Politics: Celebrity of War

Moazzam Begg & Victoria Brittain, Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantánamo, Bagram and Kandahar (New Press, 2006)

Well before Moazzam Begg was released in January 2005 from Guantánamo Bay, after spending three years in U.S. custody as an enemy combatant, he was portrayed in the play Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom (reviewed in the October 2004 Rail). While Begg couldn’t even talk to other detainees, actors were playing out his story on stages all over the world.

Today Begg appears on TV news interviews, and speaks at literary festivals and human rights conventions. A man the U.S. government once deemed a member of al Qaeda is now represented by a high-profile literary agent. His Wikipedia entry prints out at seven pages (including references and external links). Begg’s story is of particular interest because he is a highly educated, second-generation British Muslim with only minimal connections, if any, to terrorism, who was held captive for three years.

Begg was seized in 2002 by the CIA at a home where he was staying with his wife and two children in Pakistan. His family had recently relocated to Islamabad to escape the U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, where they had settled in mid-2001. He was taken to Bagram, Kandahar, and finally Guantánamo, and released three years later without charge.

Nothing that Begg recounts about the treatment of detainees at Gitmo in his new memoir, penned with the help of Victoria Brittain, is revelatory to anyone who reads the newspaper. But his book is compelling as a first person narrative of one man’s struggle for justice within a system created to defy it, and who managed to bond with his captors along the way.

Before he moved to Afghanistan, Begg ran an Islamic bookshop in Sparkhill, England. He traveled to Bosnia on what he deemed an aid mission, although he admits he thought about fighting for the Bosnian Muslim cause. According to Begg, although he had at one time attended a training camp in Afghanistan, he did not have a single tie to al Qaeda or terrorism. After more than three years as a detainee, much of it spent in solitary confinement with no fresh air, minimal food rations, constant verbal abuse and witnessing the murder of two detainees, the U.S. never found any tangible evidence of Begg’s connection to terrorism.

Much of the book is reconstructed dialogue between Begg, his interrogators, and fellow detainees. Unfortunately, the reconstruction turns what could have been a searing account into a self-righteous rant. In one interrogation, Begg retorts to a guard, “Do you remember your own home-grown acts of terrorism, like the Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh? The Michigan Militia trained him: he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people. Why didn’t the U.S. authorities raid, capture, interrogate, and torture all the people who were ‘linked’ to him?” This may be a legitimate point, but the dialogue is so artificially constructed that it’s hard to see past Begg’s own righteousness. One wonders why co-author Brittain, who was the associate foreign editor of The Guardian and is now a research associate at the London School of Economics, didn’t exercise some editorial control here.

The book is most powerful in the passages where Begg describes making human connections with his captors. Begg listens to the men and women who guard him and realizes they had no idea what they were getting into when they signed up for military duty. Most of them, he notices, come from rural areas and are poorly educated. He bonds with Kelvin, from the Virgin Islands, a man, Begg says, “whose goals were to have the fastest cars and motorbikes, a surround-sound stereo system and the latest DVDs, and watch the latest porno movies,” and who spoke to Begg about the death of his father and his family back home.

Begg’s story is harrowing and important; it’s a detailed and personal report on how our government uses the “enemy combatant” status as an excuse to commit gross human rights abuses. Unfortunately, Enemy Combatant does not fully succeed in conveying this abhorrent injustice. Begg emerged from a nightmare and was catapulted into celebrity. It’s unfortunate that his story can’t help others, not as lucky as him, still detained at Guantánamo.

Contributor

Katy Henriksen

KATY HENRIKSEN posts regularly at helloloretta.tumblr.com and twitter.com/helloloretta.

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