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lou jones on Thu, 17 Jan 2002 00:15:44 +0100 (CET)

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Homo Sacer (Sacrificial Man) = 'bare life' - situated at an 
'extraterritorial threshold in which the human body is separated from its 
normal political status and abandoned, in a state of exception, to the most 
extreme misfortunes.'(1) Does this not equal the state in which the 
'unlawful combatants' on the wrong side of the 'War on Terror' now find 
themselves at the US Naval facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, 'Camp 
X-Ray'?(2) Each prisoner shackled in his own 6-by-8-foot concrete and 
chain-link fencing cage, just able to stand upright, shaved, *completely 
exposed to the elements*; a state of physical suspension which is identical 
with his political/juridical status and its novel designation: 'unlawful 
combatant' - a category which does not exist in the Geneva Convention and 
which has no legal basis at all.

As State Secretary Donald Rumsfeld simply puts it, 'unlawful combatants do 
not have any rights under the Geneva Convention.' (True insofar as the 
Geneva Convention does not anywhere mention 'unlawful combatants'. The US 
government position is that for captured soldiers to be considered 
'combatants' they must be 'wearing a uniform with recognizable insignia, 
being subject to a chain of command, and carrying arms openly' - standards 
by which very few of the soldiers on any side in Afghanistan could be 
considered entitled to prisoner-of-war status if captured.

One thinks, for example, of the American special forces who, as the Western 
media proudly reported weeks ago, cunningly rode horses, wore civilian 
clothes and kept their weapons concealed during Enduring Freedom.) And of 
course the 'unlawful combatant' designation has nothing to do with dress 
code: it became necessary at the exact moment of the removal of these 20 men 
to Cuba- shackled, bound, hooded, drugged. Had the prisoners been 
prisoners-of-war, legitimate combatants, this would have represented a 
contravention of the Geneva Convention; so the men are not legitimate 
prisoners-of-war and the Geneva Convention therefore does not apply. (A 
simple enough formula. We've noticed it before in the 'War on Terror': 
America has literally become 'living law', altering and/or adding new code 
as required.) On the other hand, we mustn't imagine that because this is a 
'War on Terror', these must be terrorists to be charged under US domestic 
law, and protected under that same judicial regime. Not at all. All but a 
single one of them - an American - now exist in an state of absolute 
exception, poised between orders (not quite soldiers, not quite terrorists,) 
and it is in this state that trial under the Patriot Act will occur. Does 
America recognise that the conditions under which the prisoners now find 
themselves - completely reliant on the moral and ethical whims of their 
captors (which, the media again report, are reasonably noble) are identical 
with those of the Jews interned in the Nazi concentration camps?

As we already know, the Patriot Act is another piece of juridical innovation 
which allows any non-US citizen who is suspected of being associated with 
terrorism to be tried before a military tribunal in which not only the 
judges/jurors, but the prosecutors and defense attorneys will all be serving 
US military officers. The Act allows for evidence to be withheld from the 
accused and his or her lawyers, and for the death sentence to be imposed on 
a bare majority of the officers making up the tribunal. (All this, as UK 
politician Tony Benn has recently pointed out, 'flies in the face of [...] 
the human rights upheld by the United Nations and amounts to the tearing up 
of the charter itself...': living law has no time for fixed statutes.) As 
'bare life', not protected by any international juridical conventions, the 
prisoners may be also denied any outside counsel in their proceedings. Here, 
then, are men who have been stripped of their most basic rights, rights only 
recently 'guaranteed' at the International Tribunal in the Hague for the 
alleged architects of the genocide in Yugoslavia.

There is an air of brinkmanship about all of this, as if America wants to 
test further whether its operations under the new state of exception (which, 
like that of the Third Reich, has never needed a declaration) will stand. 
Will the twin totems of 'terror' and 'peace' convince the rest of the world 
to allow the new regime sufficient latitude? In this sense, the prisoners at 
Camp X-RAY are *literally* sacrificial, burnt offerings at the altar of a 
much greater project whose shape is still emerging. The sense that the fates 
of human rights and that of the nation-state are somehow implicated(3) is 
becoming overwhelming. Will the sacrifice of the X-Ray Camp prisoners under 
conditions of absolute exception, whilst the world looks on, be the gesture 
that allows a new order of further and equivalent actions, taking place 
under the 'living law' ('Infinite Justice') of the US? Will our complicity 
in allowing these actions to take place fund future complicities with far 
greater evils?

'The truth is that the Taliban prisoners have been taken to Guantanamo only 
because the US government had the physical power to do so,' someone wrote. 
But if they're murdered, it will be because s11 has been allowed to produce 
a context in which power politics may operate openly, with complete 
transparency. Will it even, eventually, allow America to admit what we 
already suspect, that the fall of the twin towers was itself a staged event 
(and that its dead, like those Camp X-Ray will produce, were sacrificial 

(1) See Giorgio Agamben, 'The Camp As Paradigm', in Homo Sacer (Stanford 
University Press, 1995.)

(2) Has anyone made any comment yet about this appellation, meant to 
suggest, presumably, that Amercia intends now to physically penetrate these 
men, to 'see inside' them to their core motives?

(3) Agamben, Homo Sacer, 134

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