Guantánamo may stay or go, the condition of its inhabitants may improve or worsen, but one thing is certain: it has become and remains shorthand for a larger set of formations. Thus underneath the question of what goes on at Guantánamo, what interrogations and excesses, is the more abiding question: What is Guantánamo?
—Nasser Hussain in Critical Inquiry, 2007
Historian Nasser Hussain sought to at least partially answer his haunting question about Guantánamo by delving into the archives of colonial governance. His work meticulously documents how administrative measures, imperial policing, and emergency laws from earlier colonial regimes shaped the War on Terror.
Hussain was particularly interested in the work of Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, who famously wrote about the state of exception, a nineteenth-century idea which held that an immediate danger may, in some cases, require a temporary suspension of regular law. A renewed exploration of Schmitt’s work came with the War on Terror and its declaration of emergency.
When the United States declared a state of exception or emergency after 9/11, some critical observers misdiagnosed the problem of Guantánamo as a suspension of regular law or as a zone of non-law. But Hussain showed that, on the contrary, what makes Guantánamo Guantánamo is the presence of multiple overlapping legal orders that he calls hyperlegality. Although some law has been withdrawn upon declaration of emergency, such as the suspension of habeas corpus, there is a clear expansion of some kinds of law and administrative procedures. The proliferation of law, Hussain argues, suggests that what may appear to be a classic case of Schmitt’s state of exception is actually not after all. This is because the two key traditional features of emergency or exception have lapsed. First, exception is categorically distinct from the norm, but that is not the case. The difference between Guantánamo, domestic law, and immigration law is more a difference of degree rather than kind. Second, states of emergency are supposed to be temporary. Far from temporary, the emergency measures of the War on Terror have brought new regulations and classifications that make it part of legal architecture rather than an aberration. Therefore, he argues that the rush of laws flowing from the declaration of emergency after 9/11 are properly understood as part of a larger methodology of governance.
This insight is crucial because it allows us to grasp that simply adding more laws would not solve the problem of Guantánamo, since it is a problem created by law rather than an absence of it. Arguments against further enriching the legal arsenal of counterterrorism are common now, thanks in part to Hussain, whose career was cut short when he passed at a rather young age in 2015. His work continues to help illuminate the foundations and complexity of such arguments, which may otherwise appear overly simplistic. Understanding these foundations allows us to carve out paths of action in informed and effective ways.
As we collectively take stock of the two decades since the start of the War on Terror, Hussain’s approach is important to consider. It is modeled in his two essays published in Boston Review in 2010 and 2013, revisited here in this short introduction. What Hussain models in these pieces is the value of closely studying the warmakers—that is, the formations and technologies that organize the War on Terror.
His 2010 essay “Counterinsurgency’s Comeback” takes up the theoretical assumptions and operational practices of the War on Terror, specifically counterinsurgency. The objective of counterinsurgency is to win over the population—sifting the terrorist from the supporter from the neutral, local fighters from transnational terrorists, and so on—creating and distinguishing categories of people with a set of consequences for each category. This approach of course involves the spilling of blood but is not limited to it; it also involves mundane, bureaucratic, administrative thought and procedure: How do we determine who is part of which group? What are the criteria? Who polices and manages the borders? When do we add new categories into the existing scheme? What are the consequences for each group?
Revisiting Hussain’s work six years after his passing and twenty years into the War on Terror, I read in it a warning to those of us against the war: that we must study in order to avoid recreating a new version of the same. Our study requires attention to history, but even this is not enough. As he points out elsewhere, “The task of criticism can no longer be a purely historicist one.” In other words, we can neither simply situate phenomena in historical context nor demonstrate the contingency or socially constructed nature of events. Pushing further, Hussain’s careful study excavates the roots of practices and policies both to point to their longevity and to understand their complexity, which is a necessary precondition for successfully challenging the War on Terror. His back-to-basics attention to space and time can offer an important course correction, helping us move toward the larger question behind his question about Guantánamo, a synecdoche for the war at large: What is the War on Terror?
Hussain’s 2013 piece, “The Sound of Terror,” takes sensory experiences of drones as its unit of analysis. The sound of a drone from video footage, from the perspective of drone operators, is silence. The silence gives the impression that those on the ground are “unalive, even before they are killed.” Following comparisons between drones, video games, and pornography, his essay illuminates the disturbing monopoly of the visual in drone warfare. The perspective from the air—which operators speak of as a bird’s-eye view and, meaningfully, God’s-eye view—is one purely of sight and seems to offer knowledge of all (which is to say, all that is worth knowing). But on the ground, for Afghans, Pakistanis, Yemenis, and more, sound is a defining feature of drones. For the people suffering under drone warfare, the sound is anywhere from constant buzzing—an anxiety-inducing soundtrack for everyday life—to deafening explosions accompanying destruction. Yet it is not the audio but rather the visual that structures debates on drones in the halls of power. The visual informs two fictions about drone warfare: that drones require few personnel, and that they are precise. Neither are true, and both are structured by the arrogant fantasy of a God’s-eye view through the lens of a camera. The visual shapes the widespread falsehoods about drone warfare in the United States and shrinks public perceptions of their actual impact.
The harm done by drones beyond loss of life alone—which is itself hugely underestimated—must be understood as diffuse rather than precise. Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal found that the actual rate of civilian death in northern Iraq via drones is “more than 31 times that acknowledged by the coalition.” But this loss of life is only one aspect of “deterioration of life” for Hussain. It also includes “parents refusing to risk sending their children to school, tribal councils wary of meeting, and shops shuttered into bankruptcy.” An understanding of drone war as structuring an entire society “offers a thicker definition of civilian harm, and dismantles, in part, the visual regime of the drone, its will to omniscience and precision. It also begins to dispel the fantasy of air power in general.”
Many study the effects of the War on Terror to understand it, an approach which of course has its merits. In Hussain’s work, we find the immediate importance of understanding the mechanics and theories of the war itself. In his approach, we find a window into a broader understanding of the impacts of war as both diffuse and chronic, sedimented into administrative procedures and everyday life in its most spectacular and mundane moments.
by Nasser Hussain
Can a colonialist strategy be reinvented?
The Sound of Terror: Phenomenology of a Drone Strike
by Nasser Hussain
“The drones were terrifying. The buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death.”