Recently some damning documents about the CIA were released which revealed the vile abuse of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that were used in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the so-called War on Terror that ensued. The report contained some horrifying details of disgraceful human rights abuses for which perpetrators must face criminal court. Perhaps worst of all, despite the claims of Dick Cheney, the vice-president of the US during the Bush administration, who said that they “did what we needed to do to catch the bastards that killed 3000 of us”; the report deemed that the practice of torture was not effective in eliciting information.
I was shocked to read about this report. I was not shocked by its content, I was not shocked to learn that intolerable violations of the Human Rights Act had taken place in Guantanamo Bay, although I perhaps experienced some mild surprise in learning of the suggested locations of the 8 other ‘black sites’ or secret prisons where detainees were held. Neither was I shocked to find the UK on the list of collaborators. I was simply shocked that the report was released. I was shocked to be reading a US released analysis of what the US had done. After years of reading obscure articles, in unheard of publications, littered with unrecognisable names about the horrifying realities of Guantanamo Bay that our government clearly knew and willingly did nothing about, I had just assumed that this kind of report would have to wait a few more decades to surface, long after the topic had been buried so that its release would be sufficiently ignored.
Many officials argued prior to the release of the report that making these findings publicly available would be futile and only fuel the fire of those eager to attack the US. On the second point, they are probably correct. Those voices which have been ignored and suppressed for all these years now have legitimate cause, and proof of it, to despise and retaliate against the American and European institutions that have demonised, tortured and repeatedly attacked vast swathes of the Muslim population for over a decade in the name of some kind of ‘freedom’ for the American people. The amount of innocent lives taken or ruined by an array of procedures all deemed legal under the never-fully-explained ‘terrorism laws’ has long exceeded the 3,000 that were lost on September 11th 2001 and the 52 on July 7th 2005.
Obama’s drones alone have caused over 2,400 civilian deaths in Pakistan and Yemen. The death toll of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been repeatedly falsified or minimised but a rough figure of 150,000 has been recorded as the number of civilian deaths. Yet somehow, our media continually gives us the impression that we are the victims in this, or at least that those who die on ‘our side’ are the real, worthy, innocent victims.
The worthy victims include Lee Rigby, James Foley and Alan Henning, who did nothing to deserve their fate and were the victims of mentally unstable or just plain evil killers who we are or were desperate to bring to justice. These men have received substantial media attention, some more than others; they have received the empathy of the entire nation and will be remembered as heroes for ever. Other victims of this undefinable battle include Gul Rahman, Shaker Aamer and Binyam Mohamed, all innocent of the crimes they were accused of but tortured or killed nonetheless, yet these men have not received nearly the same level of coverage as the aforementioned worthy victims. There has been some mention in the British press of the campaign to free Shaker Aamer, a Guantanamo Bay detainee who has been held for 13 years despite campaigns, protests and a request from the UK government that he be released. Binyam Mohamed, too, had his story reported after his release from Guantanamo Bay. However, the media coverage of Binyam, Gul and Shaker versus that of the Lee, James and Alan is simply incomparable. But, why?
The immediate reaction is to frame this in an Us vs Them situation, we empathise more with one of us than one of them, simple as. However James Foley was born and raised in Illinois, which is about a 9 hour flight from London, for example, which is where Shaker and Binyam were living before being snatched by the CIA. So then who is us and who is them? And why are we worthy victims and why are they unworthy victims? Lee Rigby, a British soldier murdered while walking home, minding his business, is worthy because he served our government. We like people that serve our government; we pay homage to them every year. Lee Rigby is worthy because he went to Afghanistan and did what the British government required him to do. He in absolutely no way deserved to die the way he did.
So what makes Shaker Aamer unworthy? Why has his story been so neglected? Did his story just not move quickly enough for our fast paced medias? Is it good old racism rearing its head, Shaker has a foreign sounding name, best not mention it too many times, people won’t want to know? Or just linguistic laziness, the tongue might stumble across the unfamiliar, best just report the easiest to pronounce? Whatever the reason may be, I want you to think for a minute on how this may appear to a young British Muslim growing up in our society. Every time there is some kind of ‘terrorist attack’ claimed to have taken place in the name of Allah we have this necessary line that ‘the overwhelming majority of Muslims condemned this murder’ or mass murder. But when the EDL set fire to a mosque we don’t feel it necessary to get an official spokesperson from the white working class community to confirm that bombing someone’s place of worship isn’t okay according to the values and principles of the community. Even the case of Shaker Aamer has only made the amount of noise it has through consistent reiteration of his British wife and four British children who have been waiting for him for over a decade in London. Had his wife been from Sierra Leone, would calls for his release have been less legitimate? What if she had been from the US, would it have mattered then?
This reporting is divisive. This constant ‘othering’ of Muslims is divisive. This intentional or unintentional framing of worthy us and unworthy them is dividing us as a society. Gul Rahman to you may seem irrelevant, distant or unimportant; an Afghan, captured in Pakistan and taken to Salt Pit, Kabul, detained and killed in detention, all for nothing because his was a case of mistaken identity. He in absolutely no way deserved to die the way he did.The thousands of victims of drone strikes in Pakistan may seem similarly distant. However, for many a British Pakistani, I imagine these things matter. For a British Pakistani Gul Rahman is a worthy victim. On the Guardian website there is an interactive picture board of each victim of 7/7 so you can click on their faces, learn their names, a little bit about their life and what they were doing on the day they passed. A simple commemoration to acknowledge the loss of human life; perhaps a similar one featuring the innocent victims of torture in Guantanamo would begin to heal the rift this war has created.
DISCLAIMER: I did not invent the concept of worthy and unworthy victims. Noam Chomsky did in Manufacturing Consent, Chapter 2.