Darkness At Noon
Ohdave/Candide’s Notebooks, December 18, 2006
The stain of Guantanamo, our national shame, will not go away. Five years after the start of the so-called “war on terror”, our shopping center of illegal detention and torture is adding on. Camp 6 has recently opened, and its ownership is promising a “tougher line” on the prisoners kept there. In spite of the embarrassment of illegal detention, the stories of torture, the condemnation of civilized people everywhere, and Supreme Court rulings against the administration, business is booming, and far from going out of the illegal detention business, the US is continuing it with gusto, expanding operations with no end in sight. The lesson of the past is not, apparently, that endless detention is immoral. Rather, the lesson seems to be that we need a “tougher line.”
Enemy Combatant (New Press, 352 pp.), which came out earlier this year, helps readers see behind the razor wire at Guantanamo, and at Bagram and Kandahar in Afghanistan, parts of the American archipelago that takes men and women, guilty or not, and puts them in legal limbo indefinitely. Moazzam Begg, the author, spent three years in confinement, the majority of it solitary. His account shows the human side of the prisoners that the US works tirelessly to keep out of the public eye.
Begg, a Pakistani Briton, grew up in Birmingham. He attended a Jewish school as a child and had many Jewish friends. As a youth, he experienced the racial hatred of the skinheads. He organized a gang, the Lynx, to fight back and to protect Pakistanis from harassment. As a young man, he went on a spiritual quest, rediscovering his Islamic heritage and studying the Koran. He traveled widely in the Muslim world, and became increasingly interested in how he could help fellow Muslims around the world. Volunteering to help a London charity that was providing relief to Bosnian Muslims was an important step in Begg’s journey. His efforts consisted of shepherding a caravan of goods across Europe. Begg began to wonder what he could do to help other Muslims around the world who were in need.
This interest led him to Afghanistan. After marrying and beginning a family, Begg left behind the bookshop he had started in London, and spent an extended time in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He organized a charitable campaign to provide wells in Afghanistan. It is this activism and involvement in Afghanistan that would prove to be his downfall as it seemed to lead the Americans to suspect him of involvement with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. While living back in Islamabad, he was taken from his home at gunpoint in a dramatic and frightening scene that opens Begg’s account. From there he was taken to Kandahar, then to Bagram, and ultimately to Guantanamo.
It is in Kandahar and Bagram where Begg receives his worst treatment. A small man, only 5’3”, Begg is manhandled frequently. He describes his first transport this way:
One guard was almost lying on top of me, screaming obscenities in my ear. My hands were still shackled from behind; the hood was pulled around my neck so I could barely breathe. I gasped at the guard that I had asthma... that I could not breathe. He eventually raised the hood just above my mouth. […] [T]he noise was deafening: the barking dogs, relentless verbal abuse, plane engines, electricity generators, and screams of pain from the other prisoners. Maybe I screamed too. I was tripped onto the ground to the prone position again. This time I felt knees pushing hard against my ribs and legs, and crushing down on my skull simultaneously. I was pinned to the ground by this massive weight... the body or cavity search that that I had been told would not take place then followed... I heard screams of people behind me.
Later in Bagram, after (astonishingly) Begg is offered a deal to work on behalf of the CIA, he receives the most brutal torture of his captivity:
After that first heavy interrogation they took me into another room and left me there. Guards tied my hands behind my back, hog tied me so that my hands were shackled to my legs, which were also shackled. Then they put a hood over my head. It was stuffy and hard to breathe, and I was on the verge of asthmatic panic. The perpetual darkness was frightening. A barrage of kicks to my head and back followed. Lying on the ground with my back arched and my wrists and ankles chafing against the metal chains, was excruciating. I could never wriggle into a more comfortable position, even for a moment.
Begg spends a month in solitary confinement in Bagram, suffers sleep deprivation, misses the birth of his youngest son, but most disconcertingly, hears frequent screaming, including the screams of women, and witnesses beatings of detainees. Eventually he signs under duress a kind of forced confession which he later believes will serve as basis for a military tribunal against him.
Begg’s time in Guantanamo is marked by seemingly interminable waiting and wondering about his legal status, but no beatings. The mistreatment here is psychological: solitary confinement, poor food, no contact with his family, incessant questioning about his non-existent role with Al Qaeda. While Begg is kept in isolation from other prisoners, what propels his narrative is his observations of the Americans. It is clear from Begg’s discussions in the book and his discussions with his captors that Begg is not anti-American. Sure, his narrative is peppered with criticisms of American foreign and military policy. But he never pre-judges any American he encounters. Some of the guards are described as friends and described in respectful terms. Begg throughout the narrative confines his anger to the American government and military led by George W. Bush.
Near the end of this stay in Guantanamo, Begg is granted access to lawyers. At first he meets with a military lawyer who promises to represent him before a military tribunal. But then he is granted access to lawyers who represent his cause. He finds out his lawyers that his father in Birmingham has been working indefatigably for his release, and that a movement has grown in the UK to secure his rights and those of other Britons held by the US without charges. His lawyers advise him not to participate in the military tribunal process. They decide to pressure the US by embarrassing the government, releasing details about Begg’s captivity and the abuses he has witnessed, including two deaths at Bagram.
Around this time he is kept in a different camp and allowed some contact with other prisoners. The conversations he has are interesting, and it appears that the US has detained at least one bona fide al Qaeda member, as he has frequent debates with the other detainees. Begg argues forcefully that the 9/11 attacks were not justified in Islam because they indiscriminately targeted women and children. The opposing argument is that Al Qaeda’s targets were the Pentagon, the US’s financial center, and the White House, which is the head of the serpent. The dialogue between the men is fascinating, and it shows that Begg is no terrorist.
Begg’s disavowal of terrorism is also made clear at the end of the book, after he has returned to Birmingham and become a political celebrity. After the London train bombings, he is asked to meet with MI5. In the meeting, Begg again makes it clear that he disagrees with the violence as a Muslim because of the negative impact, the backlash, that it brings to Muslims, in addition to the fact that targeting of innocents goes against the tenets of the Koran. He also lashes out against MI5, as their entire way of thinking is flawed: why do they want to speak to him? By assuming that every Muslim is a terrorist, they miss opportunities to truly understand their enemies.
Begg’s attitude towards his home country is mixed. On one hand he blames the British government and Tony Blair for their complicity in his capture by the Americans. Where did they get his name? On the other hand, he is grateful for the efforts the government undertook to release him. When he returns to England, and realizes that a march of one million people against the war took place in his absence, that widespread public opinion was in his favor and that of his fellow captives, and that the British people in general sought justice and peace, Begg is filled with a kind of patriotic pride that comes through in his prose. In the end he says that his is proud to be a Muslim and a Briton.
My only criticism of Begg’s book is that he is awfully quiet about the Taliban. His only criticisms of the Taliban, which he experiences during a time in Kabul prior to 9/11, have to do with their corruption and managerial incompetence. At other times in the book, he praises the Taliban for their moves towards social justice. How, after what Begg has experienced, can he not be more critical of the Taliban’s record on human rights and their outright oppression of women? This was a major flaw in the book, as Begg seems loath to criticize any Muslim institution. But it is clear that the principles of constitutional law and due process that he demands from the US and Briton would certainly be lacking in the Taliban regime.
Begg’s account of his life and captivity are fascinating. It is a measured, honest, and believable account; it does not describe the worst offenses that the US has been accused of, but even a detainment without beatings or torture, Begg shows, is psychologically damaging, as for years Begg was held without charge, had no access to lawyers, and had no way of knowing if he would ever see his father, wife, and children again. How many of us, living our comfortable American lives, could survive three years of solitude in prison, with our guards as our only source of human contact, not knowing why we were arrested, when our trial would be, who would represent us, or how we would defend ourselves, or if we would be merely executed at the whim of the state, or sent to countries like Egypt or Jordan where severe torture was to be expected (Begg was threatened in Bagram with a trip to Egypt). I am not sure I could take it, nor my family. It appears that Jose Padilla was not able to maintain his sanity through such an ordeal, as recent reports have shown (see links below). It is unconscionable that this is occurring at the hands of the United States. President Bush repeatedly claims to be fighting for democracy and freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan. Begg’s book makes it clear that the president has little concern for core American ideals that he claims to seek abroad.
One afternoon I heard one of the guards yelling, “what the hell do you think you’re doing?” I heard a scuffle, and then some dull thuds, behind cell three. Then I saw Cody, the Irish American I knew from Kandahar , and another MP from North Carolina , dragging a limp body past our cell to the medical room. I could see bruises on the detainee’s face, covered in dust, as they pulled him past my cell. They must have radioed for help, as all sorts of medics, doctors, and officers, including the new female commander, Major Stuart, rushed into the medical room. Eventually the door opened, and guards carried out a stretcher with only the man’s feet visible.
The story was that this young Afghan had tried to escape. He inched away the barbed wire beside the toilet at the back of the cell. Whenever we used the toilet we took a blanket and hung it up at either end of the surrounding concertina wire for privacy. This detainee had prepared the barbed wire so that he could push the barrel away and crawl through when the time was right and the guards on the wooden catwalk behind the cells were not around. Usually there were one or even two guards patrolling there so he must have picked his time.
Later that evening, Cody came over with his arm in plaster and started talking to me. I was already used to a lot of the guards feeling they could confide in me. But I could not believe it when he began telling me in detail about what he had done to that detainee. He had shouted “what the hell do you think you are doing?” Then he told me, he jumped on the escaper straightaway. The other guard on overwatch saw it too, and jumped down from the opposite end. Cody told me he started hitting the detainee so hard that he felt he had fractured something. The other guard had used Thai-style elbow and knee-strike techniques. I didn’t know whether they knew they had killed him... But I soon had the death confirmed...
Links to news and related reading:
ABC News on the latest in the Padilla case, in which his lawyers argue that the solitary confinement and interrogation techniques used against him may have may him unable to stand trial.
The New York Times on the “Tougher Line” being take against detainees at Guantanamo. Begg recalls being called a terrorist by his interrogators at Guantanamo, and tells repeatedly of being described as extremely dangerous. In light of Begg’s story, any statement from the US military about the danger posed by captives at Guantanamo takes on a ridiculous hue. From the Times story linked above:
The commander of the Guantánamo task force, Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., said the tougher approach also reflected the changing nature of the prison population, and his conviction that all of those now held here are dangerous men. “They’re all terrorists; they’re all enemy combatants,” Admiral Harris said in an interview.
He added, “I don’t think there is such a thing as a medium-security terrorist.”
Admiral Harris, who took command on March 31, referred in part to the recent departure from Guantánamo of the last of 38 men whom the military had classified since early 2005 as “no longer enemy combatants.” Still, about 100 others who had been cleared by the military for transfer or release remained here while the State Department tried to arrange their repatriation.
[Shortly after Admiral Harris’s remarks, another 15 detainees were sent home to Saudi Arabia, where they were promptly returned to their families.]
Again, the Times: The courts cannot hear challenges from detainees.
AP:The detainees called “dangerous” by the US are often released by their home countries.
This piece originally appeared at Ohdave's Into My Own.