Becoming Our Fear

“But what kind of right is that which perishes when force fails?”

“Force is a physical power, and I fail to see what moral effect it can have.”


In his poetic narrative, The Enormous Room, E.E. Cummings describes in detail the absurd and abstract nature of his experience as a detainee during WW I in France. As a volunteer for the ambulance corps in Paris, Cummings befriended another volunteer, whose correspondence home included reports of the attrition of the French army. Guilty by association, Cummings is taken away from the ambulance corps camp before being issued a uniform. His journey to hs place of detainment, an ‘Enormous Room’ in an ancient and isolated structure deep in the countryside of France, is an existentialist experience of the chaos that is a result of persecution based on suspicion and paranoia, the infuriating, punitive and lawless nature of power given without reason.
Cummings endures his detainment through maintaining a civilized relationship with his fellow detainees. Rather than objectifying them, he personalizes them, documenting their unique characteristics and appreciating their human qualities. He accepts the indefinite and timeless nature of his confinement. This is the existentialist approach, live in the moment and expect the absurd.
The book, first published in 1922, is a haunting reminder of the frightening predicament of a detainee. This story speaks to us as Americans, as we are alienated from those detainees who are foreigners now held captive in Guantanamo and Abu Graib. That Cummings wrote this book specifically to document the absurd and unfair nature of confinement, reminds us that at another time and place our people could be subject to this arbitrary and cruel practice. The irony is that the time is now, and the place may not be an adversaries, but our own.
As with Cummings, today's detainees are without legal recourse. Although over a year ago the court granted them the right to Habeas Corpus (that is, the right to know the charges being held against them) our government has succeeded in keeping them isolated through it’s own interpretation of the courts ruling. The Guantanamo Bay Bar Association, a coalition of 250 volunteer lawyers are currently representing detainees. Through the coordination of The Center for Constitutional Rights they provide legal council, but none of the usual rights and privileges of the accused apply, such as the right to privacy and due process. Lawyers for the detainees in Guantanamo report that when they meet with their clients, their clients have been waiting to see them for days in solitary confinement, and may have been interrogated as often as forty times. Subsequently, they view their meeting as another interrogation. All of the lawyers notes from these meetings must be handed over before they leave the facility, breaching confidentiality between a client and their legal representative.
Cummings book begins with a letter written by his father to President Woodrow Wilson. In this letter he pleads with the president to address his sons ‘prolonged injustice at the arms of France’. In addition his father points to the suffering on behalf of his family members, particularly Cummings mother, who endured the agony of no information, and then, misinformation when she received a cable reporting that Cummings had died in a submarine. In preface to Cummings story, his father Edward writes, ‘France was beset with enemies within as well as without. Some of the ‘suspects’ were member of her official household. Her minister of Interior was thrown into prison. She was distracted with fear. Her existence was at stake. Under such circumstances excesses were sure to be committed. But is is precisely at such times that American citizens most need and are most entitled to the protection of their own government.”
At this time our democracy is in threat by our loss of right to due process if accused of terrorism. Many Americans might assume this doesn’t matter, as it does not apply to them. But they must understand, that, ultimately, any disagreement with the government can be construed as threatening, and therefore, terrorism. Upon reflection history tells us that chaos, evil and lawlessness is a force that, once allowed to gather, will wander over a wider and wider terrain.
American history is clouded by many instances of abuse, exploitation and lawlessness that flourished at various times such as the African Americans and slavery, the genocide of native americans and the exploitation of Chinese,Japanese, and Irish immigrants.
What charts our progress as a civilized society is the extension of those rights in the constitution, such as right to vote, and all those rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights to blacks, women, and finally all members of our society. Even those who are not citizens have been granted certain rights. To healthcare, housing, and freedom from exploitation of their labor. This is important because of our interconnectedness. Our integrity as a nation could not be maintained were we to randomly distribute justice. The definition of civilize being, ‘to bring out of a condition of savagery and barbarism to a higher level of social organization’. Savagery and barbarism are conditions born of ignorance and fear. The detainment of those not accused is savage and barbarous and a distinct threat to our continued development as a civilization. ie ‘peoples considered to have reached a high social development.’
Recently I was called upon to perform my civli service and serve on a jury. The process of the selection of the jury, our extensive briefing on the sanctity of our duty , represents one of the pillars of our civilization. Prior to our interview and ultimate selection to serve as jurors, we viewed a video showing historical reenactments of the medieval ‘trial process’ one method being to throw the accused-bound- into the water to see if they would float. Those were the dark ages, and now a similarly dark condition is being allowed to thrive under the authority of our government. This poses a threat to our collective well being, and its existence is an infringement on and a threat to- the continued development of our civilization.
In order for the constitution to be ratified the people of the states insisted on the inclusion of the Bill of Rights. The recognition and respect of the rights of the individual is what lends our government legitimacy. These rights include freedom of speech, press, peaceful assembly and the right to petition the government for grievances. Amendments five and six pertain to the rights of those accused of a crime. The constitution is a contract between the government and the people. What makes the contract binding is the ideological underpinnings which are the ethical and moral values broadly embraced by the majority as the defining characteristics of how we relate to each other. If it is perceived to be arbitrarily interpreted its integral value immediately becomes diminished and we teeter on the edge of lawlessness. The detainment of prisoners, is, in fact, the creation of a lawless state, an institution beyond our reach.
What Cummings succeeds in getting at in his poetic narrative, through his affectionate and admiring depiction's of his fellow detainees and the character of their encounters, is the essence of humanity, and the importance of recognizing it to our individual and collective survival.
Because of the commitment of a few as with the Guantanamo Bay Bar Association and the Center for Constitutional RIghts, to the principles outlined in our constitution, detainees in Guantanamo now have legal representation, as limited as it may be. The Supreme court ruling affirmed prisoners rights to to file petitions without the ability to pursue them. This is the beginning of a long battle toward instituting the rights of POW’s /detainees to due process of law as as promised in the US Constitution and the protection of their integrity as humans under the international watch of the General convention.
As of May 2005, there were as many as 550 detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Of these, four have been formally charged as war criminals. The people of the states at the time the constitution was written insisted on the Bill of Rights to prevent just such a situation. A fundamental value of our society, as reflected in the Bill of RIghts, is that people are innocent until proven guilty. At this time, innocent people languish, suffer and die while held in a legal limbo that looks the other way from torture, intimidation and humiliation. In respect to prisoners of war, the Geneva convention states that if the Detaining power cannot adequately secure and protect the rights of the prisoner, that ‘the detaining power shall request a neutral state, or such an organization, to undertake the functions performed under the present Convention by a Protecting Power designated by the Parties to a conflict.’
Would it not be in the best interest of the United States, in protection of our collective integrity and esteem in the eyes of the global community, to entrust care of the detainees to a supervising entity? The mentality of the American maverick that dominates our current political administration is adamantly opposed to subjecting itself to the scrutiny, judgment or authority of a world court. The fact that the US refuses to take what essentially is an easy out with the detainee situation indicates that we are engaged in another sort of terrorism. Terrorism is defined as, “A system of a reign of terror; A mode of governing, or of opposing government, by intimidation; Any policy of intimidation.” A terrorist is ‘One who favor s or practices terrorism, one who administer or coerces a government or community by intimidation.”
The random application of law, or lack of application of law, The unpredictable nature of who qualifies as a terrorist, and under what conditions a person can be detained are clearly intimidating, and applicable not only to foreigners, but U.S. citizens as well. This is demonstrated in the process that passengers must undergo when flying these days; the ritualistic disrobing and removal of shoes, the corrals in which you might be held for further searching. Now we are subject to random searches in the subways as well. Meanwhile we are in no way assured of safety in the air, airports, subways, buses or streets. What is the purpose of these searches? They serve to intimidate.
The Geneva Convention states that if there is any question as to the status of a prisoner, than they are to be considered a prisoner of war and granted the protections of the Geneva Convention. Yet out government labels these prisoners of war detainees and hopes to escape international scrutiny while continuing its campaign of intimidation.
Is the application of international law and american values nothing more than a game of semantics? The US is guilty of instituting laws that violate its’ own principals, thereby undermining all our security and our collective process toward a truly civilized society.
Cummings detainment preceded any protections offered by international agreements. The war that Cummings was detained in was the war that spurred recognition of the need for an international agreement concerning the rules of war, to avoid, to the extent possible, revisiting the horrors of W.W.I. From this reason a convention was held in Geneva in July of 1929, and the Geneva convention was written. After WW II world leaders held a diplomatic conference at Geneva for the purpose of revising the convention. WW II made clear that even more specific terms must be outlined to prevent the revisitation of the horrors such as those documented, witnessed and experienced by millions of people, particularly the jews, during the war. The Geneva Conventions are representative of international recognition of our interconnectedness, and the awareness of a kind of political karma. How we treat our prisoners is how our enemies will treat us. Therefore, our safety and well being lies in the protection and care of our enemies. Strange ideas indeed, in light of the violence and destruction of war, but progress toward a more civilized world none the less.
In the Social Contract Rousseau states that, “May I add that by the word WAR, people mean public war and therefore suppose that societies already existed, even though they do not explain their origin. If private war between one man an another were meant, the result could only be a master and slaves and never a chief and citizens....A people is a people independently of its chief, and if the prince dies, there still exists, between the subjects, the bonds which maintain it as a nation. You will find nothing of the kind in the principles of tyranny. As soon as the tyrant ceases to exist, everything comes apart and falls into dust, like an oak into a heap of ashes when the fire which has destroyed it goes out.’
Upon his departure from his detainment Cummings writes, “to leave La Misere with the knowledge, and worse than that the feeling, that some of the finest people in the world are doomed to continue, possibly for years and tens of years and all the years which terribly are between them and their deaths, the gray and indivisible Nonexistence which without apology you are quitting for Reality -- cannot by any stretch of the imagination be conceived as constituting a Happy Ending to a great and personal adventure. That I write this chapter at all is due, purely and simply, to the, I dare say, unjustified hope on my part that- by recording certain events- it may hurl a little additional light into a very tremendous darkness.”
What is a law? A prediction, a reflection of our values, terms of interaction. The entire function of our government is built around creating and upholding the law. A law is only as good as its enforcement, and, as Rousseau points out, its enforcement lies not in force itself, but in consent. Cummings writing demonstrates the common ground between art and law. Both are expressions of our values as a society, and sometimes it is difficult to tell when either is a reflection or a projection.
If the law is seen to be superfluous, than our social fabric is in shreds. While we are supposedly busy transplanting democracy abroad we are simultaneously hacking away at its roots at home.

Jessica Arey Hall
October 2005