discussion of hate speech in Excitable Speech, which allows me to explore how it might be that detainee rhetorical practices disrupt figurations of detainees as vanquished monsters. I propose that a state-based love/hate speech facilitates the agency of its addressees, even as it works to constitute them as objects of power, because the objects of the dual address have the option of turning to each other. In other words, detainees make use of symbolic communication that disrupts the state’s simultaneous constitution of “the people” and “the terrorists” by engaging in “a counter-speech, a kind of talking back” that makes their resignification in public discourse possible (Butler, Excitable Speech 15).
My primary textual focus in this essay will be the USSOUTHCOM investigative report into the death of Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif that is cited at the beginning of this article. Given the intertextual complexity and fluidity of discourse, “no single text can create a public,” a discourse, or a people (Warner 62). Yet this particular document is interesting because it illustrates the surprising narrative richness of the genre of government reports to which it belongs. The USSOUTHCOM report provides compelling evidence that detainee rhetorical practices do take up state speech in surprising and unexpected ways, and it suggests that detainee rhetorical practices not only disrupt hegemonic narratives but also put into disarray the “absolute and efficacious agency” of contemporary US state speech. I conclude by pointing to additional ways that detainees’ speech breaks free of the hegemonic text even as their physical bodies remain indefinitely detained. I call on scholars of rhetoric to pay attention to and explore anti-hegemonic and anti-imperial ways of reading the burgeoning archive of writing housed at JTF-GTMO but widely available online3, and to write with those who have had their status as subjects before the law and their right to hear the charges against them withdrawn in the interest of a proliferating discourse of security. Those in the field who value the coming-into-being of a public or a people organized around feminist anti-racist and anti-imperial democratic practices must resist the state-based love/hate speech that has made JTF-GTMO its indefinite home.
Love/Hate Speech and the Rhetorical Production (and Disruption) of “Bare Life”
Jyotirmaya Tripathy asserts that JTF-GTMO materializes the concept of “indefinite detention” and occupies a central position in a US state that has “the technology and skill to prove … that the terrorist is nothing but a body” (7). Similarly, Erin Trapp writes that “enemy combatant” acts as “a term employed to obscure and efface the identity of the persons to whom it refers.” The enemy combatant, as terrorist, is linked to an Orientalist rendering of the Middle East (Said) and a caricatured form of religion that mobilizes the “collective vilification of Muslims” (Puar 21). In this way, the terrorist is divided from his/her own complex, and perhaps unpredictable, spiritual and geographical ties. As Jasbir Puar points out, the Arab terrorist is positioned in the “[d]iscourses of civilization” as “the dichotomy of evil in relation to good” (137). Thus the enemy combatant is fixed and voiceless, having undergone “derationalization” and “bestialization” (Tripathy 10). Having withdrawn JTF-GTMO detainees’ access to the construction of an identity, US state discourses rewrite them as “evil and superhuman” (Young 9). The construction of malevolent detainees is an embedded structure that legitimates state violence against terrorists who “must be hunted down to protect” an “infantilized population” (Puar and Rai 131).4 According to Judith Butler in Precarious Life, US state discourses depict these superhumans as subjects that “may not be individuals at all” because “they are effectively reducible to a desire to kill, and … regular criminal and international codes cannot apply to beings such as these” (78, emphasis added). The terrorist is simultaneously hyperbolized and reduced, and “beings such as these” are “made useful in the ongoing ‘war on terror’” (Young 8).
An example of the power, the flexibility, and the potential absurdity of this discourse can be found in a report from June 10, 2006, in which The American Forces Press reported that three JTF-GTMO detainees had “died of apparent suicide” (Wood). Writer Sgt. Sara Wood, USA, quotes Navy Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris, who says “the joint suicides were clearly planned by the detainees as a way to advance their cause in the war on terror.” Harris apparently explained to Wood that the deaths did not represent “an act of desperation” but rather constituted “asymmetric warfare,” and he told her that JTF-GTMO has “committed jihadists … who will do anything to advance their cause.” Harris, through Wood, enacts Butler’s characterization of US state speech as it reduces the detainees to “a desire to kill” by framing their suicides as ostensibly aggressive acts of terrorism—as terrorists, they kill themselves in order to cause “our” deaths. Harris disavows “desperation” as a possible motive in the case of these three suicides, perhaps because it might suggest that the men were responding to their immediate, existential situation as indefinite detainees—that their deaths were potentially caused by their unjust treatment at Guantánamo, which would make them once again human and, perhaps worse, would make JTF-GTMO culpable for their deaths. When he calls their suicides “asymmetric warfare,” Harris works to shift the blame away from the site of detention and back into the “dangerous” mind of the terrorist. Such moments of discursive tension, as I will explore in detail below, suggest that US public discourses of security involve, at least in part, rhetorical struggles over the formation of figures of speech that work to constitute “the people” in particular ways. In relation to these struggles, one must ask to what extent depictions of terrorists as “reducible to a desire to kill” (re)produce anxieties in the very discourses that mobilize to relieve those anxieties. More to the point, how is it that Latif, or ISN156, manages to figure so disruptively and perform so un-usefully in the hegemonic text of USSOUTHCOM’s investigation into his death?
In a forthcoming article, Bradley Young explores the symbolic dimensions of torture in the war on terror. Young argues that states persist in torturing suspects in the face of legal, moral, and practical inefficacy because torture has symbolic value. Young places the act of torture into the context of Zygmunt Bauman’s “liquid fear,” which recognizes that “fear is at its most fearsome when it is diffuse, scattered, unclear, unattached, unanchored, free floating, with no clear address or cause” (Bauman 2). Under such frightfully uncertain circumstances, individuals feel helpless to respond to contemporary threats, and, at the same time, they suspect that the state is also helpless. The state then produces the enemy combatant who provides “a condensation point for both the individual fears and the state’s impotence to provide security from those fears” (Young 6). Through the enemy combatant, “the faceless, nameless fears of global warming and economic collapse” are “transformed into the hooded detainees with an internment serial number” (Young 7).
If I then align Young’s figure with Kenneth Burke’s notion of the scapegoat, I find that the US state responds to the fears of (and to its own fears of) an anxious and divided people by presenting the tortured detainee as a vessel upon which to load “the dyslogistic burdens of vocabulary” (Burke 141). In other words, the figure of the tortured detainee produces a vocabulary that distinguishes between the good violence of the state and the bad violence of the terrorist and, in so doing, invites “the people” to become complicit in the rendering of state violence as good. Young’s argument rests on a particular iteration of the tortured body, emphasizing Elaine Scarry’s claim that “the pain of torture ‘unmakes the world’ of the detainee” (Young 9). He cites Paul W. Kahn’s contention that torture results in the “emptying out of a symbolic world of meaning” (qtd. in Young 9), thus he ties the enemy combatant firmly to terms of unmaking, emptying out, rendering silent, and making speechless. I would add that the JTF-GTMO detainee has been consistently divided from the law by the withdrawal of the writ of habeas corpus, an act through which detainees lose their status as legal subjects (Weber 428). The JTF-GTMO inmate is unmade, emptied out, and divided from the human community. In this way, the state reproduces the detainee as a figure of speech that is mobilized across textual sites and situations in the work of (re)producing rhetorics of sovereign power that reanimate state legitimacy in the eyes of “the people.”
From within this theoretical frame, the state’s power is absolute and the detainee is rhetorically useful. The detainee is useful as a figure because it promotes identification by acting as a vessel through which the fears of “the people” and the anxieties of the state are transformed into their opposites—the figure works to transform signs of waning state power and popular division into a reassuring image of sovereign power and popular unity. The racialized terrorist is transformed through discourse into the “enemy combatant,” the “worst of the worst,” and at the same time is exhibited in shackles and an orange jumpsuit, imprinted with and embodied by the marks of state torture. In rhetorical terms, then, the physical, legal, and discursive violence that the state visits on the “terrorist” is motivated by a desire to transform state violence from vice to virtue through the rhetorical elements of identification and the scapegoat.
The terrorist, then, embodies the scapegoat who “combines in one figure contrary principles of identification and alienation” (Burke 140). Burke explains that by dividing the scapegoat away from the group and using it as a “vessel” for the group’s “dyslogistic naming,” internal “factions” can be drawn together (141). The “terrorist” produces a unified people. The brief but powerful quote from former vice president Dick Cheney that begins this article is animated by this trans-situational structure. Cheney says, “If you don't have a place where you can hold these people, the only other option is to kill them, and we don't operate that way” (qtd. in “Cheney”). He cleaves away a group (the detainees at JTF-GTMO) and names it “these people,” people to whom there are only two reasonable responses: indefinite detention or death. He then valorizes a “we” whose unity is defined and identification achieved by its choice not to “operate that way”—in other words, not to kill detainees. The goodness of the “we” lies in its choice not to kill “them,” but instead to create a space, JTF-GTMO, in which to indefinitely detain “them.” JTF-GTMO is transformed in Cheney’s statement into a symbol of US goodness or virtue. Indefinite detention becomes a virtue attesting to the goodness of the “we” who are unlike others who “operate that way” by summarily executing “these people.”5 Burke explains that the scapegoat or the “unclean vessel” is “ritually gratifying” because “it is not merely men’s differences that drive them apart, it is also the elements they share, ‘vices’ and ‘virtues’ alike, since the same motives are capable of both eulogistic and dyslogistic naming” (141, emphasis in original). In other words, state-based violence must be transformed so that it does not resemble terrorist-based violence, notwithstanding their objective similarities. The terrorist-as-scapegoat legitimates and purifies state-based violence and brings “the people” together into relations of consubstantiality that celebrate the goodness of “us.”
Burke’s scapegoat has an affinity with another abject figure: Agamben’s “bare life” also assists in articulating the process of producing the enemy combatant. Homo sacer or “bare life” names a figure from ancient Roman law that is, paradoxically, “taken into the sovereign ban” (83) or “removed and at the same time captured” (110). More specifically, bare life, embodied by the indefinite detainee of JTF-GTMO, is banned from the polis by law—it is set outside the law, but it is the law that sets it there. The JTF-GTMO detainee, like bare life, like the scapegoat, is exposed to a power that has been placed beyond juridical oversight. Interestingly, Agamben illustrates the extreme state of this figure by pointing to a class of German concentration camp prisoners: the “Muselmann” for whom the “pangs of cold and the ferocity of the SS” had lost their psychological specificity. This figure “no longer belongs to the world of men in any way” (185). Bare life, as the threshold of the nation-state, is emptied out, unmade, and useful, but it also contains something else. Agamben describes this quality as “indiscernibility” (185). He points out that in the eyes of the guards, this might appear to “be a silent form of resistance” (185). Thus the terrorist, bare life, the scapegoat are all victims of a violent address, but, as Agamben suggests, these figures, in their abject state, may be capable of engendering anxiety or fear in their captors/creators. Nevertheless, they are useful because they produce unity in another addressee, namely “the people.” The state makes rhetorical use of a scapegoat who is transformed from superhuman terrorist into abject enemy combatant in order to produce identification among the otherwise constitutively divided people. The purpose of such speech is (1) to fix the terrorist and divide him/her from the human community and (2) to produce identification among “the people” who are drawn together through that act of exclusion. In other words, this kind of state speech has a dual address: it simultaneously addresses “the people” and their scapegoat. Speech like the quote from Cheney—love/hate speech—produces consubstantiality among “the people” by exposing the bare life of the terrorist-as-scapegoat to a violent address.
The terrorist as figure, then, is embedded in complex and sophisticated discourses of power that work to make that body useful in the production of an “American People” that can be simultaneously cited and produced in state speech. However, there is a conceptual problem inherent in the figures of the scapegoat and bare life in the context of an argument about insurrectionary speech. Both figures suggest a unilateral movement of power over bodies, and so both invite one to believe in the efficacy of sovereign power—to believe that it inevitably does what it says it will do. There appears to be little room to consider the (in)discernible response of the abject addressee of the sovereign address. But I would like to ask, what is the nature of the audience of this address? How does it come to be? Does state-based rhetoric always hit its mark? I have made use of McGee’s term, “the people,” in order to describe audiences that are solicited by state speech. In “Constitutive Rhetoric: The Case of the Peuple Québécois,” Maurice Charland extends McGee’s description of the ways that “advocates” construct national audiences in their texts. He coins the phrase “constitutive rhetoric” to name the process by which a text “calls its audience into being” (134). Following McGee, Charland allows that “political identity must be an ideological fiction, even though … this fiction becomes historically material and of consequence as persons live it” (137). In other words, texts construct audiences, but, when those constructions are taken up, they carry material consequences. Charland recognizes that such audiences are “rhetorically constituted” (135), that “political identity is ideological,” and through Burke he foregrounds “the textual nature of social being” (137). Like Young, when confronted with the persistence of torture, Charland recognizes that political speech is trying to do something to someone. However, Charland is at the same time unable to resist the desire for an empirical basis of certainty upon which to establish the real existence of his peuple québécois. He examines a white paper produced by the Quebec government in advance of the May 20, 1980, referendum on sovereignty-association. His argument, in its application, becomes caught up in proving that a white paper, a single text, was “successful.” He points out that “over 45% of the French-speaking population … assented to their provincial government’s interpretation of Quebec society,” and he asserts, “while some might consider the White Paper to be a failure … the outcome of the referendum reveals that its constitutive rhetoric was particularly powerful” (135).
The problem is that Charland suggests, first, that one can simply know what a “yes” or “no” vote on a referendum means for those who have voted, when in fact a vote is only its numerical outcome—it does not tell us about the motives, histories, convictions, (dis)interest, or alienation of a group of voters. Michael Warner, in “Publics and Counterpublics,” claims that “externally organized frameworks of activity, such as voting” are “a poor substitute” for the shape of a “changeable” and “unknowable” public (53). In this sense, when Charland frames his examination of constitutive rhetoric inside a rhetorical situation limited by a text, a provincial government, and a seemingly transparent yes/no vote, he employs an “oversimplified sender-receiver [model] of public communication” (Edbauer 6). Jenny Edbauer argues instead for views of rhetoric that focus on motion and circulation and that are “held together trans-situationally” (20). With Edbauer and Warner, then, I view the constituting work of rhetoric as embedded in “the concatenation of texts through time” (62). Thus the symbolic value of a single act of torture will depend on the ways that it links to other kinds of acts, other kinds of texts, other kinds of address.
In order to frame and develop the complex ways that motion and circulation inform discourses and constitute audiences, I turn to Butler’s discussion of hate speech in Excitable Speech. Here Butler explores the extent to which the sovereign performative, when named “hate speech,” still allows for the emergence of a non-hegemonic response. Butler locates a gap of potentiality between the performative speech act and its uptake, a “gap” inside which the addressee (the scapegoat, bare life, the detainee, the public, “the people”) might “perform a reversal of effects” that resists discursive capture (14). Butler explains that the notion of hate speech takes its substance from the metaphor that links speech to “bodily harm.” Hate speech is like a physical blow; it enacts “violence through speech” (47). I propose a particular form of this relation in which state-based violence, like torture and indefinite detention, which are physical acts, constitute a type of hate speech. As a physical act, torture certainly does bodily harm, but at the same time, it exerts rhetorical effects crucial to the efficacy of sovereignty discourse. What is more, this performative speech act has a dual address: it addresses both the individual that it fixes with injurious speech (or hate), and “the people” whom it draws into a relation of complicity, identification (or love).
Butler explains that in accounting for the sovereign performative speech act, “one must understand that language is not a static and closed system whose utterances are functionally secure in advance by the ‘social positions’ to which they are mimetically related” (145). Language, as a dynamic and open system characterized by motion, does not allow for a speech act that is inevitably happy, regardless of the privilege of the speaker. Butler points to “breaks with prior context” that are “crucial to the political operation of the performative” (145). These breaks suggest the presence of uncertainty. The performative speech act makes “linguistic community with a history of speakers” (52); it works (and fails) because it is linked to (or decoupled from) relations of repetition with other speakers and other histories of speaking that have produced layers of related speech acts. In that gap between the address and its uptake, “the threat may well solicit a response … that it never anticipated,” and the one addressed is capable of saying something fatally unordinary that prevents the coming-into-being that its speaker intended. The US state works to reduce JTF-GTMO detainees through indefinite detention, sensory deprivation, and withdrawal from the protection of the law, and it legitimates these practices with the discursive act of naming detainees “enemy combatants.” This process of naming aspires to bring into being a collection of demonic but tractable figures that draw “the people” into a relation of identification with the state. However, when detainees tell their lawyers surprising stories about using pebbles to carve “short two or three-line poems into the Styrofoam cups they were given at lunch time” and their lawyers carry those stories through a complex system of surveillance and censorship to a wider public (Falkoff, “Conspiracy” 6), “the people” are invited by detainee speech into relations of identification that conflict with the motives of state-based love/hate speech. In other words, not only the poetry they have written but also their situated performances of writing poetry enter public discourses disruptively. To call the sovereign performative “love/hate speech” is to recognize both its violent address and its insurrectionary potential. Love/hate speech divides the good citizen from the scapegoat by reassuring one and threatening the other; in the process, it disciplines them both.
What is interesting about JTF-GTMO is that the discursive production of detainees suggests that bare life and the scapegoat describe the ways state-based rhetorics work to bring particular types of subjects into being, but they do not predict the cultural/rhetorical production of the detainee who interrupts that process. Detainee rhetorical practices emerge from the peculiar civic exigencies of indefinite detention in the United States’ “war on terror,” and they demonstrate ways that marginal communities resist the work of the state to fix them discursively—as Edbauer’s description of public discourse predicts, detainee rhetorical production is capable of putting discourses of power in motion. By talking back, the tortured subject vies with the state for the attention of the people, revises the marks etched on her/his body, and produces new texts that proliferate and reenter public discourse in forms and networks that are surprising, unruly, and call into being new forms of community.
Exploring Gaps and Fissures in the Hegemonic Text
In keeping with the discussion above, I focus on the USSOUTHCOM report investigating Latif’s death as a partial view of a wider discourse to which the report is infinitely linked in a network of texts and speech acts. I am not interested in its stated aims and whether or not it achieves those aims. I am interested in it as an instance of sovereign performative speech that works to fix discourse as if it were not imbued with meaning though repetition, iteration, and the layering of previous texts. Latif’s rhetorical practices, as they emerge from the gaps of the USSOUTHCOM report, disrupt the work of normalization that his designation as enemy combatant works to achieve. In making this claim, I do not wish to diminish recognition of the horror that detainees certainly experience as objects of a disciplinary control placed outside of judicial review. The report’s depiction of JTF-GTMO may resemble something akin to a summer camp, but detainees (including Latif), ex-detainees, and habeas corpus lawyers have presented compelling evidence of the debilitating, every day forms of violence that take place there.6 My purpose in this article is to demonstrate that while the report works to empty out Latif’s speech by reducing him to an unruly and irrational object of disciplinary control, it is not able to contain Latif inside the figure of the docile body, nor is it able to prevent his speech from calling out to a wider audience. The report works to elide questions of justice and right (e.g., is the practice of indefinite detention at JTF-GTMO a human rights violation?) by limiting the investigation into Latif’s death to local questions of pathology, discipline, and staff training (e.g., does the practice of indefinite detention at JTF-GTMO follow Normal Operating Procedures (NOP)?). However, my contention is that if audiences are able to hear Latif’s surprising uptake, his insurrectionary speech, they might find that this hegemonic text in fact brings into relief the absurdity, cruelty, and illegality of indefinite detention, and that in spite of its biopolitical aims, this text legitimates and participates in the call to close JTF-GTMO and cease the performance of state-based love/hate speech.
Faithful to its genre as a government report, the USSOUTHCOM investigation into the death of Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif is divided neatly into three parts: part one, “Facts”; part two, “Findings”; and part three, “Recommendations.” Part one is further divided into three sections: “I. Life of ISN156 at JTF-GTMO,” “II. Listing of ISN156’s Recent Prescribed Medications,” and “III. Cause of Death of ISN156.” The full text is preceded by an executive summary and a list of references. Parts of the text are redacted throughout, but not consistently enough to disrupt the narrative. In fact, the redaction enters the narrative in compelling ways as a trace that constantly reminds the reader of the text’s position as a state-based discourse of power that employs the sovereign performative and assumes it will always be efficacious. Recall that the report describes Latif as a prolific communicator who expresses “ideations,” writes poems, talks about death, and makes statements about suicide. More specifically, under “A. (U) Personal Background,” the report explains that Latif “learned some English,” “frequently wrote to his family,” and in 2012 alone “made 14 video phone calls (VPCs) or telephone calls to his family in Yemen.” He “also frequently communicated with his attorneys” (1). The list of his “Disciplinary Events” includes “cross block talking, and writing on cell-block walls” (5). He “frequently wrote dark poems with suicidal themes, and wrote long letters to Joint Detention Group (JDG) leadership with quality of life complaints” (6). He attempted suicide several times and was frequently on hunger strikes, including at the time of his death. Thus, my first point is simply that the Latif that emerges from the report is a prolific communicator who makes purposeful use of speech, writing, and performance to mediate the circumstances of his situation at JTF-GTMO. In the subsections that follow, I examine three points of discursive struggle in the USSOUTHCOM report: (1) I explore the ways that Latif’s rhetorical production leaks through a medicalized rhetoric of care that depicts him as incapable of rational speech; (2) I examine the ways that the report is caught up in the movement of a complex intertextuality even as it works to fix Latif’s story in time and place; (3) I propose that the report’s description of Latif’s suicide brings into relief the ways that he finally dismantles the most well-established iteration of state-based hate speech: Foucault’s disciplinary panopticon.
A Rhetoric of Care
The USSOUTHCOM report employs a disciplinary rhetoric of medicalization and security that works to vacate rational bases from Latif’s communicative practices. For example, the reader learns that over the course of his detention, “Guantanamo Bay Joint Medical Group (JMG) doctors diagnosed ISN156 with Bipolar Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder with antisocial traits” (3). He was noted to display “chronic Impulse Control Disorder.” The Healthcare Ethics Committee “stated that all of these conditions were associated in ISN156 with acts of self-harm and violent behavior” (4). The report establishes a causal link between Latif’s psychiatric diagnoses and his bad behavior (e.g., “cross-block talking” and “writing on cell walls”). It describes the causes of Latif’s violent behavior and self-harm as internal or inside his head, rather than external or in response to the conditions in which he finds himself as an indefinite detainee. In this way, the report reaffirms Latif’s constitutively irrational nature and exonerates JTF-GTMO as the cause of or reason for his resistance. Instead, JTF-GTMO becomes the sight of Latif’s diagnosis and the sight of his consequent psychiatric care.
This discursive structure is fragile, however, because it depends on an audience that is receptive to the idea that the state can be trusted to care for the well-being of indefinitely detained individuals in the face of evidence in the report that it cannot. For example, the Healthcare Ethics Committee notes that “ISN156’s thought process was often illogical, and he engaged in near daily debates and negotiations with JMG medical staff regarding compliance with oral medications” (4). In this compound sentence, the second clause describes Latif as actively engaged in the rhetorical practices of debate and negotiation. The preceding clause, however, describes his “thought process” as “illogical” and suggests that he negotiated irrationally. In other words, his speech is in turns empty or untrustworthy, but the speech of the JMG Medical Staff is both full and dependable. The sentence acknowledges Latif’s active participation in the rhetorical life of JTF-GTMO while simultaneously draining it of credibility. However, the report is also compelled to reveal that, in 2008, Latif approached an interpreter, saying “something like, ‘here, I could eat these pills if I wanted to kill myself’ and showing him a fist-full of four of five pills” (6n20). The report reveals here that four years before Latif took his own life by hoarding medication, he made it clear to his jailers that he had figured out how to hoard the medications they were giving him. This skill, which would presumably require foresight and a savvy understanding of his situation and his jailers, is presumably how he came to “ingest” the 24 tablets of paliperidone (Invega) that were determined to have caused his death (i). The excruciating detail with which the investigative report outlines Latif’s physical and psychiatric history works to build a foundation of credibility for JTF-GTMO as a caring institution, but this foundation exhibits fragility when the report acknowledges that, at the time of his death, “ISN156 also had acute pneumonia,” and admits that the illness had remained undiagnosed and untreated at the time of his death. The report unwittingly makes visible the rational basis of Latif’s “debates and negotiations” when it becomes clear that JTF-GTMO failed to care for him. It thus seems reasonable to suggest that Latif was compelled to employ rhetorical practices in order to advocate for himself.
USSOUTHCOM and Intertextuality
In order to further explore the fragility of this rhetoric of care, it is important to recognize the ways that this text is embedded in a network of documents related to Latif’s case. First, the USSOUTHCOM report states that Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) was suspected to be a cause of the fact that Latif “was almost completely blind in his left eye,” and TBI is also explored as a cause of his “cognitive disorder” (3). A note in the report claims that “[redacted] had recently consulted with the JMG [Joint Medical Group] Commander, [redacted] to determine whether the JMG could work with Jordan (where the hospital was that ISN156 claimed treated his head injury) to obtain records of treatment of ISN156 related to the car accident” (3). This note again produces a tone of solicitation—the insertion suggests that the JMG at least had Latif’s best interests at heart and was seeking to alleviate his suffering.
However, a JTF-GTMO Detainee Assessment memorandum from 2008 assesses Latif’s claim to have traveled to Jordan for the treatment of a head injury “to be false” and asserts that, “when visually inspected by an interviewer for scars related to the detainee’s claimed injury and surgery on his head, no evidence of scars or defects were found” (4). Evidently, in 2004, when Latif underwent a tribunal hearing on his status as an “enemy combatant,” he requested that his medical records in Jordan be obtained to support his claims of innocence, but “the Tribunal President denied the request” (Falkoff, “This is to Whom”). One of Latif’s lawyers, Marc Falkoff, did obtain medical records from hospitals in both Yemen and Jordan corroborating Latif’s claims of treatment, “and they provided strong support for his explanation for his presence in Afghanistan” (“This is to Whom”). Thus it would appear that, when writing up the 2008 assessment in which Latif is both “recommended for transfer out of DOD control” and “assessed to be a member of al-Qaida,” definitive evidence that had been in the hands of his lawyers for four years—evidence that corroborated Latif’s claim to have been in Jordan for medical treatment of severe head trauma—is rejected in favor of a visual inspection of his head “by an interviewer” that found no evidence of head trauma (United States Government Department of Defense).
A 2008 “JTF-GTMO Detainee Assessment” of Latif’s case also explains that officials “recommended this detainee for Transfer Out of DoD Control (TRO)” twice: once in 2006 and once in 2008 (2). Then, on August 16, 2010, he won his habeas corpus case when “Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. ruled that the federal government had ‘failed to demonstrate that the detention of [Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif] is lawful’” (“Judge Orders”). However, he was not released as the judge ordered, but rather his detention was again made indefinite when Kennedy’s decision was vacated in an appeal by the Obama administration on April 27, 2012 (Henderson, Brown, and Tatel). The report thus works to suppress an intertextual reading of this case in which Latif’s bad behavior emerges as a logical and reasonable response to the desperately unjust and ongoing nature of indefinite detention at JTF-GTMO. My point here is not to make a claim to truth or to suggest that I can see who is telling the truth in Latif’s case. Rather, my point is that the USSOUTHCOM report works to produce Latif’s speech as irrational while simultaneously engaging in torturously illogical performances of speech through which his voice becomes intelligible.
Monkey-Wrenching the Panopticon
The American Forces Press article cited in the first part of this paper suggests that suicide causes anxiety at JTF-GTMO (Wood). In that case, Navy Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris works to exonerate JTF-GTMO by insisting that three detainees killed themselves as terrorists engaged in “asymmetric warfare.” The USSOUTHCOM report, then, is motivated by the need to investigate the causes and contexts of Latif’s suicide. By killing himself, he caused the state to write. As I have shown, the report works to empty out Latif’s speech, but that desire is frustrated by his unruly refusal to remain silent, even when captured inside the report’s own prose. What is more, the text’s embeddedness in a wider discourse keeps it in unpredictable motion. The report, then, is linked through its disciplinary strategies to another text—a text about prisons and punishment. In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault describes a novel form of disciplinary power that emerged in the nineteenth century in the form of a prison. He explains, “the major effect of the Panopticon [is] to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (201). Foucault’s inmates internalize the gaze of the unseen watcher and begin to regulate their own behavior, thus producing a new form of disciplinary life in the docile prison inmate. In this sense, the panopticon might be viewed as a colossal form of hate speech. Butler points out that “the one who speaks hate speech exercises a performative in which subordination is effected” (Excitable Speech 81). The organization of JTF-GTMO, of course, produces an idiosyncratic version of the panopticon. The panopticon is a prison that is effective, because inmates never know whether the guard is watching or not. However, the guards at JTF-GTMO, according to Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and line of sight protocol are required to watch particular detainees at all times. Latif appears to have produced a form of performance-based resistance that Foucault did not anticipate. Though redaction prevents us from knowing exactly how, he somehow made the guards not want to watch him. To make it clear just how insurrectionary Latif’s behavior seems to have been, and how upsetting it was to business-as-usual among JTF-GTMO staff, it is worth quoting the report at length:
165. (UFOU) Other guards reported that up through the days leading up to his death, ISN156 was engaging in indecent behavior. In fact, one guard understood the [redacted] line of light [sic] rotation policy stemmed from ISN156’s behavior, and that camp leadership “did not want guards to have to watch [the indecent behavior] for more than [redacted] at a time.” Several guards indicated that they had to watch INS156 [redacted] “right up near the window.”. . . .
166. (UFOU) Similarly, a nurse at the BHU/DH [redacted] noted that ISN156 would [redacted] while on line of sight and [redacted] [redacted] noted that it was “very difficult for guards to watch” this behavior. There is nothing in the file of ISN156 to indicate that any discipline time was imposed for this type of indecent behavior.” (46)
The repetition of the full or partial phrase “indecent behavior” and the quotations referring to ways of seeing (“right up near the window,” “they had to watch”) depicts a guard staff wracked with anxiety about watching Latif. The report asserts that line of sight rotation was shifted in order to protect guards from having to watch him for extended periods of time. The report reveals that on the night Latif killed himself, September 7, 2012, “Guards failed to require ISN156 to uncover his [redacted] after he covered it with a food mixture” (49). The report’s redaction of the camera lens that was supposed to watch Latif appears in this statement as the sign of a badly kept secret. The report follows with a complex discussion of who was supposed to be watching Latif, how long they had been in training, and to what extent they were familiar with line of sight rotation protocols (63). It recommends that “JDG and JMG Commanders and leadership must re-enforce and re-train all personnel with respect to SOP requirements for line of sight” (71). The report works hard to refocus the reader on the solutions it has produced to solve the problem of ISN156, but these solutions barely cover up the effectiveness of Latif’s “indecent” performances that persuaded the guards to break protocol because they did not want to look at him. When the report’s Latif is ready to ingest the pills that he has learned to hoard over years, likely by watching the guards very closely, he covers his camera and the guards do not come to his cell to clean it off. Instead, they leave him alone and unwatched for twelve hours. In his final moments, Latif defies the biopolitical will that would keep him alive and docile when he takes control of his own death, escapes “all power,” and retreats “into his own privacy” (Foucault, Society 248).
In the beginning of this article, I described ways that Latif is depicted in a USSOUTHCOM investigative report. That narrative is disconcerting because it inverts the position of JTF-GTMO detainees who, like Latif, are generally portrayed by scholars as abject and racialized victims of US state power (Tripathy; Young). The detainee that readers encounter in that text has caused JTF-GTMO all sorts of interesting trouble. One finds that, in spite of the report’s desire to reduce Latif to his pathology, a complex rhetorical subject emerges from the report, especially when read in juxtaposition with Latif’s other forms of symbolic communication—his poetry, for example. For this reason, I argue that some detainees, from within the constraints of state-based discourses of power, have taken up US state speech by producing and proliferating not silence, not emptiness, not irrational megaviolence, but rather a counter-rhetoric of resistance that emerges in speech, writing, and performance and seeps through the cracks in hegemonic texts—though indefinitely fixed in material space, detainees put discourses back in motion and force the state to revise the discursive, if not material, terms of their detention.
Moazzam Begg, a British citizen, was also detained at JTF-GTMO, but he was released without charge after three years. In an interview with Begg after his release, Onnesha Roychoudhuri asks him about a letter that he received from his seven-year old daughter while he was detained at JTF-GTMO. The letter had been blocked out by a censor, leaving only, “I love you Dad.” It turns out that the letter had contained a familiar nursery rhyme:
One, two, three, four, five,
Once I caught a fish alive.
Six, seven, eight, nine, ten,
Then I let it go again.
Elisabeth Weber links this particular instance of censorship to the act of torture, insisting, “this concurrence of torture and censorship is not a coincidence” (427). She points out that the purpose of such nursery rhymes is to teach children about relations between their bodies and others’ bodies as “the very constitution of community” (428). Thus the censor, like the interrogator, unmakes the tortured subject by withdrawing links to community drawn in the child’s verse. Weber depicts this act of censorship as a sovereign performative, as a rational, planned decision by the censor to withdraw a sense of community from Begg by blocking out the words to the rhyme. But what if we imagine an alternative way of reading of this act of censorship—a reading informed by my discussion of the USSOUTHCOM report? The rhyme continues:
Why did you let it go?
Because it bit my finger so.
Which finger did it bite?
The little one upon the right.
When the fish bites back, it works to link this nursery rhyme to a popular genre of heroic narratives depicting the retributive violence of the weak. Perhaps the censor fears the fish because the fish is part of the censor’s own literary background, his or her own childhood stock of heroes. What is it doing in the letter of a terrorist’s daughter? Perhaps the fish caused the censor to become disoriented in relation to the just and the good. Post-9/11 discourses of security require a demonic other in order for a self to embody the blameless and virtuous position of the victim—are “the people” the fish? Or are they the audience? Does the fish become a terrorist when it bites the finger that pulls it out of the water? In his interview with Roychoudhuri, Begg explains, “I actually showed this letter to Gen. Jay Hood, the former commander of Guantanamo when he came to visit my cell. I asked him what it is that he feared from a 7-year-old girl. He was embarrassed. He didn't know what to say.”
The general’s embarrassment is interesting, and its affective quality reminds me of the ways that Latif made his guards uncomfortable. Could it be their discomfort in encountering and repressing the possibility that they may in fact be the bad guys? The love/hate speech that organizes discourse at JTF-GTMO produces anxiety, horror, abjection, and insurrection, as well as a unified people. Out of that fraught rhetorical situation, Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, along with other detainees who write, engaged in complex, multimodal, symbolic communication. Latif’s marks remain legible on his literary body, in his writing, in the “hegemonic narratives” produced by his captors, and in the unredactable evidence of unspeakable performances that appear to have produced anxiety in his guards and disrupted JTF-GTMO’s “line of sight” surveillance protocols. As scholars who are positioned critically against the excesses of contemporary state-based rhetorics of sovereignty and who desire Jacobi’s “more ethical and just world,” we have the ability to engage this writing and to take part in its proliferation—not as “truth,” but as a rich counter-rhetoric of resistance that work to subvert post-9/11 discourses of fear. Such discourses, as we have seen, will internalize the monsters that they fear and make silent those speakers/writers/performers who resist love/hate speech by turning to each other. Though state-based love/hate speech works to control the terms of address in the hegemonic narratives that emerge from JTF-GTMO, the careful reader will find “gaps, fissures, and silences” that leak resistance and teach us about marginal voices that are already speaking. Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, for one, did not go quietly.
- 1. The reader will note an inconsistency in the use of the accent in “Guantánamo.” This inconsistency mirrors its usage across sources, and I have preserved the inconsistency in this article. Government documents generally do not include the accent, and usage across other sources is uneven. I have adopted the accent in my own usage.
- 2. McGee describes “the people,” the audience brought into being in political address, as “a fiction dreamed by an advocate” and “an essential rhetorical fiction with both a ‘social’ and a ‘objective’ reality” (240). He claims that an “advocate … actualizes his audience’s predisposition to act” (241). In other words, when a US politician addresses or describes “the American people,” it is with high hopes that a number of those listening will see themselves in his/her words and respond by inhabiting and thus reproducing that description.
- 3. See “The Guantánamo Docket” of the New York Times, which has assembled “documents and research related to the 779 people who have been sent to the Guantanamo Bay prison since 2002” (“The Guantánamo Docket”).
- 4. It is important to counter any lingering sense that methods like indefinite detention are warranted because of a “realistic” view that the detainees, as terrorists, really are monstrous—in other words, that this discourse is produced by the essential monstrousness of these men who remain “the worst of the worst.” According to US government statistics cited by the ACLU, 92% of detainees have not been categorized as al-Qaeda fighters (“Guantánamo”). 654 have been released. 122 remain in detention even though 54 of those have been “cleared for release.” For a useful infographic of pertinent statistics, see “Guantánamo by the Numbers [Infographic].”
- 5. It is worth noting that Cheney’s statement acts inadvertently as a prescient critique of the Obama administration’s drone-based assassination program through which the US state, with its “kill list,” behaves exactly like the others who “operate in that way” by summarily executing suspected terrorists whether US citizen or not. For an excellent investigative source, see Scahill and Greenwald.
- 6. For a clear, cogent, and thoughtful description of conditions at JTF-GTMO by a current detainee, see Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary.
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