July 10, 2007

Prisoner 345

I promise this blog will become something more interesting than a promotional device. But I am going to post a link to my cover story in this month's Columbia Journalism Review. The piece is a profile of Sami Al-Haj, an Al Jazeera cameraman who is, as far as anyone knows, the only journalist to be detained at Guantanamo Bay. Whenever I told anyone I was working on this piece, their first question was invariably "did you get to go to Guantanamo?" I didn't, because while journalists are allowed to take Potemkin-style tours of the camp, they can't talk to the detainees. So I reported the piece by talking to Al-Haj's family, friends, colleagues, and, by a stroke of uncanny luck, a former detainee who once occupied a cell adjoining Al Haj's. I also obtained a large pile of letters and poetry that Al Haj has written to his lawyer and family since he arrived in Cuba in June 2002.

One thing that I wanted to do with this material from inside Guantanamo was to show that, as bizarre as the place once seemed, its practices have now hardened into a strange culture among its inhabitants. Similarly, on the outside, we've grown accustomed to Guantanamo's existence. When Camp X-Ray was first established, you could at least argue that Guantanamo was an anomaly, an aberration from America's traditional observance of the laws of war prompted by extreme circumstances. Now, it's truly institutionalized. The manner in which such an abnormal place has acquired a facade of normality is possibly what disturbs me most. Some of the recent murmurings that Guantanamo may be moved or closed do sound promising (as does this recent news from the Supreme Court). But even if Guantanamo were to be closed tomorrow, the fact remains that the public mind has become inured to the practice of detaining people indefinitely within a law-free zone. That won't be so easy to reverse.

In addition to telling Sami Al Haj's story, the piece also explores the way the U.S. media reports on Guantanamo, compared with the international press; and details the attitudes of high-ranking officials within the Bush administration towards Al Jazeera. I'll write more on those subjects in later posts.