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All The Comforts of Home

Screenshot 2014-10-12 19.57.48 copy

I have a chair very much like this one in my living room. I sit in it when I am watching television or reading a novel or socializing with friends and family. It is really quite comfortable. Sometimes I even fall asleep in it. But there are differences. My living room is not made of cinder blocks or painted in a bland, institutional beige that matches the color of the chair and the floor and enhances the intensity of the harsh bright lights above; nor for that matter is my living room shaped as an acute triangle that doesn’t seem to be much more than 8 feet across at its base and it doesn’t have a one-way security mirror. And it should not go without mention that my legs are never shackled to the ground when I am sitting there.

 The photograph is of the “Compliant Detainee Media Room” – that is both the caption for the photograph and the actual name of the room –at Guantanamo Bay, where one of the 149 prisoners being “housed” here can watch DVDs for an hour or two if he “follows the rules.” Prisons don’t have to be fully austere or inhumane institutions – and truth to tell it would be best if they were never neither of those things – but there is something oddly perverse about this scene as it underscores the extreme contradictions between comfort and constraint that govern our detention of prisoners who have never been formally charged with a crime or granted anything even approximating the due process of law. There are legal reasons we can get away with this, of course, since Guantanamo Bay is not governed by the U.S. Constitution, but such a technicality aside it surely violates the spirit of our founding documents.

 “To comfort” is to give physical relief or sustenance, to provide support and serve as a source of strength, courage. It is fundamentally a social function. But nothing in this room is designed to do any of these things, or even anything close to them. It serves instead as a reminder of all that has been lost in the process of detention. The chair, which is designed to recline, is constrained by the feet that are shackled to the ground. The appearance of freedom is thus an illusion. All color has been removed from the world and with it something of the possibility to imagine difference. And finally, the very possibility of sociality has been effaced as there is only one chair, the only possibility for interaction with a polished mirror that displays the prisoner to himself (while knowing that others are watching his every move). The room, in short, is something of a torture chamber masquerading as a comfort station.

The contradiction between comfort and constraint is accented by a second photograph by the same photographer, captioned “Detainee Comfort Items.”

Comforts of Home Two

The photograph shows a single person detention cell. Everything is laid out in near perfect order, clothes and blankets clean and neatly folded, shoes shined, hygiene products new and unopened. The blue matt on the back wall is a mattress, and so it is pretty clear that the sleeping conditions are anything but comfortable—indeed, it is hard to imagine that the room is much more than six feet wide. But that turns out to be the least of it. And to get the point, ask yourself this question: In what world would these items—an orange jump suit, shoes, minimal hygiene products, a thin blanket and a pillow, a book—be considered comfort items?

 What we have on display is a troglodyte world. One in which comfort has been recast as a teasing reminder of one’s condition of un-freedom. It is, in short, a world of constant and continual torture. And as we noted in a post at this blog many years ago, we wonder why they hate us?

Photo Credit: Debi Cornwall

 

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The Visibility of the Everydayness of War

Allepo Catapult 2

With sequestration staring us in the face and all of the teeth gnashing concerning the possibility that the Department of Defense will be confronted with $500 billion dollars in budget cuts over the next ten years—no small chunk of change, but nevertheless a relatively small part of the overall DOD budget—I was intrigued by the photographs, such as the one above, coming out of Syria that show the primitive and makeshift weaponry employed by the Free Syrian Army.

The slingshot or catapult can be traced to ancient and medieval times, but in the contemporary era it is usually associated with rebel or guerilla warriors (think of all of the images we regularly see of Palestinian youth using slingshots to hurl rocks at Israelis), in large measure because it requires so little in resources to make it work. State sponsored armies have budgets that can be cut, rebels and guerillas … not so much.  And so the later cobble together whatever is available, converting the objects of ordinary life into weapons of war.

It is this last fact that bears some attention.  Elsewhere we have talked about how war has been normalized by being made more or less invisible in the United States, such that the accouterments of warfare have been converted into everyday objects that appear to have no connection to war (think of Jeeps and Humvees, or the way in which camouflage  has become something of a fashion statement, not to mention the AKC-47 assault rifle cast as a hunting rifle), but here we see everyday objects employed to the ends of death and destruction.  This too is an act of normalization, but one that runs in the opposite direction, putting war on display as quotidian, making it visible as a normal part of the everyday experience.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this inversion, but I am reminded of Elaine Scarry’s characterization of torture as “world unmaking,” converting the objects of everyday life into instruments of pain.  Doctors become administrators of pain, refrigerators and filing cabinets become bludgeons, bathtubs becomes miniature torture chambers, etc.  Watching someone creating weapons out of everyday objects for their own use is not exactly the same thing, since there is no clear identification of torturer and tortured; then again it is arguably all the more torturous inasmuch as those producing and using such weapons seem to have little real choice in the matter as they become the active agents in unmaking the world around them.  It is, in its way, the most perfect and efficient form of torture; a perversion of a perversion in which the torturer and the tortured are one in the same person.

I was struck by the broad implications of this thought when looking at the picture below:

Phone Bombs

Once again the photograph is of members of the Free Syrian Army.  And once again the soldiers we see are involved in producing a homemade weapon of war.  Here, however, there is no pretense of primitive weaponry; characterized in the caption as an “anti-aircraft weapon,” it is thoroughly modern, even if it does not display the most sophisticated and up-to-the-minute technology.  Indeed the bright colors of this image suggest a degree of contemporaneity that is muted by the drab shadows and colors of the photograph of the catapult.  But what is most striking is the use of a smart phone to arm and guide the missile.  Here we have an everyday object—and an item that virtually everyone reading this post has in their pocket—that has made it possible to create community across time and space, allowing us, as Ma Bell used to say, “to reach out and touch someone.”  It does that here as well, of course, but only after perverting the normal and ordinary usage of an otherwise salutary and everyday instrument of communication.

The United States is a far distance from Syria in just about everyway that one can imagine, economically, politically, culturally, and so on.  And yet, looking at these images—almost as if through Alice’s looking glass— has to give us pause as we recognize our own pretenses and patterns of  acclimating ourselves to the visual everdayness of a culture of war.

Credits:  Asmaa Wagulh/ Reuters; Mahmoud Hassano/Reuters.  Elaine Scarry’s provocative  discussion of the relationship between torture and war appears in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World.  New York: Oxford UP, 1985.

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