It’s a scene straight out of The Gulag Archipelago:
Some of the poems written by inmates were first scrawled in toothpaste on Styrofoam cups or etched into the cups with small stones, since in their first year of captivity the prisoners were not allowed to use pen and paper.
Any poem found by prison guards was confiscated and usually destroyed, the former prisoners say. …
Authorities explained why the military has been slow to declassify the poems … arguing that inmates could use the works to pass coded messages to other militants outside. …
Hundreds of poems remain suppressed by the military … [which] believes that their original Arabic or Pashto versions represent an enhanced security risk.
[A military spokesman said] they have attempted to use this medium as merely another tool in their battle of ideas … [He] had not, at the time, read the poems.
The prisoners remain entirely cut off from the world: military censors excise all references to current events from the occasional letters allowed from family members, and lawyers may not tell prisoners any personal or general news unless it directly relates to their cases. Indeed, dozens of prisoners have attempted suicide by hanging, by hoarding medicine and then overdosing, or by slashing their wrists.
The military, in typical Orwellian fashion, has described these suicide attempts as incidents of “manipulative self-injurious behavior.”
This is, however, not Soviet Russia, or China, or North Korea. It’s the limbo known as Guantanamo Bay.
We truly are a nation of chickenshits. Like Jon Stewart, I was baffled by the apoplectic reaction of members of Congress to the idea that men accused of terrorism be housed in maximum security prisons “on American soil,” as the inevitable expression has it. But I guess most politicians from both parties recognized a golden opportunity to grandstand and play on their constituents’ xenophobia without running the risk of being accused of racism.
We are afraid of scary foreign invaders, perhaps because most of us are ourselves the descendents of scary foreign invaders, armed with what they took for God’s blessing on their project of theft, slavery, and genocide.
We are afraid of foreign languages and the people who speak them. What are they saying about us? Are they chanting spells to turn the cows’ milk sour and make the crops wither? Though many minority communities have preserved their languages for generations without ill effect, and evidence abounds that bilingual people are, if anything, more adaptable and imaginative than monolingual people, we continue to see linguistic diversity as a threat.
We are afraid of poetry, and suspicious of the people who write it. Why do they have to write in code? Why can’t they just come out and say what they mean? If they’re men, why can’t they engage in more manly pursuits, like playing with their firearms or watching professional wrestling?
We are afraid of ideas, and suspicious of the people who enjoy engaging with them. We seem to agree with Big Brother in 1984 that Ignorance is Strength.
We are afraid of true freedom and what it might lead to. We excel in the building of prisons and the construction of tortured logic to support our continued exploitation of global resources, natural and human. We are — as the amateur Yemeni poet in the article says — artists of insults and humiliation. We falsely conflate freedom with ownership, which is to say, slavery.
We are, above all, afraid of the truth. Even more so than most other peoples, Americans enjoy being lied to, as evidenced by our insatiable appetite for advertising and spin. The rare politician who dares to point out certain obvious truths, such as the fact that we can’t have our cake and eat it too, is quickly out of a job. The current president got the position mainly because of his ability to sound sincere while delivering vacuous, feel-good platitudes… and because he hugely outspent his opponent on advertising. And despite promising to close Guantanamo Bay, our Liar-in-Chief now himself endorses indefinite detention. A trial might reveal too many dangerous or uncomfortable truths.
I say “we” and “our,” but of course I am not really one of us, but one of them. Like the Guantanomo prisoners, I too weave coded messages into my poems, layers of meaning without which they would cease to be poems — or indeed to convey anything of the truth, which is usually complex, often paradoxical, and always inimical to the interests of the powerful. Though I don’t often mention it, figuring that surreptitious campaigns have a greater chance of success than open ones, I am engaged in a battle of ideas with those who believe that War is (or can ever lead to) Peace and the rest of it. Like the indefinite detainees, I resort to poetry because without it I believe I would go mad or commit suicide. I am an enemy combatant.