Guantánamo Public Memory Project

Guantánamo Is Mostly Not Exceptional

Guantánamo is not exceptional. There has been enough scholarship-activism – enough debunking of myths and re-writing of histories – to make that abundantly clear. The history of the site is a history not of extraordinary, singular happenings, but of careful strategies. ‘Guantánamo’ could have been in Cuba or Haiti. Within Cuba it was selected from among four possible sites that were narrowed down to two, and then one.

Once established, Guantánamo became the laboratory for further strategies and techniques. Those that worked in Guantánamo were later exported to Abu Ghraib and other USAmerican ‘black sites’, and beyond to Australian ‘offshore detention’ facilities. As Giorgio Agamben highlights, “the state of exception… has become the rule”. Guantánamo is not an exception, then, but rather a model, a blueprint.

An exception does not need to have a purpose. A strategy or a system, however, has a purpose and function. There are stakes involved in the realisation of a strategy, and there are also stakeholders. While the purpose and function of Guantánamo for its largest stakeholders – the military-industrial complex & friends – might be fairly clear, conceptualising this site only in terms of large-scale dynamics of economics and power elides the experiences of the countless smaller stakeholders.

The Public Memory Project is, has, and will provide a venue for these individual stakeholders to share their experiences. In themselves, these experiences constitute new perspectives – voices and visions from a site that over the last century has become increasingly obscure and inaccessible – and a refutation of the dominant discourses that relate Guantánamo only to security and necessity.

Who exactly counts as a stakeholder, though? We are all vaguely implicated in the existence of Guantánamo, which has almost always been articulated – spuriously or otherwise – as being in the public interest. To some extent, we are all stakeholders, but to claim that ‘our’ experience of Guantánamo is as powerful as the experiences of those who have lived (or subsisted) there seems grotesquely self-absorbed.

Part of the uncertainty that surrounds public understanding of Guantánamo may stem from the fact that we the public don’t really know what our experience of the site is. In this sense, those who have existed at the site are well positioned to act as guides for us. If we understand what Guantánamo has meant to them, what it has done for them and to them, we can begin to make some sense of what it could mean to us.

Speaking of his time at Guantánamo, Conrado Basulto states, “people’s true identities came out while we were detained on that base”. This echoes a recurring trope: Guantánamo as a place in which people disclose themselves; that it is where the real truth comes out. Such reasoning stands behind the whole strategy to which Guantánamo has been turned in recent decades. ‘Camp X-Ray’ is more than just a suggestive name.

This, finally, is one of the difficulties almost inevitably to be raised by such a public, inclusive project. Scholarship-activism has done a great deal of work to debunk the myths and to penetrate the strategic limbo that has been cast around Guantánamo. What are we to do if personal testimonies suggest that on an individual level, Guantánamo is an entirely exceptional place: a life-changing, one-of-a-kind experience?

Posted by Philip Johnson – M.A. candidate at NYU.

One Comment to: Guantánamo Is Mostly Not Exceptional

December 11, 2013 4:21 pmdeavilashina wrote:

The main problem with your argument is that you do not define exceptional. In fact, the term exceptional is what makes Guantanamo an interesting place and an interesting idea. The definition of exceptional is “unusual, not typical and outstanding.” Guantanamo fits this definition precisely. However, Guantanamo is significant and exceptional because we—not only historians and the public, but also the government—have made it exceptional. Guantanamo as a “State of Exception,” defined by the government, has created what Amy Kaplan describes as “an ambiguous space both inside and outside different legal systems…[, which has brought up] the question of national sovereignty…and the ambiguity about whether the U.S. Constitution holds sway.” Thus, Guantanamo has become, through law and language, an exceptional place.

I also use the term exceptional to describe the Haitian experience there. What happened to the Haitian refugees at Guantanamo during the early 1990s was not the norm and should not be considered the norm especially in light of US foreign policy on refugees. If we, as historians, normalized these events in history, we would perpetuate the dehumanization and abuse that these refugees faced during their detention. They became “persons” and “economic refugees.” They were no longer people with basic human rights, people with stories, people who were and are exceptional. Indeed, if we continue to normalize these abuses, then we perpetuate the same type of abuse that these people endured.

Why else would public historians attempt to collect oral histories from people who have been detained, lived, and served at Guantanamo if the place and the experience of those who endured it were not exceptional?

-Aisha De Avila-Shin, M.A. Candidate at Northeastern University


Creative: Picture Projects & Tronvig Group