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.
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.”