Rule of Lawlessness

Ana Carrigan

In recent weeks, Guan­tá­namo: Hon­or Bound to Defend Free­dom’ has been play­ing to capac­i­ty audi­ences at north London’s Tri­cy­cle The­atre. The play is a sober doc­u­men­tary on the prison camp at the U.S. naval base in Cuba, where hun­dreds of sus­pect­ed Tal­iban and al Qae­da foot sol­diers have been interned with­out tri­al since Jan­u­ary 2002. At a moment when no issue on either side of the Atlantic is so urgent­ly in need of rig­or­ous pub­lic exam­i­na­tion as the con­duct of the war on ter­ror, this is the third play in this Lon­don the­atri­cal sea­son to take up the chal­lenge. Last month, polit­i­cal satirist Alis­tair Beaton’s fero­cious­ly fun­ny and dis­turb­ing explo­ration of the Blair-Bush rela­tion­ship, Fol­low My Leader, played to sold-out hous­es at the Hamp­stead The­atre, and in Sep­tem­ber David Hare’s new play about the Iraq war, Stuff Hap­pens, opens at the Nation­al The­atre. Lat­er this month, Guan­tá­namo will trans­fer to the New Ambas­sadors The­atre in the com­mer­cial hub of London’s West End.

Lon­don has a cher­ished tra­di­tion of vibrant polit­i­cal the­atre, and Lon­don audi­ences expect their small com­mu­ni­ty the­atres to engage with the major issues of our time. For the past decade the Tri­cy­cle The­atre has devel­oped docu­d­ra­mas that it calls Ver­ba­tim The­atre.” This award-win­ning series of Tri­bunal Plays” has brought to the stage drama­ti­za­tions based on the tran­scripts of war crimes tri­als (Nurem­berg and Srebeni­ca) and con­tro­ver­sial U.K. gov­ern­ment inquiries into Iraq poli­cies and into police racism.

In the case of Guan­tá­namo—absent any offi­cial inquiry, con­gres­sion­al hear­ing or tri­als — for­mer Guardian jour­nal­ist Vic­to­ria Brit­tain and South African nov­el­ist Gillian Slo­vo inter­cut the spo­ken evi­dence” of recent­ly freed British Mus­lims and their fam­i­lies, the rel­a­tives of British pris­on­ers still held, and Eng­lish and Amer­i­can lawyers with excerpts from des­per­ate let­ters by the pris­on­ers to their fam­i­lies and com­ments by British For­eign Sec­re­tary Jack Straw and Sec­re­tary of Defense Don­ald Rumsfeld.

The pro­duc­tion acquires added grav­i­tas through read­ings from Lord Jus­tice Steyn, a judge on Britain’s high­est — and tra­di­tion­al­ly con­ser­v­a­tive — court, whose legal analy­sis dri­ves home the play’s bleak mes­sage: Those interned in Guan­tá­namo have been trapped by their cap­tors in a legal black hole.” In Steyn’s words: The pur­pose of hold­ing the pris­on­ers at Guan­tá­namo Bay was and is to put them beyond the rule of law, beyond the pro­tec­tion of any courts, and at the mer­cy of the vic­tors. … The pris­on­ers … will be tried by mil­i­tary tri­bunals … they have no access to the writ of habeas cor­pus. … The mil­i­tary will act as inter­roga­tors, pros­e­cu­tors, defense coun­sel, judges, and when death sen­tences are imposed, as exe­cu­tion­ers. … The ques­tion is whether the qual­i­ty of jus­tice envis­aged for the pris­on­ers at Guan­tá­namo Bay com­plies with min­i­mum inter­na­tion­al stan­dards for the con­duct of fair tri­als. The answer … is a resound­ing No.”

We know some facts about Guan­tá­namo: pho­tos of shack­led pris­on­ers led away for inter­ro­ga­tion; details of the 8‑by-8-foot cages, where they are held under lights blaz­ing 24 hours a day; the re-clas­si­fi­ca­tion from POWs to detainees to remove their rights under inter­na­tion­al law. All of this has been known for two years. Now, since the scan­dal at Abu Ghraib, and the dis­clo­sure that the com­man­der at Guan­tá­namo was trans­ferred to Abu Ghraib, the Guan­tán-amo régime has acquired still more sin­is­ter char­ac­ter­is­tics. In exam­in­ing what Lord Steyn char­ac­ter­izes as the utter law­less­ness at Guan­tá­namo Bay,” this play digs deeply to raise pro­found ques­tions about the direc­tion that those in pow­er on both sides of the Atlantic are tak­ing our societies.

Won­der­ful­ly served by the actors, Guan­tá­namo lives through the qual­i­ty of the inter­views that involve us instant­ly in the per­son­al sto­ries of the pris­on­ers and their fam­i­lies. I will start with his child­hood so you have the full pic­ture,” is the first line of the play. The father is speak­ing of his son, still interned in Guan­tá­namo. His account of his son’s life, built up from small, every­day things, is spell­bind­ing. And heart­break­ing. His rem­i­nis­cences are inter­wo­ven with scenes from a press con­fer­ence held by Rums­feld, who is impa­tient to get out his mes­sage that these are among the most dan­ger­ous, best trained, vicious killers on the face of the earth.” Mean­while, in the Kafkaesque world of Guan­tá­namo, his son is los­ing the strug­gle against despair.

Great the­atre is cathar­tic. It can lead an audi­ence to open their hearts and minds and imag­i­na­tions. This is what Guan­tá­namo has achieved.

Ana Car­ri­g­an, author of The Palace of Jus­tice: A Colom­bian Tragedy, is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to In These Times.
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