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Guantánamo Diary: Interrogating the War on Terror (Pt. 1) (by Maryam El-Shall)

. . . We live in an age of terror, but not because we have been terrorized by the Other. Rather, the terrorism we recognize is the consequence of an a priori distinction between lives that matter and lives that don’t. Slahi, confined at Guantanamo since January 2000 without charge, represents the figure of terror.

Mohammed Ould-Slahi and Larry Siems. Guantánamo Diary. Little, Brown, and Co., 2015. 432 pp.

We know that there is a kind of life that defies our basic understanding of life and that it exists by virtue of the practicalities of the political which decides in the name of some lives which others must be expended.

I just finished reading Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary, where Slahi recounts his capture and detention first by Jordanian forces at the behest of the US government and then by the US itself at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  Heavily redacted and imprecise at times, Slahi’s narrative illustrates three things that are at the heart of this project:

1) We live in an age of terror, but not because we have been terrorized by the Other.  Rather, the terrorism we recognize is the consequence of an a priori distinction between lives that matter and lives that don’t.  Slahi, confined at Guantanamo since January 2000 without charge, represents the figure of terror.  Here, however, we must make a distinction between the terrorist and the figure of terror by asking about the life that is recognized and the life that is disavowed through the War on Terror.  Slahi’s diary matters here then to the extent that it is a narrative about a life that, paradigmatic of the discourse of terrorism, does not.  But, it is about more than this.  Slahi’s narrative illuminates the reach of power over all of life.

We must recognize that the discourse of terrorism does not move in one direction.  It not only reaches outward to name the Other, to distinguish, as it were, friend from foe, and to declare war on those thought to threaten civilization.  In a broader sense, the War on Terror encompasses all of political life as such by including, through the ban it places on the lives of the suspect, what it excludes and by excluding what it includes.  The exceptional state of detention Slahi experiences at Guantanamo is in fact quite ordinary not only in its seeming state of permanency– despite promises to the contrary, President Obama has been unwilling or unable to close it, conditions which are themselves indicative of the rule that Guantanamo and, indeed, other unnamed black sites, represent–but also in the banality of its operation as a space ruled by the absence of law.  Guantanamo–a camp established not by any juridical principle but rather by the withdrawal of all political principles in the name of the state’s security–in fact forms the rule of government.

Here we can draw on Agamben’s analysis of Nazi concentration camps to understand this paradigm of power.  Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution authorized a state of exception allowing the president of the Reich to suspend the fundamental rights contained within the constitution.  Dachau, the first concentration camp established under this decree, was thus founded on the negative principle of non-law delimited by the decision, the sovereign power to withdraw the law and thereby recreate a new rule, of the president.  Agamben cites article 48:

The president of the Reich may, in case of a grave disturbance or threat to public security and order, make the decisions necessary to reestablish public security, if necessary with the aid of the armed forces.  To this end, he may provisionally suspend the fundamental rights contained in articles 114, 115, 118, 123, 124, and 153.

The sovereign decision outlined in article 48, Agamben shows, outlines two fundamental principles governing situations not only (or, perhaps, not at all) of crisis–”grave disturbances” or “threats to public security”–but also, constitutive of situations of emergency, the rule.  What we see in the decision of crisis is the structure of state power itself, a power that rests not only on the word of the sovereign–the leader of the state–but, more fundamentally, also on the body–literal and metaphorical–upon which the sovereign decides.  The body the law protects is the collective body of the people who collectively form the life of the state.  For Agamben, drawing on Foucault’s initial formulation of biopolitics, the task of politics is to determine who must die so that others might live.  Homo sacer, a figure first identified in Roman law as he who can be killed (with impunity) but not sacrificed, sits at the heart of Agamben’s theory of biopolitics:

[T]he decisive fact is that, together with the process by which the exception everywhere becomes the rule, the realm of bare life–which is originally situated at the margins of the political order–gradually begins to coincide with the political realm, and exclusion and inclusion, outside and inside, bios and zoe, right and fact, enter into a zone of irreducible indistinction.

The non-rule rule establishing the power of the sovereign to decide–this is to say, the withdrawal of the law–is the foundation of power itself.  For Agamben, the camp is thus not representative of an outlier.  Rather, what the camp represents in its very exceptionality is power itself:  “The camp is the space that is opened when the state of exception becomes the rule.”  Here, Agamben is not only addressing the permanency of the camps, which, during the third Reich, existed for 15 years, nor is he concerned only with what the camps represent with respect to sovereign power.  For Agamben, the camp places the content of sovereign power in stark display:  it is the site of a decision about life and death.


To confront the War on Terror, we must come to terms with its theoretical implications.  Slahi’s diary allows us to do this by opening up the theoretical horizons of the war, the discourse and silences surrounding the war, and  by showing the constitutiveness of war and, indeed, of terror, to power.  The power that hangs over Slahi at Guantanamo in this sense is a power that hangs over all who live under the power of a state– which is, following Agamben’s theorization, both constituted by the camp and, increasingly modeled on it as well.  Here, however, what we see in the course of Slahi’s narrative is the way in which the decision of war, much like the foundation of law, rests on a presupposition of power linked to livingness as such.  This is apparent not only in the boundaries drawn around detainees at Guantanamo, but also in the broader context upon which the camp at Guantanamo gains its seeming legitimacy–we see the camp more or less replicated in various sites around the world–Jordanian and Egyptian prisons, Bagram in Afghanistan, and various other unnamed black sites situated in various parts of the world.  What is important to emphasize here, however, is the way in which the proliferation of the camp is representative of that which was in place before the advent of the War on Terror. The presence of law presumes the possibility of violence and war is but the expression of law taken to its limits: what war aims to protect is not the natural life of the human being nor is it concerned with the political life of the citizen.  Rather, war aims to maintain the division of life upon which power rests.  What Slahi’s diary illustrates in stark detail is this division. The uncertainty surrounding his identity and the identities of his fellow detainees, the identities of his captors, the reasons for his detention and the possibilities for his future is the inevitable outcome the war since uncertainty holds the foundational power of sovereignty–the power to decide life– in abeyance, like a pendulum held at its highest point.  We must not be distracted by claims about humanitarianism or concerns about the law.  Rather and to this extent, the War on Terror and the delimitations of life it makes is representative of a broader biopolitics upon which all power rests:  the distinction between the life of the citizen and the life of the non-citizen, the qualified life of rights vs. the bare life of the refugee, the soldier whose life can be sacrificed and the suspected terrorist who can be killed with impunity and yet whose death goes uncounted.

(Review to be continued next week.)


Maryam El-Shall teaches English and Humanities at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Her research focuses on truth discourses, biopolitics and political theory more broadly. She is currently working on a project examining the intersections of classical discourses of madness, Orientalism and contemporary discourses of terrorism.

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