State of the Union January/February 2008

Inside Guantánamo

A photo essay with text by Andrew Sullivan

Text by Andrew Sullivan, Photos by Louie Palu

In his famous essay “A Hanging,” George Orwell wrote of witnessing an execution in British-run Burma:

It was about forty yards to the gallows. I watched the bare brown back of the prisoner marching in front of me … And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path. It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man.
Also see:

Slideshow: Life at Guantánamo

View more images of the detention center, along with audio commentary by photographer Louie Palu.

It is the specificity of the image that resurrects the moral question. In the long and sometimes bitter debate over the Bush administration’s policies on detention and interrogation of prisoners in the war on terror, the abstractions are so familiar we have become almost numb to them. We hear the word Gitmo and it stands for a way of conducting a war, for an era that has indeed made the Geneva Conventions seem “quaint,” a time in which even torture has been euphemized into “enhanced interrogation techniques” or “aggressive questioning,” a moment in American history when even the attorney general refuses to call waterboarding a crime.

But Guantánamo Bay is also an actual place. Behind every abstract story of another hunger strike, there is a feeding tube; behind every media controversy about alleged abuse of the Koran, there is a Holy Book somewhere, suspended in a surgical mask. The photographs on these pages refer to a place, buildings, lives. They refer to prisoners and guards who experience rain and concrete, blood and saliva and fear. As Orwell also put it, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”

A recreation area for noncompliant detainees at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility. According to the recently leaked Guantánamo Standard Operating Procedures manual from 2003, “Detainees will receive two 20-minute recreation periods a week.”

Presented by

Andrew Sullivan, an Atlantic senior editor, blogs at Louie Palu is an award-winning photographer based in Washington, D.C. More

Louie Palu is an award-winning photojournalist whose work is included in numerous collections (at the George Eastman House International Museum of Film and Photography, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and elsewhere) and has been featured publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Times, TIME, Newsweek, and The Economist. He has been covering the war in Afghanistan since 2006.

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