Following September 11, 2001, I returned to Edmond Jabès. At an earlier period, he had provided me with the language of the void, the necessity of the scream:
“What is the story of the book?”
“Becoming aware of a scream.”
An attack on U.S. soil, as the headlines screamed, threatened all those aliens—legal and illegal—present in the U.S. A Kenyan friend had to escort her brown colleagues in upstart New York to the supermarket. My university sent concerned emails to all international students: to have an un-American name or accent was newly dangerous.
“Our ties to beings and things are so fragile they often break without noticing.”
I needed Jabès to map a social that was rapidly changing: I started watching congress proceedings on TV. I parsed political speeches for the words “American citizen” and “American soil,” for the protections ostensibly extended to “the American people.” I learned not to flinch at the mushrooming U.S. flags in East Central Illinois.
Citizenship became a newly interesting concept.
Other terms became important: home, stranger, alien, attachment, belonging, deracination.
Harriet Jacobs’s phrase, “loophole of retreat,” gained new meaning. Trying to escape her master’s attempts to rape her, Jacobs hides in her grandmother’s garret.
A small shed had been added to my grandmother’s house years ago. Some boards were laid across the joists at the top, and between these boards and the roof was a very small garret, never occupied by any thing but rats and mice. It was a pent roof, covered with nothing but shingles, according to the southern custom for such buildings. The garret was only nine feet long and seven wide. The highest part was three feet high, and sloped down abruptly to the loose board floor. There was no admission for either light or air. My uncle Phillip, who was a carpenter, had very skilfully made a concealed trap-door, which communicated with the storeroom. He had been doing this while I was waiting in the swamp. The storeroom opened upon a piazza. To this hole I was conveyed as soon as I entered the house. The air was stifling; the darkness total. A bed had been spread on the floor. I could sleep quite comfortably on one side; but the slope was so sudden that I could not turn on my other without hitting the roof. The rats and mice ran over my bed; but I was weary, and I slept such sleep as the wretched may, when a tempest has passed over them.
This retreat takes a toll on her body and soul:
I hardly expect that the reader will credit me, when I affirm that I lived in that little dismal hole, almost deprived of light and air, and with no space to move my limbs, for nearly seven years. But it is a fact; and to me a sad one, even now; for my body still suffers from the effects of that long imprisonment, to say nothing of my soul.
Jacobs returns to me, gives me a way in.
The much-redacted executive summary of the U.S. torture report, Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, tells us little that we did not know: the U.S. tortured Arab and Muslim men to gather evidence to fight “the war against terror.” The Study attempts to indict the CIA and the Republican administration, all while absolving president Bush who “expressed discomfort with the ‘image of a detainee, chained to the ceiling, clothed in a diaper, and forced to go to the bathroom on himself’” (Footnote 17). Repeatedly, it stages an encounter between the men who are tortured—who learn to “cower” like dogs, who obey without question, who suffer hallucinations, vomit what they eat, become damaged beyond repair, on the one hand, and the CIA operatives who express moral discomfort, question the legality of what they continue to do, and receive bonuses for their work.
Some names of the captured, in a footnote.
The use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques including “walling, attention grasps, slapping, facial hold, stress positions, cramped confinement, white noise and sleep deprivation”—continued in “varying combinations, 24 hours a day” for 17 straight days, through August 20, 2002. When Abu Zubaydah was left alone during this period, he was placed in a stress position, left on the waterboard with a cloth over his face, or locked in one of two confinement boxes. According to the cables, AbuZubaydah was also subjected to the waterboard “2-4 times a day . . . with multiple iterations of the watering cycle during each application.
The “aggressive phase of interrogation” continued until August 23, 2002. Over the course of the entire 20 day “aggressive phase of interrogation,” Abu Zubaydah spent a total of 266 hours (11 days, 2 hours) in the large (coffin size) confinement box and 29 hours in a small confinement box, which had a width of 21 inches, a depth of 2.5 feet, and a height of 2.5 feet. The CIA interrogators told Abu Zubaydah that the only way he would leave the facility was in the coffin-shaped confinement box.
A cable from DETENTION SITE GREEN, which CIA records indicate was authored by SWIGERT and DUNBAR, also viewed the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah as a success. The cable recommended that “the aggressive phase at [DETENTION SITE GREEN] should be used as a template for future interrogation of high value captives,” not because the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques produced useful information, but rather because their use confirmed that Abu Zubaydah did not possess the intelligence that CIA Headquarters had assessed Abu Zubaydah to have. The cable from the detention site stated:
“Our goal was to reach the stage where we have broken any will or ability of subject to resist or deny providing us information (intelligence) to which he had access. We additionally sought to bring subject to the point that we confidently assess that he does not/not possess undisclosed threat information, or intelligence that could prevent a terrorist event.”
SWIGERT and DUNBAR are pseudonyms for psychologists who encouraged the use of torture.
Repeatedly, the Study faults the CIA for not briefing the president, the FBI, the Senate, and other bodies. Repeatedly, the Study faults the CIA not because it tortured detainees, but because the torture failed to produce intelligence. Repeatedly, the Study wants to hold on to torture as a resource, but it must be better torture, more efficient torture, torture that pays for itself. One gets the sense that the Study authors are disappointed that torture did not pay for itself—some torturers got paid, but torture was not profitable enough. The problem with torture is that it fails at capitalism.
One senior interrogator [REDACTED] , told the CIA OIG that “literally, a detainee could go for days or weeks without anyone looking at him,” and that his team found one detainee who, “‘as far as we could determine,’ had been chained to the wall in a standing position for 17 days.” According to the CIA interrogator, some of the CIA detainees at DETENTION SITE COBALT “‘literally looked like a dog that had been kenneled.’ When the doors to their cells were opened, ‘they cowered.'”
I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood-clotted cowskin.—Frederick Douglass
Another young person—a 22-year-old Black man—explained how CPD officers physically assaulted him, causing permanent bodily injury that will impact the rest of his life.
And so last year, I flame up the blunt, they hit the sirens…I come out, put my hands behind my head and, “Get on the ground, get on the ground!” Cool, I get on the ground. Next thing I know, I wake up in the back of a police station, and I don’t even know what happened to me to be honest with you, that’s how bad they beat me. I guarantee you. I’m sitting in the Cook County Jail…with twenty-two stitches in my tongue, two facial fractures, bruised ribs, scrapes all over my body, I still can’t talk right to this day. I can’t eat certain things…I had an orbital fracture, a nasal fracture, like, say that had to stitch my tongue back together, I almost didn’t have no tongue. Like it was literally hanging on by a thread, I could feel it, like, I could feel my tongue at my chin…Yea it’s stuff that I shouldn’t have done but at the same time, I came out willingly. I came out with my hands up, giving myself in. There’s no reason to use force like that…now I can’t even go back and file reports or sue the police officer, get the badge numbers or nothing. Like they scarred me outta my whole life.—We Charge Genocide, UN Shadow Report
I was walking to the bus when a police officer called out and said, “Hey you, come here girl with all of that ass.” I ignored the comment unaware of where it was coming from until he pulled up on the curb to block my path in his undercover cop car. He jumps out and yells “Didn’t you hear me calling you girl?” I replied simply by saying, “No my name isn’t girl with all of that ass.” He got very mad and slapped me saying I was disrespectful and saying, “Don’t you know who I am?”…I began to fear him so I slowly backed away and he ran up and choke-slammed me saying I insulted an officer and was under arrest, when people started to come and look he handcuffed me, placed me in the back seat, and drove away. When we stopped at an alley I realized he wasn’t taking me in . . . He got out of the car, came to where I was and tried to rape me.—We Charge Genocide, UN Shadow Report
For the distinction between the past and the present founders on the interminable grief engendered by slavery and its aftermath. How might we understand mourning, when the event has yet to end? When the injuries not only perdure, but are inflicted anew? Can one mourn what has yet ceased happening?
—Saidiya Hartman, “The Time of Slavery”
How does one write about histories and presents of unmaking? Histories and presents of undoing? Of what is extended as unmaking and unmaking, of un-futures?
I have yet to complete reading the Study; in fact, I am barely 100 pages in. It is difficult to read. To see “Muslim-sounding” names undressed, left naked, beaten, starved, tortured, and tortured again. To see names of operatives [REDACTED]. To see titles next to familiar U.S. names: director, secretary of this, attorney general, senator, president. To see the world created through which names are saturated with suffering.
Senator Feinstein opens the Study with a too-familiar claim:
Nevertheless, such pressure, fear, and expectation of further terrorist plots do not justify, temper, or excuse improper actions taken by individuals or organizations in the name of national security. The major lesson of this report is that regardless of the pressures and the need to act, the Intelligence Community’s actions must always reflect who we are as a nation, and adhere to our laws and standards. It is precisely at these times of national crisis that our government must be guided by the lessons of our history and subject decisions to internal and external review.
“who we are as a nation”: bombs, drones, support for the genocidal Israel state, support for U.S. interests, indifference to other domestic contexts as long as U.S. interests triumph.
Saidiya Hartman poses the question of what it means to write about torture and suffering, about the spectacle of the suffering body in an age entertained by all spectacles.
I regret using the names of the men who were tortured—the spectacle of what happened to them. I have not found a way to discuss those who are unmade without trying to name them, hoping that such naming might grant some kind of something, perhaps recognition. Perhaps I attach too much importance to the name—because I learn from Katherine McKittrick to refuse the mathematics of black life.
With Saidiya Hartman, “I want to do more than recount the violence that deposited these traces in the archive.”