David Hicks shows us what we became after 9/11

My following book review appeared in yesterday’s Sydney’s Sun Herald newspaper:

Guantanamo: My Journey
David Hicks (William Heinemann, $49.95)
Reviewed by Antony Loewenstein

Almost 10 years after the Bush administration launched the ”˜”˜war on terror’’, the victims of the policy remain largely voiceless.

The unknown number of civilians murdered by Western bombs have no way to express their outrage. They are invisible, mostly in countries Australia has either occupied (Iraq or Afghanistan) or helped colonise (Pakistan).

But Australian David Hicks is a notable exception. Imprisoned for years in Guantanamo Bay, tortured and then tried before a flawed military commission, he now lives as a free man in Sydney. This book is an attempt to set the record straight from his perspective.

Critics of Hicks in the corporate press still abound. The Sydney Morning Herald columnist Gerard Henderson wrote in 2008 that there was ”˜”˜no need to analyse the case against Hicks advanced by the United States and Australian governments and/or other agencies’’. In fact, the opposite was true, with the legality of Hicks’s incarceration, the torture he suffered while there and the bogus ”˜”˜trial’’ all condemned by human rights groups and Attorney-General Robert McClelland, who said in 2003 that practices at Guantanamo Bay were ”˜”˜alien to Australians’ expectations of a fair trial’’.

More recently, Henderson claimed Hicks was in ”˜”˜denial’’ for not telling the truth about his behaviour and activities during the past decade, with his book (and supporters) having whitewashed his alleged consorting with al- Qaeda. Even ABC reporter Leigh Sales argued in The Australian that Hicks wasn’t entirely honest about his activities before and after September 11, 2001.

But only a fair and open civilian trial could conclusively determine the possible guilt or innocence of Hicks.

His reactions to the charges against him are relevant but My Journey carefully explains the Howard government’s capitulation to Washington dictates in the years after September 11. John Howard’s autobiography details his admiration of George W. Bush’s world view. Bush barely mentions Howard in his own recent book. A memoir is always selective in its focus.

The most revealing sections of this book concern illegal incarceration in Guantanamo Bay.

Hicks details guards who punished him for simply studying his legal options. He often asked for medical care to help stress fractures. Little help was given. ”˜”˜You’re not meant to be healthy or comfortable,’’ he was told.

Faeces flooded the cage where Hicks lived and slept, ignored by the American officials. Dirty and unwashed clothes were common. Deafening loud music was pumped into cells to disorientate prisoners. Hicks writes of having to urinate on himself while being shackled during countless hours of interrogation. Detainees on hunger strikes were regularly force-fed.

Many of these actions are defined as torture under international law and yet nobody has faced trial for imposing such restrictions.

Indeed, the Obama administration still retains the right to incarcerate individuals indefinitely without trial or even after they are found innocent. Guantanamo Bay remains open and Hicks notes grimly, as he arrives at the ”˜”˜notorious’’ Camp Five in 2005, the involvement of American multinationals Halliburton and Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR).

My Journey is written with workman-like efficiency. Glamorous prose is ignored, as it should be. Not unlike another Guantanamo Bay detainee illegally imprisoned and tortured, Briton Moazzam Begg, who wrote a book about the experience called Enemy Combatant, Hicks aims to tell readers what Australia (and Britain) supported in its desperate bid to stay on the good side of Bush.

Hicks isn’t proud of his previously anti-Semitic ravings, sent in letters to his family years ago, nor does he defend the violence committed by al-Qaeda. He strongly rejects ”˜”˜and always will, any claims that I was a terrorist or supporter of terrorism. My personal definition of a terrorist is a coward and a murderer.’’ He vehemently opposes occupation of lands such as Kosovo and Kashmir and demands the right to ”˜”˜bear arms and risk my life to help them’’.

This book won’t be the last word on Hicks. But it fairly stands as a personal tale of misdirection, struggle, hope, delusion and Western silence over torture.

The last significant individual abandoned by Canberra was legendary Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett. The true test of democracy is how the most unpopular individuals are treated by officialdom.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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