In the last month, several reports have been coming out of Guantanamo Bay. The 9/11 trials, set to be the biggest trials in modern history, have occupied a selective number of mainstream media and yet, this has not captivated readers as much two recent reports. The first is that Majid Khan, one of the high-value detainees placed in a highly securitised section of the prison, allegedly has a pet cat as stated by another high-value detainee, Rahim al-Afghani in a letter to his lawyer. The second report that has gained widespread attention is that the detainee’s favourite TV show is The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, which has now reportedly overtaken Harry Potter books in its popularity, if we’re to believe the US administration. The questions many people are asking however is why firstly are readers so intrigued by these stories particularly the latter, and secondly, why are these stories the only snapshots we get from life in Guantanamo?
The prisoners in Guantanamo have been considered as ‘faceless’, known only by their orange jumpsuits and prison shackles. Gradually, pictures of the prisoners with their long beards began emerging on the internet but rather than add a human touch to their Internment Serial Numbers (ISN), many in the public began conceiving ideas of what and who constituted intimidating, and unsurprisingly, the fingers pointed towards the Muslim man. One positive impact these stories have is simply just how human these men really are. When Guantanamo opened in 2002, these men were considered to be the most dangerous men on the planet, devoid of any human emotion or logic, with the primary aim of exterminating the values and freedoms of the West. To this day, there a number of people who still believe this to be true despite the fact that almost all of the prisoners released were never charged with a crime. The process of dehumanisation was instantaneous in GTMO, occurring as soon as the first prisoners (or detainees as the US still refers to them as) stepped off the plane. In fact, this process had began the moment these men had been taken into US custody – whether in Pakistan, Afghanistan or the numerous countries from where many of them were transferred under the extraordinary rendition program.. From the ISN replacing their names to the drugging and the interrogations resulting in some prisoners having to defecate on themselves, dehumanisation was rampant and vital in order to detach any human emotion or sense of care toward them. The process of humanisation therefore, was going to be a long and arduous battle as ultimately, the minds and hearts of millions had automatically tuned to one thing. What these stories show is that just like us these men watch TV and enjoy programs many of us have come across growing up and if true, a softer side of Majid Khan is shown through the possession of a cat. The stories also attempt to eradicate this picture created by neo-imperialists and Orientalists that those detained are backwards, Western-loathing men who are stuck in their pre-historic eras.
What these stories also do however is paint a rosy picture of Guantanamo Bay in an attempt to distract us from the stark reality. We forget that 168 men are still illegally detained, without charge or trial, many of whom were cleared for release several years ago and yet are left incarcerated with no end in sight. We forget that some prisoners are still hunger striking in an attempt to fight for their rights and to make their pleas heard. Guantanamo has become home to many of these men but a home I am sure they would much rather be without. Watching The Fresh Prince or reading Harry Potter endlessly is a distraction for themselves as well, to help them forget their dire conditions. The sad irony of this situation is that these men, whilst behind bars, are sitting and watching a comedy about a young African-American boy who moves to Bel Air to live with his rich uncle, a judge who acts as a representative of the US justice system.