Every so often I’ll abruptly awake, out of dead sleep, because something startled me. Typically it’s a sound, in the dead of night, with the dim light of night streaming into the room, casting shadows all around. I’ll bolt up, heart racing, fearing to move lest whatever woke me pounces as I stumble around blindly in the dark. I think about someone breaking into our house for some nefarious reason to cause harm. Even though I know the chances of this occurring are minuscule, I’ve been conditioned to think it based on television commercials, new stories, stereotypes, and more. Eventually, when nothing happens, I’ll settle back to sleep, slowly, as the adrenaline fade. I realize it was the dog, in the other part of the house, rolling around in his kennel or some other sound that I shouldn’t worry about, and this puts me at ease.
Fear is powerful. This is why it gets used as a weapon, a weapon that demonizes and dehumanizes individuals, causing us to view them as potential threats when they are not. I keep thinking about this every time I read Lillian Smith when she talks about the ways that politicians use fear to stoke up the emotions and hate of whites towards Blacks. She talks about these moments as if the Devil whispered in their ear telling them that in order to succeed they must create false fears. These fears have no basis in reality; instead, they get concocted and disseminated into the minds of the audiences, leading them to feel that they should be afraid of others.
This stoking of fear occurred after September 11, 2001. Politicians and the media portrayed Muslims as terrorists, as evil menaces out to eradicate America and its democracy. It did a good job of this, painting Muslims with a broad brush, leading to a dramatic increase in hate crimes against Muslims in 2001 that has still, as of 2016, not returned to pre-9/11 levels. Shawna Ayoub Ainslie writes about how her life changed, as a Muslim woman, after that September day in 2001. She says she was afraid to go outside, continuing, “If I stayed inside, I couldn’t mess up, Except maybe with my words which I policed carefully. I couldn’t speed, I couldn’t frighten anyone, I couldn’t break any law no matter how tenuous and therefore couldn’t be thrown in Gitmo.”
Following the 9/11 attacks, the United States government turned Guantánamo (Gitmo) into a detention camp where they would house 779 prisoners in January 2002. While 731 of those held at Guantánamo have been released or transferred, 9 died at Guantánamo and 40 still remain in custody. Of those held at Guantánamo, 778 were Muslim and 1 was Christian. Of the 779, the majority were never charged with a crime. They were picked up in Afghanistan and elsewhere by their countrymen at the behest of the United States government who offered bounties to anyone who turned in members of Al-Qaeda or the Taliban. This bounty system led to individuals, with no connection to either group, getting picked up and sent to Guantánamo, losing years and decades of their lives in the process.
As Omar El Akkad puts it, “[T]he legacy of the Guantánamo camps–that moment a nation, caught up in the frenzy of revenge and the immediacy of war, decided to set aside its laws and norms and principles–does not belong in the past.” Guantánamo continues to serve as a reminder of what fear can do, what stoking fear can do, what the ramifications of that fear lead to. The fear that politicians and the media enflamed continue to impact us today. Akkad continues,
We think of war, first and foremost, as an outbreak of mass physical violence, a theater in which we tear one another to shreds with bullets and bombs. And this is of course the defining layer of wartime, but beneath it, supporting the physical violence, are other layers, each one a different kind of violence–a linguistic violence, a bureaucratic violence, a violence of apathy, and always the concluding violence, a violence of forgetting.
These underlying layers of violence buttress the battlefield violence. The ferment the battlefield violence, whipping people into a frenzy pitting one group against another, dehumanizing the enemy, making it easier to accept the human toll of war, both the physical and the psychological.
Sarah Mirk’s Guantánamo Voices is a collection of ten features about individuals who were either illegally imprisoned at Guantánamo or who worked to release those. Katie Taylor’s story focuses on her work resettling those imprisoned at Guantánamo, and she talks about the ways that rhetoric works to dehumanize. Chelsea Saunders illustrates Taylor’s piece, and Taylor’s words and Saunder’ illustrations work to drive home the power of using rhetoric to incite fear and the continued influenced of the dehumanizing rhetoric used during the War on Terror.
In a full page panel, Saunders’ depicts a shadowy, monstrous figure on a wall. The hands look like claws and the face looks eerily creepy. Taylor’s narration at the top left reads, “The U.S. government did an extremely good job of fearmongering since the very beginning. These were monsters, these were people who had perpetuated the worst crime on Americans ever. That was the false messaging, and it was successful.” Her narration continues immediately below, reading, “I think when you tap into fear, it’s incredibly strong and it’s incredibly moving.” As a reader, we move from the top left viewing the shadow to Taylor’s words, and as we move down from the right, we see a Muslim man, who appears to be imprisoned in Guantánamo, standing at the bottom right of the page with a candle behind him on the ground. The candle casts the grotesques, monstrous shadow on the wall.
Taylor’s narration, coupled with the use of the shadow, cause us as readers to move from this abstract shadow to the human casting it. It causes us to disentangle the rhetoric we’ve been fed, leading us to see the man as a human, as an individual, as a person, not as a monster. The monster is created, illuminated by the candle, cast upon the wall, not as the true person but as a perception, as a sound in the night that startles me awake. It’s “false information.”
Taylor continues by liking the continued effects of this “false information” to the present, saying how all of this creates a “feedback loop” where false perceptions reign and no accountability ensues. Saunders’ panels during this section move through time from anti-Islamic demonstrations to Charlottesville to family separation at the border to police in riot gear then back to the unlawful imprisonment of individuals at Guantánamo. All of this continues the “feedback loop,” fearmongering recycled into new forms, into new “threats,” into new “fears.”
We need to recognize this process. It is easy for us to succumb to fear, especially after events such as 9/11, but as we succumb to that fear, we become susceptible to the false fear that people peddle. We become susceptible to walling ourselves off from the truth, allowing ourselves to buy into fear and hate instead of working to understand and love. We allow ourselves to enact violence in a myriad of ways on individuals, dehumanizing them. We must counter “false information” with the truth, not with fear. In this manner will we move forward, breaking the constant “feedback loop” that continually circles us back to the beginning, pulling us backwards, hindering us from progress.