Blog #25: From Battlegrounds to Black Sites: Violence Unmasked

By Brooke Reynolds

Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi was a Libyan man accused of running an Afghan training camp at the inception of the US “War on Terror.” Al-Libi was arrested in 2001 in Afghanistan. He was originally held at Kandahar Airport. Transferred to USS Bataan, a floating US prison ship. Transferred to CIA prisons in Europe. Transferred to Egypt, tortured. Transferred to Mauritania, tortured. Transferred to Morocco, tortured. Transferred to Jordan, tortured. Transferred to “black sites” in Afghanistan. Five years later, al-Libi was found dead in his cell in Abu Salim prison in Libya, apparently of suicide.

We find ourselves today in a circumstance of genuine urgency. As this is written, huge numbers of Muslim, Arab, Black and Latino communities are being surveilled, incarcerated, abused and killed in a vast web of carceral techniques aimed at controlling populations both physically and psychologically. Most recently, the silence and rhetoric that surround US international involvement obscure what is in fact the continued development of a global system of confinement and control, as demonstrated by the ever-growing international network of black-site, private, and proxy prisons that have been central to counterinsurgency efforts in the War on Terror.

The urgency of addressing and challenging this reality can be seen in the case of al-Libi who spent nearly a decade being shuttled from one prison to another at the hands of the US and its allies, only to finally disappear for good. In her book Time in the Shadows: Confinement and Counterinsurgency, Laleh Khalili traces the basic relationship between the development of techniques of mass carceral control—a relatively new phenomenon, historically speaking—and colonialism. She sees the modern establishment and use of prisons as fundamentally rooted in the need to quell anti-colonial struggle; when some of the first colonial prisons and containment villages began to fill up, it was with revolutionaries, artists, and social groups that were perceived as a challenge to colonial control.

Khalili identifies a shift away from reliance upon mass slaughter as a means of control towards one marked by techniques of confinement—and further, that confinement was established and developed as an alternative to slaughter. Battlefields gave way to prisons, war making became reframed as political intervention, and the spectacle of death was transformed into sophisticated and sprawling designs of social control and incarceration.

The rhetorical backbone that has supported counterinsurgency efforts today presents this shift as a sign of our civility, our commitment to the principles of freedom and civilization. We are told that modern forms of warfare are more humane. That since we have “replaced killing,” we are advanced. Let us take for instance Guantanamo Bay Prison Camp, which welcomes its visitors with a banner that reads: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom. The spread of “civilization and freedom” has indeed proven to be a very effective and lucrative means of warfare. For the widespread violence that does occur is no longer recognized as such, as we are convinced that we are simply no longer violent.

Khalili argues that modern counterinsurgency relies heavily on law, using “legality” rather than humanity as the yardstick of permissibility. The US legal system has been a trusted ally to counterinsurgency efforts, for it is based upon precedents that include US colonial involvement in nearly every corner of the world. Each of these encounters have been written into its laws, many of which continue to be upheld today.

Thus, even that which is done under the auspices of the law in the modern context is acting in adherence with laws that also legalized domination, control, and exploitation of indigenous populations.

Where precedents didn’t already create legal spaces for modern warfare, language has proven to be a useful weapon in rewriting and underwriting law to accommodate the perpetually changing needs of counterinsurgency. By creating indeterminate personal statuses and abstract titles of personhood, powers have been able to apply whatever body of law they find most useful. Unlawful combatant, prisoner of war, criminal, insurgent, terrorist—the vagueness of these newly legalized terms has meant that they may be applied and revoked at will, paving the way for legally-grounded lawlessness in which very few personal protections are guaranteed. This has, in part, made possible the vast range of abuses carried out both extralegally and legally against those arrested in the War on Terror.

The shift that Khalili identifies is not only one of technique, but also of purpose. She sees modern counterinsurgency as marked by the desire not only to eliminate “enemy populations,” but to break and reshape them psychologically as well. Modern power operates so as to apprehend not body, heart and mind alike, and its sites have been host to numerous programs of “reeducation” and “deradicalization.” Practiced initially on Native Americans and Black people in the US, these programs work to break and reshape individuals by experimentation with different physical and psychological techniques that subject them to a constant process of detachment and reconstitution until the “perfect subject”—ie, a fully broken being—emerges.

In February 2013, inmates at Guantanamo Bay, a site that Khalili sees as the logical conclusion of liberal carceral control, undertook an indefinite hunger strike. As of May 2013, more than 100 of the 166 inmates held there are participating in the strikes, in protest against the physical, psychological and legal abuses that have characterized the camp since their incarceration there. They are resisting the quantification of their lives into bureaucratic data, the silence that has shrouded their suffering from the public eye, the cruelties endured, and their denial of legal protections. Many are being force-fed daily. Is this the face of our newfound humanity?

Laleh Khalili’s research sheds much-needed light upon the shadowy spaces in which modern liberal counterinsurgency projects operate, and demonstrates the new forms of violence and war making that are constantly being imagined and practiced. We must recognize that carceral techniques and mass slaughter are different versions of similar state projects, and that absence of the spectacle of bloodshed does not mean an absence of violence. The modern emphasis on incarceration and confinement must be conceptualized properly as machines of modern war-making so that the violence which occurs in them may emerge from the shadows.