When I found out I had got a placement with Reprieve I was working in an insurance company. On leaving, I had many people ask me where I was going; I told them I was going to Reprieve, working to oppose, torture, secret prisons and illegal detention in the ‘War on Terror.’ I, perhaps naively, did not even consider that some would find that a peculiar, even shocking, choice, that is, until one co-worker’s response.
“You want to help get them out!” he exclaimed when I mentioned that I hoped to be aiding the release of detainees from Guantánamo Bay. I was taken aback. I tried to explain that some of these people had been imprisoned for as much as nine years in horrendous conditions, and had been subjected to atrocious treatment without any credible proof of criminal conduct. He wasn’t convinced. What surprised me the most was how decent the guy otherwise seemed.
I hadn’t realised that Reprieve’s work could be so controversial. Sure, there are plenty of politicians spinning their policies, or right-wing talking heads ready to assert the necessity of torture in this ‘new unprecedented age of terrorism’, but the average Joe knows Guantánamo Bay is straight wrong, right?
Unfortunately, as it seems, not always.
Why is this? Torture and indefinite imprisonment without charge are self-evident tools of the bad guys.
You have to look to how people’s perceptions of Guantánamo – and the political climate – are shaped. The dominant inputs are from news organisations and government statements (though there is often little difference between the two). Regrettably, these sources are often deeply misleading.
So what do the politicians say of Guantánamo Bay? Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld described the prisoners in 2002 as “the worst of the worst,” he said “They’re terrorists, trainers, bomb makers, recruiters, financiers, [Osama bin Laden’s] bodyguards, would-be suicide bombers,[and] probably the 20th 9/11 hijacker” One senior military official famously said “these are the people that don’t know any moral values…They were so vicious, if given the chance they would gnaw through the hydraulic lines of a C-17 while they were being flown to Cuba.” Vice President Dick Cheney said simply “people that are at Guantánamo are bad people.”
These are big statements which bring big questions. Why do we only get vague statements about those at Gitmo being “bad”? Why are prisoners not brought to trial? Why is that in the ‘trials’ held at Gitmo, prisoners are not allowed to see evidence against them and are only allowed lawyers drawn from the US military?
One answer to questions is that the truth about Guantánamo, and the individuals it holds, is not what the politicians say it is.
But governments, as history has consistently shown, will bend the truth to breaking point to gain and maintain support for their policies; the ‘War on Terror’ is no different, why aren’t more people more sceptical?
Media Portrayal of Islam
The public presentation of Islam in dominant news organisations has made people far more susceptible to politician’s statements on Guantánamo. The Sun, the Daily Mail, the Mirror, and the Daily Star command the highest national newspaper circulation in the UK (in that order). Cumulatively they make up nearly 70% of national circulation.
Here are a few of the top results from searching “Muslim” on each website:
Muslim Imam raped boy of 12
Muslim gang batter Sir for teaching girls about other religions
Palty £50 fine for Muslim who burned poppies at Remembrance Day
The Daily Mail:
Muslim care home owner ‘bans pensioners from eating bacon sandwiches’
Muslim sex offenders could opt out of treatment because it’s against their faith
The Daily Star:
Fury as Islam fanatics declare gay-free zone.
Given nearly 70% of the newspaper readers in the UK are exposed to these stories, it’s no wonder parts of the population see Muslims as potentially violent fanatics. When inundated by stories like these, Guantánamo may not seem appalling, but inevitable
Government spin and media replication
Another large problem is the media’s habitual replication of government statements without actually checking their truthfulness. If a government wants to make something an issue – like Saddam Hussein as a dire threat – they simply make repeated statements or selectively leak documents – the mass media does the rest. This has resulted in the perpetuation of a host of falsehoods surrounding Islam and Guantánamo.
Some statements by politicians are outright lies. George Bush said of Gitmo prisoners that “these people were picked up off of a battlefield,” Donald Rumsfeld said “They’re terrorists…all of whom were captured on a battlefield,” Dick Cheney said “these are people that were captured in the battlefield of Afghanistan.”
That is simply not true. In reality most were not seized on the battlefield but were sold to the US after they dropped tantalising leaflets on impoverished villages in Afghanistan and the Pakistani border offering life-changing rewards for handing over al-Qaeda operatives. Unsurprisingly, Arabs fleeing Afghanistan were now seen as easy money, and America’s political prisons got filled with aid workers, teachers, travellers and refugees. A lot of money was made and a lot of innocent lives were tragically ruined.
Michael Scheuer, a CIA officer who resigned in 2004, said, “By the fall of 2002, it was common knowledge around CIA circles that fewer than 10 percent of Guantánamo’s prisoners were high-value terrorist operatives…. Most of the men…were going to know absolutely nothing about terrorism.”
Why weren’t they released then? One answer comes from Colonel Wilkerson, who was Colin Powell’s chief of staff at the State Department. Wilkerson alleged that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld also knew that these men were not terrorists of any sort, but thought it “politically impossible to release them.”*
These stories, however, are not common knowledge; and there is a reason they are not. The dominant proprietors of news prefer stories such as “Outrage over £30m torture hush money: 7/7 families ‘sickened’ by payouts to former Guantanamo inmates.” If you know the stories of some of these former Guantánamo inmates you would understand how cruel this type of coverage is – how spectacularly and misanthropically manipulative. The headline is significant as it demonstrates that all that is required for proof that one is a bloodthirsty terrorist is that they were in Guantánamo. Any alternative interpretation of the events, – for example one that bears resemblance to reality – is not considered.
It seems unlikely we will ever have governments which are open about their practices. That is why we sorely need a media that treats government statements with scepticism, victims of places like Guantánamo will face persecution instead of sympathy, and these tragedies will recur.
Under these conditions I am thankful that Reprieve is able to get the funding to do the work it does. And that so many I see do look past the dominant interpretation, condemning the deplorable and illegal practices in the War on Terror and praising Reprieve for the hope it brings to the hopeless.