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All They Will Call You is Detainee

by Lawrence McGuire

Some of the terms used by America to describe the prisoners, such as “battlefield detainees”, have no legal meaning, the Red Cross says. (Kim Sengupta The Independent, U.K., Jan. 14, 2002)

How does the song go? ‘You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane, all they will call you will be.’

Ah, the importance of words and names in the scheme of things.

We need a word for this odor. It’s not exactly fascism (though Hitler certainly knew how to dehumanize his enemies), and of course it’s not State Communism (though Stalin certainly knew the value of ‘legal’ show trials), but it’s starting to smell similar to both. Because, judging from the aromas wafting over the news wires, it sure seems like cold blooded judicial murder is coming to Guantanamo Bay.

First I read that there were Afghan prisoners in chains with bags over their heads:

The photograph [in the New York Times] clearly showed that the prisoners suspected of belonging to al-Qaeda had their arms pinioned behind them and had bags over their heads, secured with metallic tape. (Terry Jones, The Observer, U.K., Jan. 6, 2002)

Then I learned these prisoners were being flown from Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay, in Cuba, by the U.S. military. This treatment of prisoners is considered torture by the Geneva Convention. Apparently the Pentagon got worried about the photos because a few days later:

Pentagon officials ordered several news organizations not to transmit pictures of the hooded detainees boarding planes. (Jim Lobe, Jan.11, 2002)

Next I learn that the prisoners were also forcibly shaved, head and beard, (a deliberate desecration of their religious beliefs). Perhaps this is the reason for both the bag over the head and the Pentagon’s fear of photographs? What does a malnourished human being with a shaved head shackled in chains remind you of?

However, not to worry. The International Red Cross would apparently be in charge of the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay:

There the prisoners will be isolated in individual open-air fenced cells with metal roofs. They will sleep on mats under halogen floodlights. They could get wet from rain, but officials say they will be treated humanely. The Red Cross and other organizations will monitor conditions (Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian, U.K., Jan. 11, 2002)

But then I read that this same organization had not even seen the prisoners in Afghanistan, and that they were unable to get any straight information from the U.S. Government:

However, attempts by the ICRC [Red Cross] to get Washington to spell out the exact status of its Afghan prisoners has resulted in a variety of often contradictory responses from different departments in the administration, according to diplomatic sources.The Independent has learnt, though, that the ICRC has not been able to get access to the prisoners in Bagram and Mazar-i-Sharif, and has discovered that about 360 being held in Kandahar are being kept in unsheltered stockades in the bitterly cold winter, without any privacy. These conditions would breach the Geneva Convention. (Kim Sengupta, the Independent, UK, Jan. 14, 2002)

So, if the Red Cross knows little about what is happening to the prisoners in Afghanistan, how much will they know in Guantanamo Bay? And why Guantanamo Bay in the first place? It sure seems like a long distance from Afghanistan.

Then clarity clicked like a lock snapping shut. I read that Guantanamo Bay is a very special place. It’s a place where international and national law does not apply:

The prisoners are sent to the Guantanamo base in part because it is not on U.S. territory which would automatically provide detainees with certain basic constitutional rights. At the same time, base operations at Guantanamo Bay are not affected by an agreement with the host government that also might provide detainees with more rights. (Jim Lobe,, Jan. 11, 2002)

Because they are being held outside US sovereign territory, they are also denied the rights to a jury trial in independent courts afforded to “ordinary” criminals by the constitution. Washington has indicated that they will be tried by military tribunals. (Paul Kelso, Jan. 14, 2002, The Guardian, UK)

No international law, because you are called a detainee, not a prisoner of war. No law from a ‘host government’ because Cuba is not voluntarily hosting a U.S. military base. No domestic constitutional law because you are not on U.S. territory. No law.what does that mean?

Now we can meditate on the implications of the Patriot Act passed last fall, which allows for military tribunals and subsequent execution for ‘terrorism’.

Let’s imagine these prisoners (and we’ll have to imagine them because we will probably never see them or hear much about them). Let’s give one of them a name, Ali the Dishwasher, for example.

Ali perhaps comes from Saudi Arabia. He was recruited by his government as a soldier to go to Afghanistan and fight the Soviet Union. The C.I.A. paid for his flight and training and expenses. After the Soviets withdrew Ali started getting his paycheck from the Pakistan secret police, to encourage him to stay in Afghanistan and support the Taleban. Because Ali was a soldier, recruited as a soldier and trained as a soldier, he, like all soldiers, just followed orders. They ordered him to wash dishes (I’m sure even terrorist training camps need dishwashers).

He sent money home every month to his family in Saudi Arabia. He was a hero back in his hometown, just like American soldiers are heroes back in their hometowns. The folks back home didn’t realize that he was just a dishwasher in a training camp.

The Americans start bombing Afghanistan and Ali goes with his fellow soldiers, dodging bombs, fighting here and there, finally getting captured.

Now, maybe Ali the Dishwasher also killed men in battle. A lot of soldiers do that. Maybe he even killed civilians, a lot of soldiers do that also (American pilots, for example, killed around 5,000 civilians recently in Afghanistan). But he is still a soldier. Why, even Ronald Reagan called Ali a freedom fighter. And Sylvester Stallone dedicated ‘Rambo 3’ to him and his fellow mujadeen.

But the U.S. authorities don’t call him a captured soldier, a prisoner of war, because that would give him some theoretical rights. They humiliate him by shaving his head and beard, put a bag over his head, put him in chains, ‘sedate’ him with some kind of drug, and fly him to Guantanamo Bay.

Then what? He’ll be tried by a U.S. military tribunal, without any of the legal rules for due process. What kind of evidence will prove his innocence? Will he even have a lawyer? Will he be able to call witnesses from Afghanistan, or Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia, or the C.I.A. offices in Langley, Virginia?

I doubt it.

He’s found guilty, with no possibility of appeal. His name changes from detainee to convicted terrorist. Then, as an example to the world, and perhaps to the cheers of a deluded American populace, he’s executed.

How does the song go? ‘You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane, all they will call you will be detainee’.

Ali the Dishwasher: Freedom Fighter, Mujahdeen, Soldier, Unlawful Combattant, Detainee, Terrorist. Guilty. Executed.

Lawrence McGuire is a novelist who lives in France. His latest most recent book is The Great American Wagon Road. He can be reached at:

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