The Least Worst Place: How Guantánamo Became the World’s Most Notorious Prison

September 17, 2009

So how did Guantanamo become “the world’s most notorious prison”? Principally as a result of a Washington-created public-relations own goal.

On 11 January 2002, the first group of 20 prisoners arrived at Guantanamo Bay’s Camp X-Ray. Ten days later, the Pentagon decided to release the infamous picture showing distraught detainees in goggles and masks, shackled at the wrists and kneeling on the ground. The full-colour version of the photograph highlighted the fluorescent orange jumpsuits and caps and turquoise masks worn by the prisoners. Almost instantly the combination of eerie colours and high-tech instruments of physical restraint became, internationally, a symbol of human suffering and degradation. The Pentagon believed that its snapshot would show the world just “how effectively the United States was handling the world’s most dangerous prisoners”. But what it did was to turn Guantanamo into an immediate public relations disaster. As Karen Greenberg writes, “the most lasting legacy of the early Guantanamo is the image of the slight, dark-skinned men in orange jumpsuits, chained and bent over on their knees, goggled and deafened, dehydrated and soiled”.

The photograph apparently says it all. But does it? Historians of the future are far more likely to view the infamous picture as a symbol of the moral disorienta­tion of the Bush Administration rather than one of pure evil. Greenberg’s story of the first 100 days of the setting up of the prison camp reads like an early draft of a short story by Kafka. It indicates that Washington had little idea about what it was doing in Guantanamo. The most important concern that appeared to drive policymakers was to avoid being held responsible for potential future failures. Those setting up the camp on the ground received little direction from Washington and faced a policy void.

The reluctance to give the camp authorities unambiguous guidance was not simply a product of bureaucratic confusion; it was also motivated by the imperative of responsibility aversion. Washington wanted to manage its public-relations exercise in Guantanamo without being held to account by the Geneva Convention or inter­national agencies such as the Red Cross. So although the camp authorities knew that the Bush Administration did not want the detainees to enjoy prisoner-of-war status under the Geneva Conven­tion, they had no explicit guidance about how to treat them.

Greenberg’s interviews with those in charge of Guantanamo in its early phase indicate that they were confused about the objective of their missions. Initially they were not even sure whether they were running a detention camp or an interroga­tion centre. Although the Bush Administration claimed that the detainees were the “worst of the worst”, no one appeared to know very much about the prisoners. Those running the camp did not even know the names of the detainees, nor their country of origin, their age or their mother tongue.

More importantly, they had no idea what the prisoners had done to justify their detention in Guantanamo. So the policy void was complicated by an information void. In true Kafka­esque fashion, no one really knows to this day why the first cohort of prisoners was detained in Guantanamo. We now know that some of them were sold to the Americans by Afghan bounty hunters and that most of them simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Most observers concede that the intelligence value of the detainees was practically nil. In many cases, the “high-value” detainees turned out to be infirm and elderly people caught up in a global bureaucratic nightmare.

There is considerable evidence that sections of the US military actually believed their own propaganda. The image of the photograph released by the Pentagon not only frightened the global media but also scared those guarding the prisoners. Greenberg reports that many of the camp guards were frightened by their prisoners. They endowed the detainees with omnipotence and global influence. Many guards were afraid to let the prisoners know who they were because they were worried that terrorists would seek revenge on their families. Consequently they sought permission to cover the name on their uniforms to preserve their anonymity. In one sense, their anxieties were well founded. Upon reading some the accounts of camp life written by released detainees, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the prisoners appeared to know more about their guards than vice versa.

In retrospect it is evident that Guantanamo was established to show the world that Washington meant business and that it had the capacity to capture and detain real terrorists. It is also evident that almost from the outset this show of force imploded and betrayed the incoherence and pointlessness of the War on Terror. Greenberg remarks that “there was to be no policy” before adding “that was the policy”. Read this book for an understanding of the fearsome banality of the workings of arbitrary power.

The Least Worst Place: How Guantánamo Became the World’s Most Notorious Prison

By Karen Greenberg
Oxford University Press
288pp, £16.99
ISBN 9780199557677
Published 19 March 2009

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