Interview with Naomi Paik on Guantanamo and other U.S. prison camps
Interview with Naomi Paik
A. Naomi Paik is Assistant Professor of Asian American studies at the University of Illinois at Champaign/Urbana. Professor Paik holds a B.A. from Columbia, and an M.A., M.Phil. and Ph.D. from Yale University, She is the author of “Rightlessness: Testimony and Redress in US Prison Camps since World War II.” On July 15, 2016, I had the privilege of interviewing Professor Paik by telephone. What follows are my interview notes, as corrected by Naomi Paik.
The Talking Dog: Where were you on 11 Sept. 2001?
Naomi Paik: I was in New York from 1996 until 2010. On the morning of September 11th, I was on my way to work when the first plane hit, and arrived at work when the second plane hit. I was then working in mid-town, and living in Queens. It doesn’t feel all that long ago to me, but at the time, many of my students were around five years old on 9-11! I feel a responsibility to teach them about the events of that day and the aftermath… many of my students are shocked to find out about things like the Abu Ghraib photographs! September 11th seems to be fading with the passage of time, even as the consequences are quite current.
The Talking Dog: Your book, of course, juxtaposes the three camp-based rightlessness situations of the United States in the last 80 years or so– the WWII internment of ethnic Japanese (both U.S. citizen and non-citizen alike), the 1990’s internment of Haitians, most notably HIV- positive Haitians trying to flee that country’s political violence, and the post-9-11 internment of Muslim men at Guantánamo Bay for the last 14 plus years. The Japanese internment, at least it seems to me, is now a “consensus act of national shame”… something we as a nation are supposed to regret having done… possibly for reasons associated with the ultimate economic and social success of (“model minority”) Japanese people in this country and perhaps because the “success” of the African American civil rights movement required a specific backlash against darker skinned people (rather than all non-Whites in general), but whether or not you accept my characterization, do you see any circumstances under which either the Haitian internment or the present iteration of Guantanamo will ever be regarded as “consensus” acts of national shame in the same manner (let alone the subjects of broad national apology and monetary compensation), or is the apology to Japanese-Americans for the internment a complete one-off?
Naomi Paik: I don’t know if I would categorize the Japanese internment situation as a one-off. I will say that for the Haitians or Arab Muslim men detained at Guantanamo, in order to get the kind of national consensus that declares this detention is a shameful thing requiring apology– for that, we will need a dramatic shift in national circumstances. The redress for Japanese internment was not about the U.S. government and people feeling remorseful and wanting to make amends, but resulted from a convergence of multiple factors and changes in the circumstances of the United States itself that came together in the 1980s. We were in a supposed “post Civil Rights era” period, as well as the fading final years of the Cold War. We were (and are) in an era when it’s no longer socially acceptable be overtly racist (though it looks like movements around Trump and Brexit, for example, are encouraging overt displays of racism)… but a Congressional statute or Supreme Court opinion, like those involved with Japanese American redress, does not magically make racism go away. Now, it is practiced in more subtle and more sinister ways. You can’t be so openly racist openly, so racism is still operating in a roundabout way.
And so the Japanese American redress marks or highlights how we have moved from racial domination to racial hegemony, from being able to sweep away thousands of people explicitly based on racial and ethnic difference to sweeping away thousands of people through less overtly racialized categories, like the “terrorist” (someone who appears Arab and/or Muslim) or the “criminal” (racialized as Black or Brown.). The “reconciliation” was useful to show that we are “no longer racist.” While we have this cover story, all of the other structures and ideas of racism remain active and present, although it appears to go deeper underground, it’s not as visible. It actually operates through its obfuscation. And so, for example, we get this national apology and redress of the mass internment of Japanese Americans at the same time that we accelerate the mass incarceration that clearly targets Black and Brown people, but without explicitly saying so. (Instead of saying we target Black and Brown people, we say that we want to preserve “law and order” against “criminals.” These categories are racialized, but not overtly.) How does one hold all of this– our supposed status as no longer racist with actual serious racist policies and practices- together? The public at large does not see the “other side” (the racism inherent to mass incarceration)– just the cover story (fighting crime). There have been excellent books on the mass incarceration phenomena– but how does one reconcile that with the cover story of not (or no longer) being a racist country?
The context of something like the Japanese apology/compensation (including the actual implementing legislation) turns on its usefulness to the United States government– in particular, if it helps us believe that we are who we think we are—that we in fact believe in equality and justice for all, etc.. But we have watched a significant shift– from overt to covert racism, from racial domination to racial hegemony. That was the context of the Japanese internment situation. Redress helped consolidate a story about the U.S. as a nation so great that it could its past mistakes and move forward with the knowledge that we’re no longer racist. It’s a great story, one that is clearly not true.
With respect to Haitians and Muslims/Arabs (both held at Guantanamo), unless circumstances change entirely, there will be no expressions of national shame or remorse. For one thing, Japanese Internment was historically contained– it aligned with WWII, our last formally declared war, beginning on a certain date, and ending on a certain date . The treatment of Haitian migrants as a group targeted for exclusion from the U.S. is a continuing condition. I think the kind of xenophobic thinking, as well as the practices of migrant detention and deportation, that have targeted Haitians is spreading to other racial migrants from the global South. And the surveillance and detention of Arabs/Muslims preceded 9-11 and still obviously goes on today… We are still quite overtly doing it and will continue to do so under the never-ending War on Terror. And that said, absent both a major shift in national circumstances and for such an apology to be useful to the state — it won’t happen. I don’t see any of this happening now.
The popularity of Trump, the success of the Brexit vote, along with the rhetoric about walls and massive deportation of “undesirable migrants” and a proposed ban on all Muslims reflect an environment that is getting worse and not better.
The Talking Dog: One of the incidents you report in your book that I confess I was unaware of was the forcible kidnapping and internment of Japanese national persons in Latin America, especially Peru, numbering in excess of 2,000, who were brought from their home countries in Latin America and the Caribbean and held in the same internment camps as Americans of Japanese descent. (They were actually different camps run by a different government agency.) Obviously, the parallels are uncanny to the United States behavior in the war on terror (quite literally kidnapping Muslim men off the streets of just about everywhere on Earth and then moving them into extraordinary rendition in places like torture-dungeons in Egypt or Syria or elsewhere, or American custody in CIA ghost prisons or military prisons in Afghanistan, Guantanamo, etc.)… Is there a reason of which you are aware why that particular act of American aggression is so little known (or am I wrong on that?), and am I missing something, or does this not put an exclamation point on how “seamless” American behavior in creating “the rightless” has proven as a historic matter?
Naomi Paik: I would describe what is going on at Guantanamo as certainly less anomalous than meets the eye, but perhaps not “seamless.” The conditions associated with the JLA, or Japanese Latin Americans, and the Muslims/Arabs at Guantanamo are similar, but there are also substantially different historical conditions between the 1940s and the present, so there are both distinctions and connections.
I’m not sure how well known the incident of the JLA internment is even in Peru; I’d actually like to know and look into it further.
One distinction, of course, that there were “only” about 2,000 such people detained, as distinct from over 100,000 U.S. nationals and residents. Another important distinction that could explain their obscurity is that the JLAs were excluded from the redress. Even though some testified before the government commission and were part of the movement for redress, most were not able to receive the formal apology and redress payment because they were not U.S. citizens or permanent residents at the time of their imprisonment. Most of them were forced to leave their homes, with their documents like passports taken from them, and were considered stateless after the war. So, the very reason they were excluded from redress has everything to do with the U.S. government’s extraditing them in the first place. But this part of the history is irresolvable in the terms of nation-based redress for a very particular group of people. (So, for example, the exclusion of JLAs from redress also raises the question of why there will be no redress for the descendants of slavery or of Indian massacres.)
I note that when I was in elementary school and high school in the 1980s and 1990s, the school curriculum taught that the internment of Japanese “was for their own good.” Over time, the narrative has shifted, and now we are ostensibly sorry about the whole thing. But because the JLAs were not part of the redress, they are not even part of that official story. The redress for internment was meant to smooth over a disquieting history… about a nation and how it mistreated its own people. Grappling with the Japanese Latin Americans would be less useful for that purpose and would raise the contradictions inherent in the redress, which was always only partial, For one thing, our government still takes it upon itself to intervene all over Latin America– it wouldn’t want a narrative that its prior conduct there was problematic.
The Talking Dog: Obviously we are still in the middle of the war on terror detentions, and debate over the propriety of, say, keeping Guantanamo open takes as a given– a new normal if you will- of the overall propriety of indefinite detention by the US military and government, particularly of its supposed enemies, no matter where they can be found. To what extent would you credit the whitewashing effect of the compensation and “normalization” afforded to the formerly interned Japanese– the overarching premise of “but we’re the good guys”– as enabling the later process of… I’ll call it “rights-stripping of the other” process once applicable to Japanese, then to Haitians and now to Muslims? I note that some military personnel I talked to spoke with a fair amount of pride in the fact that during the Viet Nam and first Iraq Wars, the United States military very carefully tried to adhere to Geneva Conventions treatment of captured personnel, whereas now, evidently, once again, our policy requires “flexibility” (i.e. jettisoning inconvenient restrictions, such as the protections afforded by Geneva Conventions)… do you see any relationship between all of these developments?
Naomi Paik: I do see a relationship. I want to go back to the earlier part of your question, noting that indefinite detention, as a “normal thing”, has indeed become a default position. And so, we might ask, where do we put the “forever detainees”? We have already made the assumption that not only can we hold them, but we have to hold them, without trial, until they die. Indeed, this default assumption virtually precludes all of the other questions we presume to ask about Guantanamo.
I can certainly say that the current Guantanamo detention camp will not close before Barack Obama leaves office, for various reasons. But even if it closes, and the government simply brings the forever detainees to Florence, Colorado or Leavenworth, Kansas or elsewhere in the United States, and keeps them in the same “forever prisoner” status they are now in—without trials, charges, or remedies—it not only solves nothing, it actually worsens the problem, because the prisoners will disappear into the much larger U.S. prison apparatus, rather than being in a hyper-visible (in some ways) locale. Because while Guantanamo itself is that hyper-visible site and symbolic of the whole program, moving its prisoners without changing their status does not answer the key questions: To whom do laws apply? What about habeas corpus– what does it mean? To whom does it extend? This is not just about Guantanamo and its prisoners, but presents much broader issues of much more general concern. Bringing prisoners here not only doesn’t answer these questions, it makes the Guantanamo prisoners “less remarkable”– they are just more men, among thousands in supermax confinement and millions incarcerated within the U.S. prison industrial complex. They become less visible, and as noted, their status– as rightless– becomes a new normal. And we have to recognize that it is our own government that is holding these people; other peoples and other governments are not. So the short answer is that while I don’t want Guantanamo to remain open, I don’t want its conditions to continue while the problems are simply moved around, and only the nomenclature and venue changes.
As to the other part of your question, that is, how did the “redress” process associated with the Japanese internment enable the “rights-stripping” project writ large.My response would be, redress has everything to do with allowing conditions of rightlessness to fester, even while (in fact, partly through) proclaiming ourselves to be the bearers and guardians of rights. We trot out a process to shine light on an unfortunate past episode, the internment of our citizens and lawful residents solely on the basis of race. The point was to re-cast the internment as “our story” but in a useful framing– to wit, that we did it, but apologized for it, as well as provided compensation, reaffirms that “we are the good guys,” as you put it, and hence, whatever we do– anything and everything– must be justified for that reason. So now, we capture and indefinitely imprison people we deem terrorists, rendering them rightless, because we are invested in securing everyone else’s rights. We are the “good guys” doing what we must to contain “the bad guys.” Given differing historical conditions, it is important to note that we will never do anything exactly like we did it before. As I’ve been saying, the internment of Japanese on the West Coast was not executed the same way as the detention of Haitian refugees or “enemy combatants” of the War on Terror. But we will continue to create rightlessness, again and again, in part by asserting that we are the global leader in human rights and civil rights. Therefore, whoever we are detaining must have done something wrong on this basis. This is the logic that creates conditions of rightlessness. Indeed, “the good guy” narrative effectively papers over any other competing narrative– whatever particular story of a defendant’s innocence that an individual “forever prisoner” may have, for example. Any explanation affirmed by any other factor is duly wiped out by the overarching power of this narrative.
The Talking Dog: Can you comment on “prisoner resistance,” most notably hunger strikes… resistance of course took various forms in the Japanese internment camps besides hunger strikes (such as refusing military service or to sign the requisite loyalty oaths, for example) and hunger strikes are the best known form of resistance in the Haitian detention situation and of course, in the Guantanamo Bay detention of Muslim men, and can you comment on why it is that the American jailers felt (and still feel) so disproportionately threatened by the people under their penal control deciding to exercise any control over their own circumstances whatsoever? If you could, please compare and contrast the experience of other Western “jailer-nations” of which you aware (the UK comes to mind) when dealing with hunger striker situations?
Naomi Paik: This is a great question– why does the United States military feel so threatened by hunger strikes, when it already has control over virtually every aspect of its prisoners’ lives? There is kind of a long answer to this. The United States has effectively banned or forbidden its prisoners to engage in hunger strikes through the mechanism of force-feeding of prisoners. The government then justifies these force-feedings with the narrative that “we care”– we are so much “the good guys” that we care for the brutish “terrorists” that we are imprisoning, for whom we are compelled to maintain their health and safety. If a prisoner refuses to eat, we have to make them eat, to maintain their life and health.
The Talking Dog I understand that during Ramadan, the force-feeding only takes place at night.
Naomi Paik: That would be perfectly consistent with the narrative– we are so “the good guys” that not only do we care about their health and safety, but we even care about the religious views of our enemies!
With a hunger strike, prisoners are trying to make themselves visible. From their point of view, the United States is already killing them, but in a slow, protracted way. They are living a life that is not a life and dying slowly. By hunger striking, they are trying to make their plight visible– it is both an act of defiance and an act of communication. Habeas corpus has not proven to be a useful remedy for them, and in any event, has not managed to capture public imagination. Hunger strikes have managed to break through this indifference. While many people like you and I maintain an interest in the plight of the men at Guantanamo, many others in the U.S. public don’t think about these men at all– out of sight is out of mind for most people. In that sense, then, from the government’s perspective, Guantanamo is a successful detention. One of the points of removing these men to an isolated corner of the world, with such limited access to public view, is to keep us from being interested in the prisoners’ plight or in seeing them as connected to us. But the hunger strike broke through all this, and got attention. Obama had to respond to it– he replaced his envoy for detainee relocation, he had to deal with hecklers on this issue, and he, eventually, dramatically stepped up the release of “not-forever” prisoners. The problem with hunger strikes, from the government’s and the military’s perspective, is that the they undermine one of their main goals in the detention scheme, and that is to make us simply not care what happens to the people the government declares without rights.
The other reason the military and the government see hunger strikes as a serious problem is more oblique, but centrally important. There is concern that a “successful” hunger strike could lead to a prisoner death, and this in turn will create a martyr, both within the prison and without. The prisoners, for their part, believe so thoroughly that their detention is unjust that they are willing to die, even if life beyond Guantanamo, not death, is their goal. But the United States exercises and asserts its powers through places like Guantanamo. Put another way, Guantanamo highlights the power the U.S. state has and can and will use against its declared “enemies.”
If a hunger-striking person manages to take their own life, then s/he takes away from the total power of the United States. Because it is the hunger striker who ultimately takes power over his own life and death into his hands. S/he steals the object of the U.S. state’s power. So, force-feeding is not just about keeping the hunger striker alive out of concern for his health and safety. (If that were the case, the U.S. would not indefinitely imprison them under conditions of slow death in the first place.) It is about maintaining power over the prisoners. The state controls the conditions their lives and prohibits their dying on their own terms. As you mentioned, upon entering the camp, detainees are told by guards that they are the property of the United States. If we could ventriloquize the Defense Department’s logic, it might claim to the detainee: “you don’t get to decide what happens to you! You’re ours now!”
The Talking Dog I’m reminded that in the very early days of Guantanamo, as prisoners were dazed after their long flights, and kneeling on the tarmac in their orange jump-suits, all shackled, military officers supposedly shouted out “You are now the property of the United States Marine Corps!”
Naomi Paik: And that would be perfectly consistent with this rationale. Hunger strikes by prisoners unveil so many contradictions of rightlessness and the camp. We are force-feeding you at night because we respect your religious beliefs. We are force-feeding you at all because we respect your life and health and safety, even as we keep you under conditions of slowly dying, and we have to protect you by inflicting pain.
The Talking Dog: Haiti and its nationals have presented a peculiar situation for the United States. Despite being the second oldest independent nation in the Western hemisphere and also a nation that achieved independence via a revolt from an imperial European power, the United States hasn’t had the warmest of relationships with Haiti, presumably because the revolutionaries and their descendants were (and are descended from) Black African slaves. That said, of course, the United States has often felt able to help itself for its military to directly intervene in Haiti (even after the recent earthquake there, American troops landed in Haiti and ostensibly imposed martial law). More obviously, the Japanese internees and Guantanamo Bay detainees were captives of more clearly understood “wars”– World War II and the “War on Terror”… my assertion is that the Haitians were captives of over two centuries long military hostilities toward Haiti. Regardless of my characterization of the Haitian situation, would you not concur that it’s almost “too easy” in our system (that pretends to confer “equal justice under law” and a whole panoply of human rights) to (unofficially, of course) suspend our constitutional protections in order to vilify a convenient “other” who, of course, (always) represents an “existential threat,” be it descendants of citizens of Imperial Japan, Black Haitians suffering with AIDS or Muslim males… or for that matter, their domestic counterparts (pretty much “poor people” as well as immigration law violators)… and then the rightlessness promptly follows this “emergency”?
Naomi Paik: On the one hand I agree with your premise, but on the other hand, I’d like to push back somewhat. I agree that whenever Constitutional protections are suspended, we usually see it in the context of fear of an existential threat, duly projected on to a racialized “other.”
However, you do not need outright suspension of constitutional protections to create rightlessness– indeed, you don’t have to have “legal” rightlessness to have effective on-the-ground rightlessness. You can see this plainly in mass incarceration in our criminal justice system and immigrant detention system. Indeed, even in domestic post 9-11 detentions, large numbers of Muslim, Arab, and South Asian were picked up and held– as if their rights were formally suspended– but this detention was executed using existing domestic laws.
I would describe this practice as the selective mobilization of existing laws — against certain people. For example, with respect to the Haitian HIV+ detainees, the U.S. already had a law barring entrance to persons with HIV, but there had been no regular enforcement. When the government discovered that hundreds of Haitians it had already granted asylum carried HIV, suddenly, the law– already on the books– was effectively mobilized to exclude them from the U.S. (and hold them at Guantanamo) for the indefinite future. That’s how we do things. We don’t actually need martial law or other exceptional strategies to create rightlessness. We have regular tools at the ready.
The Talking Dog: I would liken this to “prosecutorial discretion” as used in the “war on drugs”– while Whites’ incidence of drug use is at the same or higher levels as that of Black or Brown people, the heavy hand of enforcement tends to come down on the latter.
Naomi Paik: And I would agree with that. The extreme cases we see, like those at Guantanamo, are not divorced from our regular system, culture and legal apparatus– they operate within it. In this sense, Guantanamo is not shocking. It is rather a predictable consequences of laws we already have resulting in actions and policies that are remarkably effective at creating rightlessness.
And so, there was a wide discussion of the government’s response to 9-11 that generated so much shock and outrage, to the effect that the nation’s actions at that time were so “un-American”— we don’t do things like this. But despite the President’s constant refrain of “this is not who we are”– this is exactly who we are. When one has an understanding of American practices in a historical context and overall sense, you realize that current “abusive” practices are connected to who we are and what we have been doing for a very long time.
The Talking Dog: Let’s talk about “legal redress.” You note, of course, that the people who end up finding themselves rightless in American prison camps tend to first be removed from their communities from whence it is easy to strip them of their rights; in the case of West Coast Japanese, their entire community was picked up and moved to internment camps; in the case of Haitians and Haitians with AIDS, they had left their homes amidst an unstable and violent political situation and found themselves picked up at sea and taken to nearby Guantanamo, where they were held in open air prisons, and of course, in the case of Muslim men at Guantanamo, they were picked up from virtually anywhere on Earth and moved to Guantanamo, but clearly in the latter two cases, the detainees were physically separated from their own communities and indeed, often held outright incommunicado. That said, of course, in many cases, these groups lack a broader constituency outside of their own relatively powerless communities, and members of those communities may well not wish to risk their own status by advocating too vigorously for their unfortunate brethren. Regardless of how, once again, our system promises “equal justice under law,” the reality all too often could be interpreted as “justice to the highest bidder.” My question is, does not the prejudice (in its dictionary sense of baked-in-to-the-cake systemically “pre-judgement” rather than classically “racist” as such ) against poor and/or Black and/or Latino criminal defendants in a particular case just scale up with respect to the legal status of these groups? And, just as wonderfully lofty constitutional protections for individual defendants nonetheless fail to stop (or even slow down) the mass incarceration of poor and/or Black and/or Latino criminal defendants domestically “scales up” when we’re talking about large groups of “the unpopular,” and the courts that supposedly vindicate the “robust” array of constitutional rights, in reality merely sanitize the “rightlessness,” be it directly in cases such as Korematsu (sustaining the Japanese internment), or indirectly in the Haitian context (the “HCC” or Haitian Centers Council I, II, and III cases) and Guantanamo (such cases as Rasul, Hamdan and Boumediene, that seemed to redress the plight of the rightless but had somewhat less impact “operationally” than one would think…) does this lead one to come to the conclusion that the courts, rather than the cartoon civics lesson of being unbiased arbiters of rights are simply themselves, essential components of the political system that imposed “rightlessness” in the first place?
Naomi Paik: I’m of two minds on this one. Sometimes, the judiciary has effectively intervened on behalf of the rightless, as, for example, in the “HCC III” case in which Judge Sterling Johnson of U.S. District Court in Brooklyn ordered the release of the HIV+ Haitian refugees. Other times, the courts affirm rightlessness, as seen in HCC II, which maintained the interdiction and forcible repatriation policy against Haitian migrants, or Korematsu, which effectively legitimized internment, by the U.S. Supreme Court. And the courts, especially the Supreme Court, have been “cautious” with respect to the war on terror detentions, casting a fine line that is more muddling and frankly less helpful. On the one hand, the Supreme Court has decided that detainees do have habeas corpus rights and that the federal judiciary does reach Guantanamo. On the other hand, however, the Court has refused to take up cases on the conditions of confinement (like force-feeding, for example), and has refused to hear a Guantanamo case since Obama was elected to clarify these issues. In the end, the Courts have provided “guidance” that is not necessarily useful, purporting to vindicate rights but not quite getting there.
Another case I’d note in this area is the domestic case of Utah v. Strieff, which effectively guts the Fourth Amendment. The court enables abusive police practices on the ground, which had already been happening for trumped up purposes. The judiciary has now affirmed these practices in contravention of what we understood to be constitutional law. Justice Sotomayor saw where this was going in her dissent, noting that while on paper this decision might not seem a big change, for Black and Brown people, this could have a huge effect “on the ground” and literally result in deaths.
The Talking Dog: Following up on the “resistance” question, let’s talk about the “speaking out” part. You discuss some rather poignant observations (both direct and in various forms of art and media) associated with the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (“CWRIC”) and hearings it held, as well as statements coming from the Haitian refugee and Guantanamo detainee situations. I suppose what struck me most was the five-minute limitation on statements to the CWRIC commissioners, as if hearings to discuss what was (as a matter of consensus) one of the great injustices committed by the American state were to be equated with comments on a zoning variance application. Similarly, it is extremely difficult to get a statement out of a detainee at Guantanamo while they are still there, as it is presumptively classified, and in turn, has to be thoroughly vetted by the Defense Department before it can be publicly disseminated, although at least one book (“Guantanamo Diary” by Mohammedou Ould Slahi) made it out, albeit heavily redacted. Some former detainees have spoken out, of course. That said, how important to the “creation of rightlessness” project do you believe it is that the people “who don’t have the right to have rights” are systemically stifled– that is, even after the fact– decades after the fact in the case of the Japanese internment– it is necessary that the experience be boxed into the official narrative (“the model minority”) or otherwise, not discussed at all? While on this subject, how would you fit the role of “collaborators” (Japanese American Citizens League or JACL comes to mind), particularly in the “decades later” stage…i.e., one might choose to cut that group some slack for trying to make the best of a bad situation at the time, but even decades later, it remained an apologist for the whole program… how does this fit in to the creation of “the rightless” project?
Naomi Paik: That’s a number of questions. As to the “speaking out” point, a core component of rightlessness is the inability to make oneself heard. The rightless, of course, speak out and communicate all the time. But they are unable to be heard. We either cannot or refuse to hear them. And because they cannot be heard, we are not compelled to do something about their plight. Of course, in the context of the law, this cuts multiple ways, as judicial forums can become venues to speak back to power (as seen in the CWRIC hearings, trials, CSRTs, and military commissions that I look at in the book), but of course, we can never be certain that the state or the public is listening. Still, in the context of rightlessness, the fact that these prisoners can, if sporadically or inconsistently, make themselves heard, and that we pay attention to their plight despite all efforts to muzzle them, is itself remarkable.
Another point raised is the issue of how the status of “rightlessness” manages to continue even after the detention itself comes to an end. In the context of the Japanese internment redress process, of course, limiting CWRIC witnesses to only five minutes, and limiting the impact of the testimony that did come through, is a mark of the enduring power of rightlessness, not only after the fact, but decades after the fact. Rightlessness does not necessarily end with the mere end to imprisonment.
As to the issue of silencing of the rightless by “collaborators,” I too would try to think through the historical conditions with respect to actions at the time. The JACL responded to their plight by reasoning the community needed their leadership and that resistance would make a bad situation worse. That said, as to “collaboration continuing decades later,” we should note that the JACL, including Mike Masaoka, did a great deal of leg-work to get the redress bill through Congress and written into law in the first place. (But the JACL also initially opposed any movement to address internment out of fears such mobilization would foster anti-Japanese sentiment.) Their redress work included organizing witnesses who exposed the racist violence that surrounded the evacuation and internment during World War II. The problem of course, is the silencing of other witnesses, ones who criticized the JACL, who sought to broaden the reach of redress to talk about the pervasive U.S. racism that affects many other communities, who valorized resisters to internment. I note, however, that “dissenting witness” testimony was not written out of the record. It was rather deemphasized, like the plight of the Japanese Latin Americans. The more expansive analyses of internment connected Japanese Americans to JLAs or to Black, Brown, and indigenous communities were not the central story of redress. The “exceptional” nature of race-based interment (as if it has never happened to another group in the U.S.) was the story. The JACL and dominant narrative of redress confront only a partial history (and one helpful to national narratives of the U.S. as the leader of rights.) ,
The Talking Dog: One of your theses is that while the United States purports to champion inalienable rights at home and internationally, it has built its global power in part by creating a regime of imprisonment that places certain populations perceived as threats beyond rights. The United States’ status as the guardian of rights coincides with, indeed depends on, its creation of rightlessness. Please explain the “depends upon” portion of that thesis; certainly, the establishment and maintenance of the American continental empire required the subjugation (and partition of) its indigenous and aboriginal peoples, as does, presumably, the establishment and maintenance of its more subtle global empire, but I’m wondering if you have a broader notion of the U.S. status as “guardian of rights” beyond simply its status as a super-power?
Naomi Paik: I would re-frame this question a bit. It’s not so much about the United States being “the world’s super-power.” We are, without doubt, at least notionally, the world’s richest, militarily dominant, and influential economic power. This is mostly about how the United States has framed itself as the global force for good. That we are not merely the most powerful in a military sense, but morally the most powerful, motivated by the greater good– which is why we actually stand up for human rights and are their champion.
Hence, our interventions in Haiti were always framed as “humanitarian”– we are bringing civilization and modernity to a backward people. Similarly, we are bringing women’s rights to Afghanistan, and we entered Iraq for humanitarian reasons, because Saddam Hussein’s regime was so oppressive to its own people. And so, of course, this creates massive contradictions when the United States itself engages in the deprivation and indeed evisceration of the very rights it is supposed to be championing.
This contradiction is why I argue that rights depend on rightlessness– they are not two separate things. Rightlessness is more than the deprivation of rights. We need to de-bunk the proposition that “all people are born with inalienable rights, but rights have unfortunately been stripped from some.” No– some people have to be rightless for rights to make sense. There is a fundamental contradiction of supposedly inalienable rights. Hannah Arendt described this as “the right to have rights.” Human rights are not solely about rights with content, like habeas corpus. They are at their core about the “right to have rights, which means that you have to be part of a community that can guarantee your rights. If deprived of that community (through camp imprisonment, for example), then you are effectively rightless. This is not to say that there are the rightless and the rightful, with no shades in between. As I’ve been suggesting here and in the book, there are gradations of rights and rightlessness.
And so, on the one hand, the United States pitches itself as a “moral leader” and a guardian of rights. On the other hand, we have the reality that there is a gradation or spectrum of those with rights, in which the U.S. produces conditions of rightlessness. One can, of course, be in the middle of the gradation, such as people of color who have only limited claims to the “community” of the U.S. political culture, are targeted for exclusion, removal, imprisonment, and their testimony is always subject to doubt. So for example, whenever we see yet another video of lethal police brutality on a person of color, we are also almost immediately met with a discrediting of the victim, who must have brought his/her death on him/herself. The issue can never be about a criminal justice and policing system that targets certain people and not others, and that then treats those targeted people with violence not inflicted on others. It becomes about how the victim’s behavior, body, clothing, compliance, etc. warranted his/her own killing. What these videos on tiny cameras show us is 1) the perspective of the victim is never really heard; we have so many strategies for not listening; and 2) certain people, even if citizens of the U.S., do not have the full luxury of the right to have rights, of the “community willing to guarantee any rights whatsoever.” You don’t have to be imprisoned in a camp to understand the implications of rightlessness.
The Talking Dog: Is there anything else I should have asked you but didn’t, or anything else that needs to be said, on these important subjects?
Naomi Paik:The main thing, even as I focus my own analysis on the “exceptional” plight of the peculiarly rightless, like Japanese internees, HIV+ Haitian refugees, and so-called “enemy combatants” at Guantanamo, is that the exceptions are not really exceptional. Rather, they are deeply embedded in our history, culture and legal system. The fate of the “rightless” is closely connected to our own futures. We are implicated in the plight of the rightless people I examine in the book. The currently “rightless” are being deprived of their rights by our government, on our behalf. We need to know that there are powers that can create rightlessness, not just for those currently in camps, and we need to understand how these powers operate. What are its strategies, policies, legal apparatuses, technologies, etc.? And if rightlessness can be exacted against others, then it is threatening to us as well. These rightless conditions are threatening for everyone, and the message of the rightless is relevant to all of us.
The Talking Dog: I join all of my readers in thanking Naomi Paik for that fascinating interview. Interested readers should check out Naomi Paik’s website, the Facebook page for her book, or her Twitter: @ANaomiPaik, as well as checking out her book, Rightlessness.
Readers interested in legal issues and related matters associated with the “war on terror” may also find talking dog blog interviews with former Guantanamo military commissions prosecutors Morris Davis and Darrel Vandeveld, with Guantanamo military commissions defense attorney Todd Pierce, with former Guantanamo combatant status review tribunal/”OARDEC” officer Stephen Abraham, with attorneys Pardiss Kebriaei, Nancy Hollander, Jon Eisenberg, David Marshall, Jan Kitchel, Eric Lewis, Cori Crider, Michael Mone, Matt O’Hara, Carlos Warner, Matthew Melewski, Stewart “Buz” Eisenberg, Patricia Bronte, Kristine Huskey, Ellen Lubell, Ramzi Kassem, George Clarke, Buz Eisenberg, Steven Wax, Wells Dixon, Rebecca Dick, Wesley Powell, Martha Rayner, Angela Campbell, Stephen Truitt and Charles Carpenter, Gaillard Hunt, Robert Rachlin, Tina Foster, Brent Mickum, Marc Falkoff H. Candace Gorman, Eric Freedman, Michael Ratner, Thomas Wilner, Jonathan Hafetz, Joshua Denbeaux, Rick Wilson,
Neal Katyal, Joshua Colangelo Bryan, Baher Azmy, and Joshua Dratel (representing Guantanamo detainees and others held in “the war on terror”), with attorneys Donna Newman and Andrew Patel (representing “unlawful combatant” Jose Padilila), with Dr. David Nicholl, who spearheaded an effort among international physicians protesting force-feeding of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, with physician and bioethicist Dr. Steven Miles on medical complicity in torture, with law professor and former Clinton Administration Ambassador-at-large for war crimes matters David Scheffer, with former Guantanamo detainees Moazzam Begg and Shafiq Rasul , with former Guantanamo Bay Chaplain James Yee, with former Guantanamo Army Arabic linguist Erik Saar, with former Guantanamo sergeant-of-the-guard Joseph Hickman, with former Guantanamo military guard Terry Holdbrooks, Jr., with former military interrogator Matthew Alexander, with law professor and former Army J.A.G. officer Jeffrey Addicott, with law professor and Coast Guard officer Glenn Sulmasy, with author and geographer Trevor Paglen and with author and journalist Stephen Grey on the subject of the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program, with journalist and author David Rose on Guantanamo, with journalist Michael Otterman on the subject of American torture and related issues, with author and historian Andy Worthington detailing the capture and provenance of all of the Guantanamo detainees, with law professor Peter Honigsberg on various aspects of detention policy in the war on terror, with Joanne Mariner of Human Rights Watch, with Almerindo Ojeda of the Guantanamo Testimonials Project, with Karen Greenberg, author of The LeastWorst Place: Guantanamo’s First 100 Days, with Charles Gittings of the Project to Enforce the Geneva Conventions, Laurel Fletcher, author of “The Guantanamo Effect” documenting the experience of Guantanamo detainees after their release, and with John Hickman, author of “Selling Guantanamo,” critiquing the official narrative surrounding Guantanamo, and with Rebecca Gordon, author of “The New Nuremberg” identifying potential war crimes prosecutions arising from the conduct of the War on Terror,to be of interest.