Monday, June 12, 2006

Suicides at Guantanamo Bay

All societies have a notion of permissible killing. It is unclear, however, what our society believes about suicide. Surely it is a controversial issue. Is suicide ever permissible, and if so, under what conditions and in what ways?

The three suicides at Guantanamo Bay, as a New York Times editorial rightly suggests, were "the inevitable result of creating a netherworld of despair beyond the laws of civilized nations, where men were to be held without any hope of decent treatment, impartial justice or, in so many cases, even eventual release." Reduced to live humanly incredibly inhuman conditions, it is no surprise that these inmates found it more glorious and noble to die by their own hands than to continue to suffer under their captors. We know from the experience of Nazi concentration camps that humans can be made to go willingly to their death. Now we know from Guantanamo Bay, if we didn't already, that under conditions of extreme distress and captivity, where there is no hope for release, humans will decide to take their own life as their only way out.

And it is worth documenting again the perverse reaction to these suicides on the part of the camp commander: "Admiral Harris's response was as appalling as the suicides. 'I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us,' he said. The inmates, he said, 'have no regard for life, neither ours nor their own.'" Under normal circumstances, suicide may be ridiculous. But these aren't normal circumstances. Moreover, a jailer is in no position to accuse his prisoners of morally inappropriate action in trying to escape. And to call these suicides an act of warfare is beyond comprehension.

Regard for life? If anyone has little regard for life it is Admiral Harris, whose remarks show how little consideration and empathy he has for the pathos and extreme anguish of his prisoners lives. However dangerous they may be, they are still human.


Eli said...

It might be interesting to parse out the assumptions behind Admiral Harris's statement: "I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us." The options he offers of desparation or warfare occlude other interpretations: the inmates may have intended their suicides to express political protest, group solidarity, and religous devotion. Harris's dichotomy serves to reduce the prisoners (or "martyrs," from the perspectives of their friends) to the status of either desparate weaklings or vicious combatants. He essentially denies their abilities to attribute political, cultural, and religious meaning to their actions - thereby preventing a recognition of social, human qualities. He reduces them to non-social animals, reinforced by his statement that "they have no regard for life, neither ours nor their own." This statement is a classic performative contradiction, considering that Harris's previous statement (and the horrible acts committed at Guantanamo) disregarded the essential attributes of the inmates' lives.

I hope that someday Admiral Harris will have to take responsibility for the culture of torture that he is perpetuating with this statement... preferably in front of the International Criminal Court.

Mandingo said...

Yeah, I thought the whole thing was a classic study in performative contradictions myself.