One of the less noted aspects of the Bush Administration’s ‘War on Terror’ is the government’s simultaneous War on Language, a calculated use of Orwellian double speak. Post 9-11, the invasion of other countries became a ‘preemptive strike’, the capture and torture of civilians ‘extraordinary rendition’. A sign on the front of the US prison in Guantanamo Bay reads ‘Honor Bound to Defend Freedom’. Small comfort to the 460 ‘unlawful combatants’ who after four years still languish inside, without any access to basic human rights.
A particularly shocking example of this phenomenon is the Department of Defense’s attitude toward suicide attempts by Guantanamo’s detainees. Officially, 41 attempts have been admitted by the US government to date. Speak to any of the prisoners who have been released, and they will tell you the figure is laughably low. The reason for this discrepancy? No doubt aware of the adverse publicity the facility was receiving in the media, those running the prison decided to re-label suicide attempts as ‘manipulative self-injurious behaviour’ or ‘SIBs’, to euphemise still further. After reclassification, predictably the rate of attempted suicides plummeted overnight. Nevertheless, the British journalist David Rose has written that in the six months after the new terminology came into practice, there were forty reported SIBs, almost two a week.
For our film, The Road to Guantanamo, Michael Winterbottom and I interviewed the Tipton Three, young British men who had been detained by the US in Guantanamo for over two years. The eldest, Shafiq Rasul, paints a very different picture of suicide attempts in the prison. ‘People tried to kill themselves all the time,’ he told us. ‘I thought about suicide when I was there. You can’t talk to anyone back home, not even your family. You don’t know if you’ll ever be released, or if you’ll be executed. Eventually you just lose hope.’
This weekend, three prisoners, two Saudis and a Yemeni, finally succeeded where so many before had failed, and took their own lives. Without access to family or lawyers, after over four years in US custody, they knotted bedsheets together and hung themselves from the grills above their cells.