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Terror and Territory: Guantánamo and the Space of Contradiction

Joshua Comaroff

It is a recent habit of the American Right to wage war against abstractions. Whereas Lyndon Johnson intended “war on poverty” as a metaphor for progressive redistribution, the neoconservative “war on drugs” and “war on terror”1 mix allegory with actuality2 and are thus contradictory from the very outset: a turbid blend of symbolism and realpolitik, rhetorical obfuscation and dramatically direct violence. It might be fair to give this the dyslexic moniker “unclear war,” for it is neither truly war nor truly peace. Rather, it is Janus-faced, an embodiment of both. In one major regard, this is reminiscent of the Cold War in its juxtaposition of “hot” battles, such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq, with prolonged ideological campaigns contra both internal and external “enemies.”

In the current “war on terror,” the American military facility at Camp Delta in Guantánamo Bay is the most spectacular, and publicly debated, theater. I briefly attempt to examine here the consequences of this institution and its broader juridical framework for thinking in political geography and, conversely, the impact of political geography for understanding the war on terror. As we will see, it is both a suggestive and an elusive object. This essay is constituted of two parts: the first is critical, examining the theorization of Camp Delta from the standpoint of political exceptionalism; the second is more speculative, an attempt to access this refractory subject through an alternative framework of spatial and institutional practice.

Guantánamo as State of Exception

It seems, increasingly, that any serious consideration of Guantánamo must confront the recent arguments about the so-called “state of exception.” Although this notion originates with Carl Schmitt’s Dictatorship (1921), it has been recently revived and popularized in Giorgio Agamben’s State of Exception (2005), as well as his earlier Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1998). These have had a great impact on recent thinking in political theory — perhaps for reasons that have to do with the anxieties of the current moment.

The term state of exception describes a temporary suspension of constitutional statutes by executive force, such that “the law” may be preserved in the longer run; under its terms, in other words, emergency powers are invoked in order to safeguard the legal order. In France, for example, exception was articulated in the law of August 9, 1849, which held that “a political state of siege could be declared by parliament (or, additionally, by the head of state) in the case of imminent danger to external or internal security” (Agamben 2005: 12). Napoleon III took advantage of this law on three occasions, having redesigned the right to declare emergency as a supreme prerogative of the head of state. In the United States, emergency powers were first officially exercised in 1861, at the outset the Civil War, by Abraham Lincoln (Schmitt 1921: 136). They were subsequently expanded by Woodrow Wilson in the course of the First World War, during which many European nations were suspended in an indefinite state of exception, and again from 1942 to 1945. As Agamben notes, exceptional powers are often associated with military action; in the upshot, the “metaphor of war becomes an integral part of the presidential vocabulary whenever decisions considered to be of vital importance are being imposed” (Agamben 2005: 21).

Within the state of exception, the sovereignty of the executive becomes absolute and unreferenced, without need for external justification. It requires neither “legality” nor “legitimacy” (Schmitt 2004: 93). This self-evidently gives rise to a paradox, wherein law, through its own suspension and violation, comes to be preserved by something beyond its control. Schmitt identified this paradox in his critique of the Weimar constitution and the extraordinary powers given to the chancellor under Article 48 (Agamben 2005: 6;Schmitt 2004: 67). The Nazi seizure of power under that article is the central paradigm of exception and, for Agamben, its telos: Auschwitz is described as its juridical and spatial apotheosis, where biopolitical life (zoë) was subject to absolute power and reduced to “bare” existence. This will to purify sovereignty is, for both Schmitt and Agamben, a central tendency of liberalism, as well. In the Weimar case, it was exacerbated by contradictions within the German constitutional system, but the antidemocratic impulse arises generically from a “crisis of decision.” Liberalism, with its “romantic” tendency to evade decision, to encourage debate and consensus and approval, inevitably also leads to a hunger for direct, political action (Schmitt 2004: xv). In his introduction to Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political, Tracy Strong notes that the exercise of sovereign or executive power attains something of a miraculous or religious character within the state of exception. This is the definition of “political theology”: law comes down like a force of nature or an act of god (Schmitt 2004: xiv). It is only a quasi-divine entity that can redefine law through its seizure and suspension.

This tendency toward the authoritarian is thought by many to explain the peculiar conditions of Guantánamo, as well as, more generally, the autocratic proclivities of the George W. Bush administration. In a widely read commentary, Slavoj Žižek has written that Agamben’s is “simply the book for all those who do not see in 9/11 a mere pretext for patriotic mobilization.”3 Art historian Malcolm Bull likewise has suggested that Agamben’s work is “seemingly designed for the current situation” (Bull 2004: 3). Camp Delta is an analogue, here, of Auschwitz, in kind if not degree: it is a nonjuridical space wherein unmediated power is exerted over captives. As Martin Puchner (2004) observed, the terror of Guantánamo lies precisely in the possibility of a permanent state of exception, where, as he puts it, “the exception, in other words, becomes the rule.” In this context, the Commander in Chief becomes the “ ‘absolute sovereign,” an “executive unencumbered by other branches of government and human rights conventions, free to make emergency decisions” (7). “Bare life” returns in the gaunt bodies arranged on the floor of Abu Ghraib. In Auschwitz, these wraiths were called the musulman (or “muslim”): they were starving, denuded, and marked by their vacant aspect. Here, ironically, it is the figure of the Muslim himself. Agamben describes the musulman as the typical inhabitant of contemporary biopolitics, an inhabitant of the space that is opened when exception becomes rule. This conclusion begins to sound like hysteria, if not bourgeois conceit, in Bull’s restatement: “We are no longer citizens but detainees, distinguishable from the inmates of Guantánamo not by any difference in legal status, but only by the fact that we have not yet had the misfortune to be incarcerated” (2004: 3).

But can we conscionably locate Guantánamo — and with it the state of contemporary American politics — within a state of exception? Does Schmitt’s paradox correctly capture the nature of Camp Delta or of Abu Ghraib as political spaces? In point of fact, it has limitations that, themselves, point toward a more useful conception of Guantánamo and of the executive and legislative armatures that underpin it.

The limits of Schmitt’s paradigm are made especially clear in Agamben’s work. First — regardless of the few notes on Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt — his claims about the state of exception are not historically grounded within an American political context — or, for that matter, in any real history at all. As Bull has pointed out, much of his argument is “frustratingly dependent on vague analogies.” There is a somewhat promiscuous association between Roman law (in homo sacer, a figure who never actually existed), Nazi Germany, and contemporary America (Mesnard 2004: 141). These fundamentally distinct juridico-historical contexts are presumed to make a generalized case for exception because aspects of their excesses look similar to one another. This is metaphor, not history. Hence, Philippe Mesnard (2004): “It is when his discourse is confronted with an empirical reality that Agamben’s thought starts to become problematic” (142), and Bull’s observation that, in the past, most emergencies have been declared to handle such relatively mundane events as labor strikes.4 The facts of history notwithstanding, Agamben elides such mundanities with the most spectacular of instances, regardless of the specificities of difference. In the timeless vacuum of homo sacer, the eternal truth of sovereignty is a brutal seizure of the political life of the populace. Indeed, it is for this reason, among others, that Agamben’s work has been accused of being principally literary, an assortment of meandering significations (Mesnard 2004: 143).

More important, however, is the question of whether exception is necessary for the exercise of repressive force. Bull (2004: 5) observes that “it remains wholly unclear why . . . Agamben thinks extra-judicial state violence differs fundamentally from judicial state violence, on the one hand, and other forms of extrajudicial violence, on the other.” Why does the presence of state violence alone testify to a state of exception? Walter Benjamin, whose essay collection Agamben edited for the publisher Einaudi, would surely point out that there is tyranny enough under the law. Its suspension is hardly required for repressive acts to occur, hence the revelation, post-Abu Ghraib, that the famous torture techniques were imported, at least in part, from the American prison system. What seemed grotesque and exceptional was actually standard operating procedure, common practice, and de facto legal — all of which raises some profound concerns about the usefulness of this theory. Given the number of inmates on death row in Texas, why should the state of exception be relevant? Agamben might wish to believe that capital punishment marks the institutionalization of a state of exception, but that does not really make the case for its exceptionality one way or the other; in fact, Benjamin (1978: 286) argued that the violence of the death penalty was a guarantor of the originary force of the law, sui generis.

There are further questions about how well the state of exception actually fits the state of the Bush administration. There is little doubt that the neocons would choose to exercise dictatorial (or at least oligarchic) power, given the opportunity. But putting evil intent aside, wherein lies the reality? According to Schmitt, the sovereign achieves absolute power in the suspension of both legality and legitimacy. The law is, by definition, voided by the authority that would save it and restore its power. The Patriot Act has certainly lent the executive branch greatly expanded powers, but can we say that the constitution has been abnegated in an act of “political theology”? Precisely what is interesting in the endless memos that have circulated among the president, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales5 is that they express a need for legal tactics to defend such ideas as the “enemy combatant” and detention without trial, in the face of eventual challenge from the judiciary. The arguments may seem arrogant or unconvincing — Vaughan Lowe, a professor of international law at Oxford University, has commented that Gonzales’s legal reasoning was what he would expect from a “below average student . . . neither authoritative nor acceptable” (Rose 2004: 94) — but they are, nonetheless, arguments intended to defend executive action. And for good reason: the powers of the court have not been suspended, and the White House is not acting with legal impunity. The Supreme Court in its recent ruling in Rasul v. Bush (2004) has concluded that detention without trial is unconstitutional and that a writ of habeas corpus is, in fact, guaranteed. Moreover, on June 29, 2006, the Supreme Court ruled in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld that the Yemeni could not be tried before special “military tribunals,” as the latter were in violation of the Geneva Conventions.6 The judiciary has decided, albeit late, that what happens in Cuba is “juridicable” and has found against the executive. Also interesting here, for the question of exception, is that the Bush administration has felt the need to legitimize its actions in the court of public opinion. However arrogant these so-called vulcans,7 they have not been above the attempt to create legality through argument rather than fiat.

A key assumption of arguments linking exceptionalism to Guantánamo — and, I would add, something of a sleight-of-hand — is that the “neoliberalism” of the Bush administration creates an attraction to dictatorial government similar to “liberal” Weimar. A “crisis of decisionism” would explain an odd contradiction of the contemporary American Far Right: the emphasis on laissez-faire alongside the abrogation of established liberties. It would make sense of the now-familiar (and rather Orwellian) dictum that “in order to preserve our liberties we must make sacrifices.” But is Schmitt’s critique the best model for explaining this rightward drift? Putting aside the immediate fact that the Bush administration may also be accurately described as “neoconservative” — wherein authoritarianism might as easily spring from deeply theocratic leanings as from a “crisis of decision” — it is also the case that neoliberalism is a worldview defined by a heavy legalism, contractualism, and constitutionalism. Indeed, its tendency is to pursue war through explicitly lawful and moral means, rather than pure executive decree. I will argue, below, that the Bush doctrine of warfare remains hamstrung between these tendencies: a will to power, on the one hand, and an emphasis on legality, on the other. It is one of the discursive contradictions that, as we shall see, defines daily life at Camp Delta.

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I am grateful to John Agnew of UCLA for his ongoing support of this and other work. This essay has also benefited greatly from lively geographical conversations with Denis Cosgrove and J. Nicholas Entrikin. I also thank the editorial board of Public Culture for their insightful and very helpful comments on an earlier draft.

  1. And we may now add the “war on pornography” announced by Alberto Gonzales as a priority of the George W. Bush administration in its second term.
  2. This was pointed out publicly by Bob Kerrey in a “testy” exchange with Condoleeza Rice during the 9/11 Commission hearings of April 8, 2004, when he noted that “terrorism is a tactic” and not an enemy unto itself.
  3. The quotation of Žižek appears on the back cover of Agamben 2005.
  4. Bull (2004: 6) notes that “the state of exception is more often used to suppress industrial action: an attempt to turn law into violence in order to oppose the law-making violence of the strike.”
  5. See Danner 2004 for a selection.
  6. An interesting debate immediately ensued as to what this meant for Guantánamo. While the mainstream media (excepting Fox News) described this as a “sweeping” and “stunning” rebuke for the White House, others were less convinced. In a July 1, 2006, editorial in the Financial Times, Christopher Caldwell discussed this coverage in the American press and argued that new ambiguities in the definition of “war” would mean that Bush would find a simple legal means around the decision by exploiting the prevailing lack of clarity.
  7. As in the title of James Mann’s (2004) popular book Rise of the Vulcans.


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