Guantanamo Bay in The January Sixer Imagination
It turns out jail isn't what they thought it would be. You'll never guess what they think Guantanamo is. PLUS: Checking in on The Woke Military
Edited by Sam Thielman
IN THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES, Tom Wolfe has a killer line riffing on the first-wave-neocon aphorism that a conservative is a liberal who's been mugged by reality: “A liberal,” Wolfe writes, “is a conservative who has been arrested.”
Pre-trial detention has not turned the January 6 defendants into liberals. Among the grievances cited by 35 defendants who signed a recent open letter about their detention conditions: "CRT propaganda on tablets," "politically mocked by staff with Democrat, Black Lives Matter, Kamala Harris, Joe Biden-related attire" my absolute favorite, "compared to 'beasts,' 'dogs' and 'hogs' by The Final Call magazine [sic]." Aww, does someone need a safe space where they won't have to read Nation of Islam shitposts?
Still, an extended period locked up has exposed these people to the realities of jail—something especially jarring when you think you're the sort of person who gets to speak to the manager of jail. I believe them when they write about how degrading it is to be denied showers, parasite-free food, proper sanitation, outdoor exercise, protection from physical threats and access to a law library. As Guantanamo Bay defense attorney Alka Pradhan noted drily, no one cared about the squalor and violence of the Washington D.C. jail until these high-profile white detainees experienced it. [And started making truly incredible protest art about it.—Sam.] That doesn't change the reality that the jail provides what a civil-rights report from 2015 called "appalling conditions of confinement." In a total shocker, and we'll come back to this, these detainees are not joining the prison abolition movement.
But they propose a remedy for their treatment. It's one that speaks volumes about the War on Terror in the right-wing imagination.
We hereby request to spend our precious and limited days, should the government continue to insist on holding us captive unconstitutionally as pre-trial detainees, to be transferred and reside at Guantanamo Bay. A detention facility that actually provides nutritional meals, routine sunlight exposure, top notch medical care, is respectful of religious requirements, has centers for exercise/entertainment for its detainees despite the fact that those residents are malicious Terrorists, Real Members of Taliban and few are actual United States Citizens.
So, the first thing that has to be said about this: You all are charged with something in criminal court. Not one person among the more than 800 total Guantanamo detainees ever was. The overwhelming majority of them faced no charges at all. They were held not because they were proven to be "malicious Terrorists" but because of bounties and warzone roundups. The small percentage who faced charges did so before military tribunals that have proven farcical. One of those people prosecuted in a military commission had been in Guantanamo since he was a child. When an American citizen was held there, it prompted a Supreme Court ruling that you can't hold American citizens in wartime military detention without charge. (Read Chapter 4 of REIGN OF TERROR for how that ruling, U.S. v. Hamdi, curled a finger on the monkey's paw of the War on Terror.)
But what strikes me as more significant is that the January Sixers' letter corresponds thoroughly to the presentation of Guantanamo Bay in right-wing media and, in a diluted form, from some mainstream media.
I REMEMBER GOING TO GUANTANAMO for the first time in July 2005, back when Republican members of Congress, following the lead of the Rumsfeld Pentagon, talked about ungrateful detainees who dare criticize America after gorging themselves on orange chicken. There, the military press liaisons talked about how you couldn't believe Time magazine's story about the restrained Mohamed al-Qatani being forcibly hydrated so the pain from his bladder would become unbearable, even though Time published al-Qatani's interrogation log. They made fun of the investigative journalist Jane Mayer by mocking how she prepared for her interview with the commander by color-coordinating her notes, a level of shit-together-ness I can only aspire to.
A consumer of right-wing media has only heard Guantanamo described as the abode of the worst of the worst, where, thanks to depraved Deep State-liberal machinations, murderous anti-American fiends enjoy luxurious, deferential treatment. A June 2004 viewers' poll question from Bill O'Reilly asked if "you agree with the Supreme Court that the Guantanamo detainees should have lawyers at the taxpayer's expense." Three years later, O'Reilly opined on his January 11, 2007 broadcast that "Guantanamo Bay prisoners have three square meals a day, and it's good food. They get to pray any time they want. They get to walk outside unless they, you know, attack the guards with a knife. They get the Red Cross to come in, and give them anything they want." Mainstream outlets, by contrast, euphemized torture at Guantanamo and credulously repeated Pentagon assurances that someone inside Guantanamo simply had to be dangerous.
Other times, it was entertainment. When James Hetfield was asked what he thought about Metallica being used to torture detainees, he responded, "part of me is proud, because they chose Metallica… it represents something they don't like, maybe freedom, aggression, I don't know, freedom of speech. And then part of me is bummed because… we're trying to be as apolitical as possible."
Guantanamo was not, in such depictions, a place where they torture you by inserting a feeding tube into your penis. Not a place where the guards tackle-and-shackle you to move you about, or where the medical personnel seem to you complicit in your abuse, or where you're used as a human mop for your own urine because you were hog-tied until you couldn't hold it anymore. Not a place where your pro-bono attorney has to travel hundreds of miles and be approved by the military to speak with you. Not a place where three-letter agencies you didn't know were monitoring your military tribunal abruptly censor it. This is the real Guantanamo Bay.
The right presented Guantanamo as crawling with more lawyers and human-rights monitors than banana rats. In the conservative imagination, Guantanamo Bay became a place where the only infamy on display belonged to the liberal institutions—the courts, the bureaucrats, the lawyers, the media—that kept Guantanamo from delivering violent death or incommunicado indefinite detention for the terrorists. Whether or not the January Sixers mean what they write or simply know a propaganda opportunity when they see one, their letter draws on 20 years of portrayals of Guantanamo as similar to the jails of their imaginations: a place where laws protect the guilty at the expense of the innocent.
And who is more innocent, more persecuted, than the embattled patriots of January Sixth? Should they not receive at least as many rights and luxuries as Malicious Terrorists and Real Members of Taliban?
It shouldn't be surprising that this cohort, which considers itself not racist but merely the border patrol of Western Civilization, would give the game away by writing that the jail conditions they experience are beneath "the standards of a 'First World Country.'" Conditions in the D.C. jail are, apparently, another intolerable condition of American decline—a contention that demonstrates an unsurprising ignorance of all the violent cages it took to turn the U.S. into a First World Country in the first place. I understand why they're only going to leave the jail a one-star review.
But maybe it's more of a statement about who in a First World Country doesn't belong in a cage. While they do use some universalist language in their letter, the January Sixers never get around to writing that no one should experience these conditions. They write that they shouldn't. They declare themselves to be not accused criminals but "Political Prisoners on American Soil." At risk of reading too much into a capitalization, it suggests that the capitalizers can't imagine political prisoners here in the United States. (QAnon, meanwhile, fantasizes about filling Guantanamo with the libs and the Dems before making it the venue for their show trials and executions.)
I believe everyone has the right to a fair trial swiftly after being charged with a crime; in the abolition of the weaponization of poverty known as cash bail; and in prison abolition. So that has to include January Sixers. Sucks to be me, I guess. But people who live their lives mocking solidarity should not expect any.
LET’S CHECK IN ON that 'woke military' for a second. Task & Purpose's Haley Britzkey reported last week that the Army is criticizing a two-star general for, essentially, talking back to Tucker Carlson on behalf of the dignity of Army servicewomen. Maj. Gen. Patrick Donahoe's retirement seems to be on hold after he tweeted that Carlson "couldn't be more wrong"—something that Army investigators say brought "a measurable attempt of negative publicity" to the service.
That's how the Army says Donahoe disrespected the Bing. Its palpable fear of right-wing criticism, justified to itself as the constitutional propriety of staying out of civilian affairs, shows servicewomen, yet again, how little they matter to Big Army. "Intentionally or not, this whole thing showed women that we are not worth defending," a noncommissioned officer told Military.com's Steve Beynon. Britzky, who obtained the investigation, notes that the Army considered Donahoe's statements "partisan activity," an assessment Donahoe correctly took issue with. "If we… as Army leaders are unwilling to defend [servicewomen] in public, I think that is a tremendous threat to the cohesion of our Army," Britzky says Donahoe told investigators.
SOUNDS LIKE a significant defense contractor ("Defense Industrial Base Sector organization") got significantly hacked. According to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, from November 2021 until January 2022, undetermined actors siphoned and absconded with proprietary data from the contractor's Microsoft Exchange server. (They got in by swiping someone's credentials—seriously, be careful what you click on out there.) CISA makes no attribution of guilt but looking at the effort they went through to conceal their long-term presence and to encrypt data before exfiltrating it—Al Pacino voice—this crew is good.
CEREBRO EPISODE 88, on the loathsome incest Nazi twins Fenris, just dropped. I'm finishing this edition before I hear Connor's edit—what a task that must have been—but I'm warning you now, this isn't like our Callisto, Professor X, Beast or Magneto episodes. It is extremely inappropriate. You shouldn't listen to it at work or school, and only under controlled circumstances on public transit. There are words about Jews in this one that only other Jews get to say, and my only regret is that we recorded this before Kanye West decided the world needs his antisemitism. Subscribe to Cerebro's Patreon here.
IT'S GREAT TO SEE SO MANY NEW SUBSCRIBERS. But I need you guys to be paying subscribers! The next edition of this newsletter is going to be for paying subscribers only. Make sure that's you, because it's going to be a fun one. I'll be talking about being on a panel at New York Comic Con with the heroes of my youth.