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media necropower Arrow vol 5 no 1 contents
About borderlands volume 5 number 1, 2006

 


Media Necropower: Australian Media Reception and the
Somatechnics of Mamdouh Habib


Goldie Osuri
Macquarie University

 

This paper discusses the manner in which Mamdouh Habib, an Australian citizen, who was arrested in Pakistan just after September 11, tortured in Egypt, and subsequently spent three years imprisoned and tortured in Guantanamo Bay was discursively positioned within Australian media reception. Specifically, I argue that Habib's body was made culturally intelligible within what I call media necropower or contemporary media practices which reconfigure the politics of race and assimilability within the somatechnics of racialised bodies. Reading at least two televisual interviews on Sixty Minutes (2005), and Dateline (2005), as well as newspaper articles and a number of public responses to Mamdouh Habib's interviews, this paper will explore how the materiality of Habib's body was produced within a speculative, judgmental regime, media necropower.

 

1. In February 2006, Mamdouh Habib took a defamation action in the New South Wales Supreme Court against two major Australian newspapers, The Daily Telegraph and The Australian. Clive Evatt, his lawyer, stated that the articles in these newspapers portrayed 'Mr. Habib as a terrorist, someone who supports terrorism and as someone who trained in an Al Qaeda terrorist camp' ( ABC News, 2006a). Out of 24 imputation cases, the four person jury found that 23 'were not defamatory' (ABC News, 2006b). The article which was found to be defamatory was an opinion piece by the journalist Piers Akerman published in The Daily Telegraph, where Akerman claimed that 'Mr. Habib had knowingly made some false claims' (Arlington, 2006). This understanding of defamation, however, fails to take account of what I call media necropower or contemporary media practices which reconfigure the politics of race and assimilability by making racialised bodies culturally intelligible in the current context of the war against terrorism. The following paper is a discussion of media necropower in the context of Australian media's reception of Mamdouh Habib.

2. Mamdouh Habib's release from Guantanamo Bay in late January 2005 unleashed a range of speculative responses in the Australian media. While The Age (5 February 2005) had a headline stating 'Habib's return puts justice on trial', the article shifted its focus to how 'the truth about Mamdouh Habib remains elusive' (Nicholson and Gordon, 2005: 5). This is precisely the discourse that has positioned Habib in the Australian media since his return and, as I discuss in this paper, especially through 60 Minutes on Channel 9 and Dateline on SBS. Interactive polling through television news and talk-back radio surveys also indicate how Habib has been discursively positioned in the speculative mode as to whether he is guilty or not, whether he is a terrorist or not. Such a discursive positioning, I would argue, demonstrates how necropower, the power to expose Habib's body to detention and torture in Egypt and Guantanamo Bay, is practised through state and media governmentalities as well as through citizen consumer practices of self-identification and differentiation of bodies within a racialised formation.

3. But before I discuss media necropower in relation to Habib, I would like to introduce the term somatechnics and the manner in which I have used the phrase, 'the somatechnics of Mamdouh Habib'. The term 'somatechnics' has been coined by Dr. Susan Stryker in the process of the establishment of a research centre under the aegis of the Department of Critical and Cultural Studies, Macquarie University. Under the research concentration, 'Somatechnics', research convener Dr. Nikki Sullivan suggests that the term '"Somatechnics" is a newly coined term used to highlight the inextricability of soma and techne of the body (as a culturally intelligible construct), and the techniques in and through which bodies are formed and transformed' (2005). With reference to Derrida's work, Joseph Pugliese discusses somatechnics as a way of addressing how 'techne', understood as 'writing, signifying systems and hard technology', is not applied to the body. In fact, the body and techne are indissociable since 'techne in fact constitutes a type of "arche trace" that constitutes the very conditions of possibility for the cultural intelligibility of the body' (Pugliese, 2005). In this sense, 'the body comes into being only through techne' (Pugliese, 2005). Or, to put in another way, the technologies of thinking, seeing, hearing, signifying, visualizing, and positioning produce bodies as culturally intelligible. I use the phrase 'the somatechnics of Habib's body', therefore, to refer to the ways in which Habib's body is mediated through media technologies, but also the manner in which Habib's body becomes culturally intelligible within media technologies of nation, race, and gender as signifying systems. Habib's quest for justice and his representation of his experiences of torture becomes intelligible in the manner in which his body is read through these technologies.

4. Post 9/11, these technologies are intensified through the practice of necropower. The practices of necropower by the U.S. and its allies have been represented as necessary to the very identity of democracy and freedom. This necessity of the practices of necropower marks a discursive shift in post 9/11 national and international politics and mediascapes. In making visible how the 'war against terrorism' enables the reinvention and practice of necropower, which constituted the difference of colonial rule, on populations within colonial centres, I make the claim that contemporary western governmentalities (through state and other forms of governmentalities such as media governmentality and the exercise of consumer citizenship) demand new forms of racialised assimilable bodies and subjectivities which will comply with, consent to, and even demand overt practices of necropower while maintaining the identity of the 'west' as 'civilized,' democratic, and free. These new forms of racialised assimilable bodies and subjectivities are always already situated within the shifting historical hierarchies of racial formations in different locations. For instance, Australia's racial formation is slightly different from the U.S. even as transnational racial formations are interconnected through shared colonial historical contexts. But the practices of necropower point to the intensification and reconfiguration of race and assimilability through the somatechnics of racialised bodies.

5. In order to understand what racialised assimilable bodies and subjectivities these post 9/11 forms of governmentality require, it is necessary to trace the theorization of necropolitics and the practice of necropower as outlined by Achille Mbembe. Positing biopower in Foucault's terms as 'that domain of life over which power has taken control', Mbembe outlines a series of ways in which the concept of biopower does not account for the place of 'life, death, and the human body (in particular the wounded or slain body)' in the context of politics as a form of war. Mbembe's articulates necropower specifically as the type of power exercised in Palestine reconfiguring the relationship between suicide, resistance, sacrifice and terror. So if necropolitics is the 'subjugation of life to the power of death' (2003: 39), freedom itself (for the figure of the suicide-bomber, for example) may be a vision of that which is to come through death, which is itself 'a release from terror and bondage' (2003: 39). In this context, the concept of necropower accounts for the ways in which 'in our contemporary world, weapons are deployed in the interest of the maximum destruction of persons and the creation of death-worlds, new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of the living dead' (Mbembe, 2003: 40). In Mbembe's thesis, necropower operates in the space of the late modern colony where the sovereignty of the colonial power is based on the violence of occupation. One of the key differences of the operation of necropower in the colonies has to do with how, in earlier European colonial contexts, the European juridical order distinguishes between those parts of the globe 'available for colonial appropriation' and Europe itself where a juridical order holds sway. Mbembe suggests that such a distinction ensures that in the colony, the 'controls and guarantees of judicial order can be suspended - the zone where the violence of the state of exception is deemed to operate in the service of "civilization"' (2003: 24). With reference to Agamben's theorization of the state of exception, Mbembe emphasizes that such a space ceases to be a 'temporal suspension of the state of law', it 'acquires a permanent spatial arrangement that remains continually outside the normal state of law' (2003: 13). So, in the necropolitics of the colony, the state of exception is itself transformed into the practice of colonial law - a law where violence operates in the service of colonial interests and colonial modes of 'civilizing'. And, of course, the racialised body is integral to the justification of this 'civilizing' violence. Australia has a long history in necropolitics where the racialised state attempted and still attempts to kill, expose to death, save, incarcerate and legislate Indigenous lives and bodies. These forms of necropower are familiar to us through various practices against Indigenous Australian bodies such as massacres, the reserve system, the attempt to breed out racial characteristics, the stolen generations, Indigenous deaths in custody, and the contemporary murders of Cameron Doomadgee (who was found dead with severe internal injuries in a Palm Island jail in 2004 after being arrested for a minor 'drunk and disorderly') and teenager T.J. Hickey (who was killed in Redfern in 2004 during a police chase).

6. So, it is important to remember that both post 9/11 and pre 9/11 since World War II (since the Nazi state is the one that the state of exception is usually discussed in reference to), necropower has been in operational in 'western' spaces both within the logic of colonialism and the state of exception. And, in fact, the constitution of Guantanamo Bay as a state of exception was formulated in relation to the incarceration of Haitian refugees marked as HIV bodies. Lizzy Ratner has described the manner in which Haitian political refugees seeking asylum in the United States in the 1990s were tested for AIDS. And 'under the 1987 statute barring HIV-positive immigrants', the Immigration and Naturalization Service in the U.S., denied entry to those asylum seekers who were found to be HIV positive placing them instead in a HIV-positive detention camp at Guantanamo Bay (Ratner, 2003). Michael Ratner describes his visits to Guantanamo Bay in the 1990s as a counsel from the Center of Constitutional Rights: 'It was a dreadful experience, a desert outpost where inhuman treatment, even of refugees, was common practice. It was in the litigation regarding those refugees that the U.S. government, initially under the presidency of George Bush, formulated its legal position that Guantanamo was a law-free zone' (Ratner and Ray, 2004: xxi).

7. Guantanamo Bay has a complex history in that it was acquired by the U.S. government through a treaty with Cuba in 1901. The current Cuban government has wanted to terminate that treaty since 1959, but has been unable to do so without the consent of the U.S. government. Instead the Cuban government has refused to accept the 'rent' owed to it by the U.S. government. While the U.S. government claims 'it does not have sovereignty over the Guantanamo base', it exercises 'all aspects of sovereignty' over it (Ratner and Ray, 2004: 3). So, as a colony of the U.S., Guantanamo Bay has been essentially operating within the logic of a state of exception, under U.S. law, but as a space where U.S. juridical order is suspended. Hence, Guantanamo Bay has proved ideal for the U.S. government's practices of interrogation and torture of detainees post 9/11.

8. This declaration of Guantanamo Bay as a law-free zone was a precedent for the U.S. government's post 9/11 declaration of Guantanamo Bay as a state of exception. However, it is also important to remember that these states of exception are also constitutive of the identity of the politico-juridico-cultural order of the nation-state itself. Indeed, in the context of the incarceration of the Haitian refugees marked as HIV bodies at Guantanamo Bay, the US declaration of Guantanamo Bay as a place outside U.S. law enables its inhumane treatment of the refugees precisely because their entry to the U.S. is represented as contaminating healthy American bodies. It is in this constitutive process, that Suvendrini Perera (2004) has suggested the practice of necropower in relation to the detention of refugees in Australia, specifically in relation to the manner in which Australian government exposed to death asylum seekers on SIEV X off of the coast of Perth in the name of protecting national sovereignty. So, in fact, Australian national sovereignty continues to be written and rewritten in relation to events like SIEV X or the detention of asylum seekers.

9. In the historical moment that we're living in, the practices of necropower are constitutive of the discourses of security and freedom of populations located in western nation-states through forms of governmentality not simply aligned with the state. The invocation of security and freedom shifts dominant discourses on the acceptability of torture or other 'state of exception' practices as now fundamental to the freedom, sovereignty and security of western nation-states and its citizens. Hence, the practices of detention and torture or the unfreedom of the other, in our context the Arab or Muslim other, is no longer seen as simply acceptable in a 'state of exception', but is seen as necessary within a media-driven cultural politics whilst maintaining the identity of western nation-states as democratic and free. I am not arguing that the practices of necropower were not constitutive of the discourses of security and freedom pre 9/11 per se, rather, I would argue that post 9/11 marks the renewal and regeneration of discourses of imperialism and racism within media worlds especially where the unfreedom of the embodied racialised other is necessary to the freedom of the western self, posited in embodied terms as white. In this sense, the combined practices of necropower and biopower target racialised others or race/religion traitors.

10. Inderpal Grewal comments on this phenomena in her analysis of technologies of multiculturalism in relation to the consumption of the flag and the remaking of U.S. and transnational racialised and gendered identities. She suggests that 'media technologies of various kinds, from radio and television to the internet, and their sounds and images that pervade rural and urban areas, first worlds and third have transformed the biopolitics and necropolitics of power' (2003: 536). So, it cannot be said 'that the governmentality of freedom and the decentralized "death worlds" of "necropolitics" can be mapped onto first world and third world/postcolonial sites respectively. Rather they work together within a particular context, through the imaginaries produced by consumer culture's media worlds, the disciplinary and biopolitical powers of states and of emergent nationalisms' (Grewal, 2003: 536). In the case of U.S. multiculturalism, it is not simply the state that produces the demand for assimilable subjectivities, but 'also strategies of self-identification and difference through practices of belonging to groups and communities, many of which are materialized within consumer culture's "use of choices" in the formation of individual and collective identifications' (2003: 538).

11. Such an understanding of the practices of biopower and necropower working in conjunction with each other, requiring and producing new forms of assimilable and inassimilable racialised bodies and subjectivities, appears to be crucial to any discussion of terrorism within contemporary mediascapes. It is in this context that I locate the Australian newsmedia's reception of Mamdouh Habib's release from Guantanamo Bay in January 28, 2005. This location of Habib's newsmedia reception enables a reading whereby the production of Habib's body through nation-state practices of necropower, newsmedia governmentality, and 'public' responses are not merely competing and contradictory as is often stated in readings of media texts. In fact, the production of Habib's body through these different technologies illustrates the manner in which the war against terrorism is not merely an organising narrative, but achieves the status of a discursive formation within which the management of racialised populations requires new forms of assimilability by the nation-state, but also by media worlds and dominant white identities. My invocation of dominant white identities, in this context, refers to both whiteness as a representation of Australianness, and its assimilative directives against other white and non-white bodies suspect of other allegiances or terrorist activities (e.g the casting of David Hicks as race/religion traitor).[1] Or as David Hicks' father has recently suggested in relation to his son's imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay, 'I think David's the token white fella', 'they're going to try and make an example out of him, particularly to the western world, that this is what happens if you play with fire' (Hobart Mercury, 2006: 2). And finally, Habib's embodied representation of himself, his experiences of torture, and his quest for justice in this terror formation remain heard but brutally unheeded by the current government, newsmedias, and dominant white identities. Although, in the early months of 2006, it seems that both the government and the newsmedia have had to heed the account of Habib's torture claims especially in light of new evidence reported by the media that 'the Australian government suppressed critical facts in the case and repeatedly misled the public' (Wilkinson, 2006: 27). According to Freedom of Information documents released in the media, the Australian Security Intelligence Office or ASIO knew of Habib's kidnap by the U.S. authorities and his torture in Egypt (ABC News, 2006c). And, of course, much of this new evidence vindicates Habib. However, during the months of 2005, the deployment of media necropower against Habib's body was continual. And my ethical response to Habib's representation of himself demands that the somatechnics of Habib's body needs to be mapped as it makes visible the formation of terror and the deployment of necropower which attempts to render inaudible Habib's plea for justice.

12. The first televisual interview which set the tone for Habib's positioning as terrorist or not was Channel 9's 60 Minutes (2005). Entitled Under Suspicion, the interview conducted by Tara Brown began with an introduction that immediately invited the audience to judge Habib:

Everyone has an opinion. Either Mamdouh Habib is a dangerous terrorist who should have been left to rot in jail or he is an innocent man persecuted because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's one or the other, simple as that, if you believe the propaganda. But so far, you've not seen this mysterious Mr Habib, never heard a single word from him. Now, after more than three years in prison, his story of terrorism and torture, and I have to say, some of his allegations are shocking and quite explosive. For the first time, your chance to judge Mamdouh Habib for yourself.

13. Apart from the Orientalist resonance of marking Habib's body as mysterious or the Oriental body that must be investigated for its terrorist or Un-Australian activities, what is disturbing about the mode of positioning Habib precisely after Habib's experiences of detention and torture was the invitation to judge Habib. The journalist dismisses the binary between Habib as either a 'dangerous terrorist who should have been left to rot in jail' or as 'an innocent man persecuted because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time' (60 Minutes, 2005), as a simplistic political analysis. However, the address to the viewership of 60 Minutes precisely invites judgement of the very binary that the journalist dismisses since no other alternatives are put forward anywhere in the program. In fact, since the term 'dangerous terrorist' is not accompanied by any analysis or discussion, 60 Minutes condones the solution that dangerous terrorists should rot in jail presumably without a trial. Such an exercise of necropower appears consistent with the U.S. policy of creating spaces like Guantanamo Bay or Baghram Base in Afghanistan as law-free zones. Such a marking of either/or on Habib's body also condones incarceration and torture if Habib indeed proves to be a 'dangerous terrorist'. Thus the exercise of necropower, in the right to expose Habib's body to incarceration and torture is normativised in 60 Minutes' address to its viewers. The binary posed in the possibility of Habib's innocence, however, does not place any responsibility for detention or torture on the Australian government or indeed the U.S. as Habib simply may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. In this case Habib becomes a victim of his body's spatiotemporal (dis)placement rather than the illegality and brutality of the detention and torture of countless Muslim and/or Arab men presumed to be allied with the Al-Qaeda training camps.

14. The invitation to judge Habib as a possible terrorist despite Habib's recounting of his experiences of torture is a generic media strategy emerging from the influence of tabloid TV (especially reality TV) on news and current affairs programs (Glynn, 2000). In highlighting this generic strategy, it is not my intention to reproduce the binaries between high and low television journalism, high liberal culture as opposed to low trash TV culture, and validate 'objective' journalism standards. However, I do want to situate the invitation to judge Habib as a possible terrorist within the history of reality TV shows which sheds light on how this genre enables the practice of necropower. Jon Dovey suggests that the genres of reality TV need to be situated within a 'wider consideration of the political position of the individual subject under neo-liberalism' (2000: 79). As an individual subject, the viewer is positioned by the genre of reality TV to take personal responsibility for 'risk avoidance' which is 'structured as a model of citizenship' (2000: 79). While we need to distinguish between the specific generic structures of different reality TV programs as such (e.g. cops shows, emergency situation programs, nanny programs), it is important to highlight what model of viewership is invited and desired by a particular show. Rather than simply bemoaning the rise of reality TV or celebrating its interactive strategies which 'give voice' to those who may be socially disempowered (as much of the literature on reality TV suggests), Dovey's (2000) discussion of reality TV enables a way to discuss the generic strategies of reality TV and the discursive shifts it enables within television programming in general. Gray Cavender (2004) goes a bit further in his analysis of the position of reality TV viewerships. The strategies for shows like America's Most Wanted position viewers within the notion of an ideal community, where the viewer may participate in a televisual community in the capture of criminals who have transgressed social norms. In invoking a national identity, such a community is also positioned as patriotic in their exercise of judgement. I am not suggesting that the positioning of viewers elicits the desired responses structured by the genre itself. However, I do want to emphasise the subjectification of the ideal viewer or community as one who must participate in 'risk avoidance'. In fact, the television interviews specifically positioned Habib within the language of risk, and contextualised his narrative by interrogation about whether or not he transgressed the norms of 'westernness' and specifically 'Australianness.'

15. Grewal comments on the manner in which 'through the twentieth century, risk emerged as a mode not only of judging actions and events, but also bodies' (2003: 539). The synonym for risk in this context is not 'chance or randomness', but 'danger and terror' (2003: 539). Or as she states, 'from the "criminal" as one level of risk for violence, to "terrorist" as the designation of the person who is a risk to the nation, we can see the progressively higher levels of risk associated with particular bodies within specific locations' (2003: 539). Furthermore, while 'the "criminal" might still have recourse to some legal rights, the person designated as "terrorist" has lesser recourse since such a figure is believed to be even more of a threat to the health of the nation' (2003: 539). In our contemporary mediated visual culture, figures 'of Middle Eastern appearance emerge as risky bodies believed to be of threat to the security of the nation' (2003: 540).

16. It is important to note here the somatechnics of the racialised figure of the 'Muslim' who is often also cited in the media as a figure 'of Middle-Eastern appearance'. Joseph Pugliese has rigourously mapped the manner in which 'figures of Middle-Eastern appearance are spectral despite their corporeal manifestations' (2003). This figure, 'global in its dimension, spectacular in its reach and demonic in its intentions', is 'generated through the intersection of the apparatuses of the state and networked technologies of western media' (Pugliese, 2003). Pugliese reads the Australian government's Be Alert But Not Alarmed Pamphlet as specifically placing the 'out of the ordinary' body and activity (in this case, the body of Middle Eastern appearance) as the body associated with risk. In fact, Pugliese argues, it is because this figure is constructed by a 'set of stereotypical attributes', it operates in terms of a predisposition (2003). In other words, 'it situates and establishes the cultural intelligibility of a subject's identity quasi-prior to the arrival of the subject' (2003). Quasi-prior, because, as Pugliese explains, this modality 'enunciates the disarticulation of identity from the juncture: body/subject. It opens up a barely perceptible quantum lag between the category of myself and the figure that I am/not' (2003). In fact, it is this very quantum lag between the category and the figure that I am/not that makes intelligible newspoll and talk-back radio responses to Habib, after Habib relates his traumatic experiences of illegal incarceration and torture.

17. The response to Habib's body language preoccupied a major part of the responses to the 60 Minutes interview. In other words, Habib's body became culturally intelligible within an Australian mediascape through the responses produced by the viewers of the 60 Minutes program and talk-back radio hosts. Alan Jones from 2UE states, 'I think any performance was worth the audience hearing because we now know how evasive this bloke is towards the answers that we seek from him' ( Dateline , 2005). Sally Loane of ABC 702 affirmed, 'The thing that I found a bit frustrating was when he wouldn't answer the questions about why he, you know, was in Afghanistan and Pakistan' ( Dateline , 2005). The Channel Ten newspoll, which framed the question in terms of whether 'Mamdouh Habib is a threat to our security' found that 'so far a whopping 78% believe that he is' (Dateline, 2005). The framing of such a question, of course, resonates with my theorization of how necropower and the unfreedom of racialised others becomes constitutive of 'our security'. On the day after the interview, callers to 774 ABC Melbourne also responded to Habib's body language. 'Ken' from Fitzroy states, 'That's the most outrageous interview I've ever seen and I couldn't believe one thing he said. His body language was wrong. His eyes never looked her in the face. It was just a joke' (Mark, 2005). Other callers who did acknowledge the illegality of Habib's detention and torture stated that torture couldn't be condoned and called for an investigation into the government's role in Habib's detention and torture. However, the major responses to Habib's interview on 60 Minutes followed the mode of focusing on Habib's evasiveness in the face of scrutiny and interrogation, and commented on his body language.

18. In reading and hearing the responses of the viewers and talk-back radio hosts to Habib's so-called evasive body language, I was struck by how such a reading of Habib draws on older Orientalist ways of reading racialised bodies. There was a suspicion in those responses which named the racialised body as always already guilty of suspicious activities. The demand to look the interviewer in the face, or perhaps it was a demand for Habib to look directly into the camera also indicated the ability on the part of the viewers and the talk-back radio hosts to master the other, to know and to judge this other's capacity for truth. This authority in my reading refers back to the figure of colonial authority who is the expert on the suspect native. At the level of the body, the racialised physiognomy of the native is judged to be incapable of truth; thus, he or she transgresses and is also constitutive of a white colonial somatic order which arrogates the capacity for truth. This capacity for truth also arrogates for the colonial body the expertise in the capacity to judge the truth. By this token, it is irrelevant whether the racialised body lies or doesn't lie; it is the privileged position of power to judge the native that reinforces the authority and knowledge of the colonial figure over the suspect racialised body.

19. My own impetus for writing this paper comes precisely from that moment of watching Habib struggle to narrate his experience of torture. It was specifically in those moments of describing the terrible ways in which he was tortured both in Egypt and Guantanamo Bay that Habib swallowed and braced his body in order to narrate his experiences. I responded to the visible torture of such a narration, mediated as it was, with a sense that I was complicit in a different kind of interrogation, an interrogation that demanded Habib revisit his experiences of what might have appeared to him in the last three and a half years as infinite and endless detention and torture. And this act of interrogation itself, I would argue, demonstrated the practice of necropower. This interrogation, in fact, repeated the interrogations that Habib might have faced both in Egypt and Guantanamo Bay: 'Do you or have you ever supported a jihad, a holy war against the West'? Do you think that there is any justification in killing in the name of Allah? Do you admire Osama bin Laden? (60 Minutes, 2005).

20. Yet Habib's attempt to narrate his experiences of torture, his attempt to do this even through the generic mode of interrogation that may be so traumatic for his body also demanded of me, as a viewer, an ethical response to hear Habib's case from his own mouth. In answer to the above questions, Habib answered saying that his religion 'doesn't harm anybody', that he supported bin Laden when he was sick, and that if indeed bin Laden was responsible for the September 11 attacks, that 'he's . . . . he done a crime' ( 60 Minutes , 2005). In this sense, Habib and his lawyer's decision to appear on 60 Minutes, but also subsequently on Dateline was an attempt to communicate to Australian viewership Habib's story precisely because of the government's attempt to justify and continue to exercise its practices of necropower. By seizing Habib's passport and attempting to silence him by threatening that any form of public speech 'could result in civil action under legislation aimed at denying criminals the proceeds of crime' (Nicholson & Gordon, 2005: 5), the Australian government was not only attempting to annihilate Habib's body as a citizen, but also condemn him to speechlessness. Such a move was an attempt not only to disable him from proving his innocence, but also to screen from any public view the Australian and U.S. governments' culpability in Habib's incarceration and torture. In this context, Habib's narration of his experiences of detention and torture become intelligible in a different way. He highlights the brutalization of his body and the attempts to gag him. His body and his speech are the evidence of these attempts. He also glaringly makes visible the Australian and U.S. government's practice of the creation of law-free zones and 'extraordinary rendition' which are brutal evidence of the transnational practices of necropower. These practices of necropower are no longer states of exception, but are attempts to normalize these practices in the interest of the security of the white 'western' subject' and new forms of assimilable racialised bodies subjectivities in the larger context of building a global militarist empire.

21. This attempt to make visible the Australian government's complicity in the outsourcing of torture and its engagement in the practices of necropower was emphasized much more in Dateline's attempt to provide the context for Habib's detention and torture. I must admit I was caught up in the high espionage drama that Dateline constructed as an introduction: 'As espionage stories go, it sounds like something only the CIA could dream up - a fleet of jet delivers bound and gagged terrorist suspects to countries known to have no qualms at all about using torture to extract information' (Dateline, 2005). This emphasis on governmental complicity in the practice of extraordinary rendition, therefore, differentiated Dateline from the 60 Minutes interview. However, this suggestion of complicity was only raised within the signification of the identity of the nation as a humane one (i.e., democratic and free). To this purpose, the reporter asks Phillip Ruddock, is it 'acceptable for Australian intelligence to be used in a process of ongoing interrogation and torture of an Australian citizen in another country?' (Dateline, 2005). Ruddock's answer points to the doubleness of necropower. On the one hand, he states, 'I expect intelligence authorities to do everything they can to avert terrorist activity'. In other words, he suggests that illegal incarceration and torture are acceptable as methods to ensure the security of the west. On the other hand, he states, 'I do believe it's inappropriate to torture people. I've made that very clear' (Dateline, 2005). While the reporter's questions extract the doubleness of necropolitics in Ruddock's response, the reporter only appears concerned that this information could be used to torture 'Australian citizens' or could compromise Australia's identity as a humane, free and democratic country. What is not critiqued in this line of questioning is the incarceration and detention of thousands of racialised bodies 'of Middle Eastern appearance', and the manner in which Australian denizens might be concerned with the sweeping incarceration and torture of those who are not simply confined to the geopolitical territory of the Australian nation-state. So, there is a level at which Dateline is caught up here in the desire for a national distance from the process of rendition.

22. Furthermore, while Dateline appeared to be much more sympathetic to Habib in this objectivist mode than 60 Minutes (which had ended the show by asking Habib to accept that people would judge him as suspicious because there's no smoke without fire), its positioning of Habib still followed the 60 Minutes line that his refusal to answer questions about his trip to Pakistan damaged his credibility. In fact, the reporter names this refusal as evasiveness even as both Mamdouh Habib and Stephen Hopper (Habib's lawyer at the time) state that they are building a court case and the disclosure of that material would compromise their case: 'While there's no doubt Habib's refusal to tell the full story damages his credibility, he's not the only one being evasive' ( Dateline, 2005). This assessment by the reporter was made after Habib's statement stating clearly that 'people have to understand 100% I'm not hiding anything. I'm happy to tell them everything. But they have to understand too we have a court case running and they have to understand the ASIO trying to destroy every evidence I present in court' ( Dateline, 2005). And, Bronwyn Adcock, the journalist on Dateline, also effectively repeated the act of interrogation as 60 Minutes did on a man and a body that had recently undergone interrogation and torture by asking him if had trained with terrorist groups or spent time with them (2005). George Negus who ended the show also positioned Habib as a possible terrorist by simply posing the question, 'who do you believe'? (ASIO or Habib). Such an interrogation and positioning, as I have stated earlier, follows the practice of media necropower. And, in this, sense also implicitly demands a particular kind of racialised assimilable subjectivity and body who will not place himself or herself as a figure of risk.

23. So what kind of a racialised body and subjectivity is being demanded of Habib through state and media governmentalities in the context of the war against terrorism? In other words how must Habib, and other bodies 'of Middle-Eastern appearance' modify their bodies and subjectivities in order to assimilate to the interests of the 'war against terrorism'? For we must remember here that the 'war against terrorism' is not only a war against those who in various political contexts use violence to wage war often against violent and brutal imperialist interests; the war against terrorism is also 'a battle for hearts and minds' as U.S. President George Bush put it during the invasion of Iraq. The 'battle for hearts and minds' draws on a transcendental notion of dismembered bodily organs such as the 'heart' and 'mind' placed outside histories of colonial relations of power. This battle seemingly transcends bodies even as it terrorizes bodies otherised by categories of 'culture', 'religion' and 'race', so decidedly constituted within colonial knowledge production. Not surprisingly, this battle for hearts and minds is discursively placed within the field of an ahistorical battle between good and evil maintaining its militarist enterprise meanwhile in the use of the term 'battle'. So, the racialised assimilable body must concede in the 'battle for hearts and minds', and accept with heart and mind the imperialism of the U.S. and its allied regimes through state and media governmentalities even as it remains a terrorized body in regimes that demands assimilation. The racialised assimilable body and subjectivity will disconnect any political, social and cultural alliances which disrupt the dominance of western imperial power. This assimilable body and subjectivity will modify one's behaviour in myriad ways to comply with the demand for imperial mastery and truth, even lie under torture to produce the colonial truth of one's body as always already suspect of transgressing imperial orders (as in Habib's case). Yet this body must also accept incarceration and torture, the practices of necropower, which will ensure the security and sovereignty of the nation-state. In accepting the order of incarceration and torture, the racialised body accepts the possibility of its own destruction as the condition of the possibility of a secure and sovereign white state.

24. In political terms, Mahmood Mamdani names this demand for an assimilable body within the binary of good Muslim and bad Muslim. Post 9/11, he states, the discourses of political leaders around the world, but especially in the U.S. reinforced the idea that 'bad Muslims were clearly responsible for terrorism' (Mamdani, 2004, p. 15). Good Muslims, on the other hand, 'would undoubtedly support "us" in a war against "them"'. But, as Mamdani states, the status of the good Muslim is conditional: 'unless proved to be "good", every Muslim was presumed to be "bad". All Muslims were now under the obligation to prove their credentials by joining in a war against "bad Muslims"' (2004: 15). With the burden of having to prove the body as belonging to the good Muslim category, one cannot speak of a history of colonialism and global cold war politics which has precipitated our current militarist battle between state and other terrorisms for which the U.S. and its allies are responsible. And, as Mamdani states, 'there are no readily available "good Muslims" split off from "bad ones", which would allow for the embrace of the former and the casting off of the latter' (2004: 16). Thus Mamdani states, the 'presumption that there are such categories masks a refusal to address our own failure to make a political analysis of our times' (2004: 16).

25. But it is also important to note that the somatechnics of Habib in Australian media reception goes beyond simply 'a failure in political analysis' or the good Muslim/bad Muslim binary. Emma Tom's flip dig at Habib and Muslim men in The Australian (2 February 2005), in general, suggests that the demand for racialised assimilable bodies and subjectivities is also about putting these bodies in their place in the hierarchy of racialised patriarchal formations. Positioning herself in a feminist discourse, Tom decided to denigrate Habib's narration of the use of prostitutes to menstruate on Muslim men. 'Whichever way you look at it', Tom suggests, 'a loaded uterus doesn't seem nearly as torturous as some of the other techniques alleged in relation to Guantanamo Bay' (2005: 13). Literally, disconnecting Habib's story from itself, i.e, dividing Habib's story of incarceration and torture into fragments of 'not so offensive' and 'physical abuse', Tom ranks the complaint of 'Habib and fellow Muslim prisoners' against this form of denigration as simply something that is against Muslim law. Instead Tom urges us to take more seriously the idea of 'illegally detained PoWs' (2005: 13) who have actually been (really) physically abused. In fact, such a trivialization of torture does not take into account the culturally specific design of methods of torture. And, while Tom's supposedly humorous article intended to discredit Habib was sickening, it appears to me to be another expression of the manner in which white feminist discourses in the media are often used not to advocate causes which concern Muslim women per se, but to demonise Muslim men as patriarchal while making invisible the patriarchal foundation of white, western imperialisms. In this patriarchal order, Muslim men or men 'of Middle-Eastern appearance' must know their place, their inferior status as either pre-modern bad Muslims or assimilated 'westernised' good Muslims who will support the interests of white, western imperialism.

26. In the face of these demands for racialised, assimilable bodies and subjectivities, the somatechnics of Habib suggests a reading of his body as simultaneously the visible face of one who has been punished/tortured for his inassimilability (the sign of what can happen if one is not a good Muslim within the Australian state) as well as resisting the demand for racialised assimilable subjectivity through his quest for justice within state and media practices of necropower. In this quest for justice Mamdouh Habib is now suing the Federal government of Australia for their actions in helping the U.S. government to take him to Guantanamo and for their inaction in getting him out of Guantanamo (Canterbury Bankstown Peace Group 2006). In this sense, Habib's quest for justice looks forward to rewriting the racialised technologies of cultural intelligibility that underwrite Australian media necropower.

 

Goldie Osuri lectures at the Department of Critical and Cultural Studies, Macquarie University, Australia.   Her current research projects include media, terrorism and new world orders, whiteness and multiculturalisms in the U.S. and Australia, christianity and conversion in India.

Notes

I want to thank Mamdouh Habib for speaking at the Regimes of Terror colloquium that I organized in December 2005. His testimony and his courage in fighting the Australian government as well as negotiating with the media have been inspiring. I would like to acknowledge Maha Habib for her courage, strength and resistance in this ongoing saga. I also want to acknowledge and express support for all the activists who have been part of the Justice for Hicks and Habib campaign. Furthermore, I would like to thank Dr. Suvendrini Perera for alerting me to two articles, Achille Mbembe's 'Necropolitics' and Grewal's 'Transnational America' during The Body Politic Conference (2004) held in Brisbane. These works were immensely influential in my work in this paper.

[1] David Hicks was captued by Northern Alliance soldiers in December 2001 in while he was travelling in Afghanistan with Taliban soldiers. He was subsequently handed over to U.S. authorities and remains in Guantanamo Bay. For a chronicle and a continuing account of the Hick's case please see http://www.fairgofordavid.org/htmlfiles/documents/whyfairgo.htm.

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© borderlands ejournal 2006

 

 

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