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"Ghost Detainees," Blank Spots, and Torture

January 21, 2005

There's a phrase in Polish for moments in history that were deliberately covered up by the communist-era authorities: biale plamy, white or blank spots. Instances of biale plamy include the killing of 22,000 Polish officers at Katyn; by the Soviet Army in 1940 (an atrocity attributed to the Nazis for nearly half a century) and the Soviet Union's role in crushing the Warsaw Uprising against the Nazi occupation.

Since the fall of communism, Poland has been engaged in trying to fill in those blank spots by creating the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), encouraging research by historians and writers, and fostering the rise of organizations like the Warsaw-based Karta, which documents the recent history of Poland and Eastern Europe. Impressively, Polish efforts have not been limited to events involving Polish victims but also include those in which Poles themselves committed violent acts, such as killings of Jews in Jedwabne and Lomza, and of Ukrainians in the "Akcija Wisla;" ethnic cleansing campaign.

The Poles' truth-seeking efforts coincide with a worldwide trend toward moral accounting. We live in the era of the truth commission, which attempts to reclaim lost histories on behalf of those who have been silenced by murder. There are, of course, certain cases where people argue against shining the light of truth on the secret past, on the grounds it could disrupt a fragile peace. Even then, however, it is hard to ignore the counter-argument—that leaving blank spots in a people’s history serves the cause of impunity for torturers and murderers.

Americans are fortunate to have independent organizations of the caliber of the National Security Archives, dedicated to opening the culture of secrecy and filling in our nation’s white spots. Yet by waging a "war on terror," are we in danger of losing the values we place on transparency and truth-seeking? Through isolation and invisibility, growing categories of people—the homeless, refugees, illegal migrants, and now those labeled terrorists—have been made superfluous, having no recognizable place in human society.

Ghost town, ghost train, ghost writer, and now "ghost detainees"—one of the most chilling phrases to enter our language emerged from revelations about torture at Abu Ghraib Prison in Baghdad and other sites. It refers to the CIA detainees in Abu Ghraib who were not accounted for in the detention system and therefore had no official existence. These individuals were deliberately placed in a legal and bureaucratic limbo that is nearly impossible to penetrate; there were therefore no limits on what can be done to them.

And what is even more troubling is that the existence of "ghost detainees" is not a phenomenon of Abu Ghraib—where detainees of different status were mixed-alone. The power of human language is such that it grants us the language to identify a phenomenon which pre-dated the emergence of the phrase but which we formerly lacked the words to use in identifying and discussing it. Even before the use of this haunting sobriquet, the highly secretive system of detention that has developed since the 9/11 attacks relied on turning detainees without U.S. citizenship into near-ghosts. They are held sometimes in the main detention center at Guantánamo Bay, sometimes in countries whose reputation for torture is far worse than that of the United States; held sometimes with charges, generally without; with access to lawyers and family members, mostly not; occasionally released, most often not. There is no term on their detention. Four prisoners now on trial in the first military tribunals since World War II at Guantánamo can continue to be detained indefinitely, even in the unlikely event that they are found not guilty.

White spots in the present, as well as in the past, represent a danger to the moral basis of how we classify human beings, their place in the world, their actions, and human suffering. The health of the American polity requires that detainees, even dangerous ones, occupy recognizable human and legal categories.

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