I find it impossible not to be struck by the resemblance of prisoners at Camp X-Ray with the participants in an outlandish ritual of domination and submission. They half-kneel on the gravel in their orange nylon uniforms, wrists shackled in front of them, ankles chained together, faces hidden under rubber masks and mouths covered with surgical pads. They are contorted, hobbled, their midriffs and buttocks bulge out from the ill-fitting uniforms. They look like supplicants in front of some insectoid deity. Meanwhile, guards in camouflage fatigues, hair vengefully cropped, stride between them, barking commands.
We see them through the diamond-weave of wire, in their narrow pen, surrounded on all sides by long metal barriers, overhung by razor-coils. All this reinforcement for what? As if they could escape, paralysed as they are by their chains, watched over by men with machine guns, on a remote bluff at the far end of an obscure island, thousands of miles from home. No, these props, this fascia, has to have been built as a stage set for the playing out of some fanatic’s psychodrama. The paradox of fantasy is that its instantiation has to appear as realistic as possible without ever being realised. Because, for the fantasist, the reality destroys the illusion. Not so in the War on Terror. For the leaders and apparatchiks who invented and sanctioned this prison camp, and the brutality that is visited on its inhabitants, the thrill is in the vindicating connection of ideology and action. In the acting out of their repressed dreams of power.
Of course it would not be surprising to learn that the Guantanamo scenario had now become a popular fantasy, that some people liked to imagine being kidnapped, bound and detained in such a facility, interrogated by ruthless ‘contractors’. These kinds of imaginings are common, innocent, if politically tasteless. And this raises the distinct possibility of a sub-genre of BDSM literature, involving the conversion of Guantanamo into a kind of pornographic icon.
But this is to trivialise the very real connection between psychopathic mania and the exercise of political, military and judicial power. The delight of the Sadist is in the suffering of another, an object who is acted upon, controlled, abused, but who is close enough to observe and empathise with. The Sadist enjoys, up to a point, the signals of distress and suffering that come from their partners. The psychopath is unable to interpret them or appreciate them. In his world, there simply is no affective connection. The other is merely an object, to be manipulated, controlled, or killed, not for any vicarious pleasure but out of a confused self-interest. The psychopath is cunning and sophisticated, but illogical. His patterns of thought ultimately unravel because he cannot understand the world around him, or why his attempts to control it fail.
Guantanamo is the product of a psychopathic, paranoid rage, directed at the wild unpredictability of the foreign, the alien, the oriental. It is, ironically enough, an attempt to tidy up, to neaten the world, a kind of penal singularity, a black hole with its own event horizon. It is designed quite literally to take people ‘off the map’, to disappear them, to hold them in a place that is not visible, that is not recognisable, to maroon them forever in a legal vacuum. It is supposed to be out of sight, just as the CIA’s ‘black sites’ are out of sight because no information escapes from them, so that those who are sent there, the untidy, the awkward, are never seen again.
Of course it would be fatuous to deny the real danger that is posed by some of the people who have been detained in this way. But just because they pose a danger does not mean that they can simply be erased from the world. In fact, the opposite is true, and the act of trying to wipe them out undermines their prosecution and the defeat of their ideology and their movements.
Perhaps it is mere coincidence that the aesthetics of Guantanamo bear such a striking resemblance to those of a certain kind of BDSM sub-culture. But with what we know of the deliberate use of physical humiliation in interrogations, the sexual degradation meted out to Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, and the deep fetishization of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ and the rhetoric and mechanics of torture, how can we be so sure? It is part of a pattern of behaviour that, taken together, points to a vast subliminal desire to exert dominance over these captives, to humiliate and punish them in a way that goes beyond simple retribution.
At the centre of power, at the heart of this web of barely-concealed paraphilias, lie the security and military elite of the US Government. The Bush administration, and principally Dick Cheney, is responsible for introducing many of these measures and encouraging many abuses. The zeal of men like Richard Perle, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, their palpable pleasure in the suffering of detainees such as Khaled Sheikh Mohammed in their custody, their almost eagerness to see him tortured and broken, their smarmy amusement at the suggestion that this enhanced interrogation might not be morally excusable, all hint at a perverted eroticism, an intense love of punitive revenge.
It is the joy of the bully, the ecstasy of the insecure and the weak, to see your opponents crushed and destroyed. It borders very closely on a Sadistic delight. Especially when the opponent is, once captured, so puny, so helpless in the brawny arms of the Superpower. Of course, it is quite natural to feel ambivalent or even enthusiastic about the defeat and punishment of your enemy. But the symptoms exhibited by these lions of the neo-conservative movement, these heroes of the Project for the New American Century, are more like the symptoms of a psycho-sexual obssession.
And so it is hardly surprising that the prison they have designed for these ‘detainees’, the conditions they have subjected them to, the micro-management of the regime they live under and the ways in which they are coerced and questioned, the clothes they are made to wear and the positions they are forced to adopt, remind us of the appurtenances of a giant SM establishment. These counters have landed on the heads of snakes, they have slithered down to the bottom of the board, they have been thrown into Prison and they will not pass Go ever again.