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The Banned Books of Guantánamo

'Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture' by Ian Cobain

Ian Cobain totally gets why his book is banned from Gitmo.

by Ian Cobain
10 November 2014, 10:00am

Image by Marta Parszeniew

There's an old joke about poisoners. You can be a famous poisoner, the joke goes, or you can be a successful poisoner. But you can't be both.

Perhaps the same is true of censors? After all, the most effective acts of censorship must be those that remain hidden. If this is so, the censors at Guantánamo Bay fall, quite spectacularly, into the category of very super famous censors.

Not only are the prisoners at Guantánamo prohibited from reading dozens of books – including some of the world's great works – but they know precisely what it is that is being denied to them. And now, so do the rest of us.

Doubtless some of the books – Crime and Punishment, for example, or Kidnapped – were banned without being opened and read. Who says you can't judge a book by its cover? If you can detain hundreds of people in breach of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, you probably believe that you can do what you damn well like.

I suspect that at least one book on the list – Russell Brand's Booky Wook 2 – was banned as a result of a mischievous bit of blacklister-baiting on the part of an inmate's lawyer.

But some of the banned works are a little more bewildering. What is it about The Merchant of Venice that is considered unconducive to Gitmo's good order? An individual who has been locked up without trial for 12 years does not need to read Shakespeare to know that mercy is mightiest in the mightiest.

And then there are the proscriptions that defy explanation; the bans that are not so much puzzling as disturbing. Why is Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl on the list? Does its inclusion tell us something about the way in which the prison authorities judge themselves, in their moments of doubt? And what was passing through an American censor's mind at the moment when he or she decided that Thomas Paine's Rights of Man was too subversive to be read by the men held at Guantánamo Bay?

The banning of my book, Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture, is a little easier to comprehend. The book explains how the British government became closely involved in the so-called "extraordinary rendition" programme immediately after 9/11, and then tried to conceal what it was doing. It discloses that the CIA sent a delegation to the British embassy in Washington DC on the Sunday after the attacks to give MI6 a three-hour presentation on the details of the programme that was about to roll out across the globe. One of the original architects of the programme explained to me why Guantánamo was subsequently established as an interrogation centre: "The Department of Defence simply thought they could do it better than the Egyptians or whoever."

The book also explains how Tony Blair was quickly warned that the US authorities had begun torturing their prisoners – working "the dark side", as Dick Cheney put it – and how a number of British citizens and residents were nevertheless consigned to Guantánamo as a result of instructions issued by Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary. One, Shaker Aamer, languishes there still, despite being cleared by two Presidents in the 12 years since his original detention.

What's more, the book explains that the way in which the British government became so closely involved in the kidnap and torture of its own citizens was not a peculiarly post-9/11 phenomenon. From the Second World War to the Cold War, from the conflicts of decolonisation to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the evidence shows that the British state has resorted repeatedly to the appalling mistreatment of those whom it considers to be a threat, and then attempted to conceal the truth about its conduct behind a screen of obfuscation and lies.

Now, the fact that the inmates of the most notorious Gulag of our times are being denied their basic human rights – including the right to read what they wish – is hardly surprising.

When I was told that my book was among those that had been banned, I briefly felt a pang of pride. In what illustrious company I had found myself. But the ban also infringes upon my own rights: the Guantánamo censors are blacking out my words and obliterating my thoughts.  

My colleague Nick Cohen, author of one of the finest books on censorship, suggested that I should consider the sort of people who do such work. I would be justified, he suggested, in holding them in utter contempt.

And this is one of the reasons why the censoring of books at Guantánamo Bay is so offensive. It is carried out by people who are capable of acts of small-mindedness, as well as acts of enormous cruelty; people who will never write books themselves, but who decide when the words of others should not be read.

@IanCobain

Header image by Marta Parszeniew.