By Clive Stafford Smith
I am writing this article in the airport waiting room in Guantánamo Bay, after a week visiting prisoners on this forsaken military base, and prior to returning to the UK for an evening at Wadham College. Back in Oxford, we will discuss the tragic execution of Edward Earl Johnson, a kid I represented all those years ago, gassed to death by Mississippi chamber in 1987. Edward’s final two weeks were captured on a BBC documentary, Fourteen Days in May, and every so often I revisit his execution to remind me of the futility of the act, and the duty I have to ensure that his death was not entirely in vain.
There are links across the years and the waves between Parchman Penitentiary in 1987 and Guantánamo Bay in 2013: one is the danger of untrammelled power, where the United States brings its guns (or, in Edward’s case, its Zyclon B) to bear on an essentially defenceless individual. Another is the politics of fear, where politicians inspire citizens to hate either the young African American man who is presumed to be a murderer, or the Muslim man who is assumed to be a terrorist.
Edward was tarred as a killer, given a sub-mediocre defence lawyer, convicted by biased (primarily white) jurors, held for eight years in a prison far away from anyone who cared about him, and denied a meaningful appeal, all so he could be and sacrificed on the judicial altar to assuage the gods of violence. Shaker Aamer, who I saw two days ago, has been held without charges for eleven years in a prison far away from anything, detained as proof that “something is being done” in the American ‘War on Terror.’
The ultimate senselessness of these two prisons is the same: not only do they fail to deliver the promised solution, but they ultimately contribute to the original problem. Executing Edward, who was indubitably innocent, left the true killers to perpetuate their mayhem; the enormous effort Mississippi focused on killing him prevented many other, worthwhile projects from taking shape. Detaining Shaker is an even greater betrayal: like Edward, he cannot be a recidivist because he never did anything in the first place. But now our society accepts the idea that he should face indefinite detention to prevent him from committing a hypothetical future crime. The hypocrisy with which we have jettisoned our principles has provoked many others to turn to extremism in Shaker’s stead.
The ultimate sin of the politicians who birthed the twin projects of death row and Guantánamo is their failure to understand their own duty. It is not the job of the politician to predict and prevent a single, identified future crime from taking place – a real life version of Minority Report. Rather, it is the role of the politician to reduce the overall level of society’s violence. Thus, if a populist project like the ‘War on Terror’ will actually raise the totality of violence, by provoking those who were hitherto unprovoked, then it is a folly.
Who can doubt that the policies of Bush, Blair and now Obama have failed this basic test? Who can doubt that the reservoir of goodwill that existed on September 12, 2001, had disappeared by 2003, submerged in Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, renditions, torture and the Iraq War? Who can doubt that the drone war in Waziristan is the latest example of this madness: hellfire missiles may have killed the occasional militant, but they have inspired 93 percent of all Pakistanis to view America as the ‘enemy’.
It is pointless merely to condemn; the question is what you are going to do about it. That, I hope, will be the subject of our discussion at Wadham College on Tuesday.
Clive Stafford Smith is the Director of Reprieve and will be speaking with Paul Hamman, the former Head of Documentaries at BBC at Wadham College, Oxford on Tuesday, 12 February at 8pm in the Moser Theater.