the sinew project
...featured content
...from the
Powered by Squarespace

Add to Technorati Favorites


A Minute Focus on Uniforms

It has been fascinating reading Brian William's brief account of this trial. I am writing from Cairo where I'm in the middle of a quick stint of anthropological fieldwork, and as I hoof about this hot and smoggy but cheerful city chatting with people, I'm reminded daily of the truth of what Brian writes about when he says that one of the major issues at stake in trials that test the legality of Guantanamo is the international image of the U.S. Not a day goes by when I'm asked where I'm from, and I confess that I'm an American, and the response I get is, “we love Americans but we hate America.”

I've only spent time in the Middle East for about 15 years so I don't have enough historical perspective to say if America ever was the symbol of freedom and democracy for Egyptians that we Americans like(d) to imagine we are. But what I can say definitively is that what we “currently” stand for in the opinion of most of the Egyptians I come across is war, imperial aggression, and hypocritical support for oppressive regimes when it suits our political leaders.

Brian writes that “For me it was a vindication of the US military and rebuttal for all those who felt that an all-military jury could not be impartial.... I believe that the verdict and sentence also vindicated the US judicial system,” and that may be true. But when he writes, “The verdict will doubtless begin the process of rebuilding America’s reputation... I believe that the Hamdan verdict will begin the process of reminding the world of what America stood for before it became defined by such terms as Abu Ghraib, Haditha, rendition, and most infamous of all, Gitmo,” I couldn't disagree more in light of his postscript telling us that “Hamdan remains in Guantanamo Bay and the Pentagon has declared it has the right to keep him and all other prisoners there indefinitely.” The U.S. image continues to be defined by Abu Ghraib and Gitmo, and dismayingly enough, the Bush regime seems determined to keep it that way.

But what also struck me reading Brian's account was all the things that we now take for granted thanks to the efforts of the Bush regime. There are a lot of absurdities that we don't blink an eye at. For example, consider his minute focus on whether members of al-Qaeda wear uniforms or not. Really? Is that really what should make a difference in whether we give someone a fair trial or not? Is that really what defines someone as a terrorist or not? By current U.S. legal standards it may be, and certainly it was necessary for the success of this trial, but I think the real challenge is to try to develop a broader vision.

I am reminded of the late Eqbal Ahmed's classic essay “Terrorism: Theirs and Ours,” in which he challenged the definition of terrorism and reminded us of the way that deploying the word “terrorism” strategically deflects attention away from the vastly greater amount of violence that is legally committed by nation-states. The revised essay was published as a little booklet and the poignant picture on the cover, of Ronald Reagan sitting in the White House with Afghani mujahideen, makes Ahmed's point that “The terrorist of yesterday is the hero of today, and the hero of yesterday becomes the terrorist of today.”

To apply Ahmed's argument to the current political situation, let us consider how many people have been killed as a result of the American invasion of Iraq (considered by many, including Kofi Annan, to be an illegal war, further pressing us to think about contested definitions of the legitimacy of violence), and compare that with the number of people who were killed by al-Qaeda operatives on 9/11. Of course, the figures are highly contentious, but most would agree that the number of Americans killed in Iraq exceeds the number killed in 9/11, while the number of Iraqis killed is somewhere between 30 and 200 times the number of people killed in 9/11.

What Ahmed's argument presses us to think about is how debates over whether a person or group of people are "terrorists" or not -- based on whether they wear uniforms or have a centralized command structure or whether they're on our side -- distracts attention away from "terror."

L.L. Wynn is an Associate Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology, Macquarie University, Australia, and the author of  Pyramids and Nightclubs (University of Texas Press, 2007).

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.
Member Account Required
You must have a member account on this website in order to post comments. Log in to your account to enable posting.