December 11, 2007
The range of terms available to describe people imprisoned for years without trial in Guantanamo Bay has always been revealing. Simply to call them “killers” or “terrorists”, as Cheney and Bush like to do, is of course to sidestep any irritating requirement of legal proof, and also to drown out the annoying fact that many of those imprisoned at Guantanamo have turned out to be innocent of any crime. As I pointed out in Unspeak, meanwhile, the fastidious official choice of the term “detainees” was probably first motivated by a worry that plainly to call them “prisoners”, which is what they are, would call to mind too easily the notion of a “prisoner of war” and thus the irksome existence of Geneva conventions detailing what may and may not be done to such prisoners.
Even after the Supreme Court decided that Common Article 3 does indeed apply at Guantanamo and so removed this Unspeak rationale, the designation “detainees” stuck. Perhaps because “detainee” also carries a useful implication of temporariness. If I say “I was detained on my way to the railway station”, you are likely to think that I experienced a few minutes’ delay, not that I was banged up in a prison cell for six years.
Now, with thanks to WIIIAI, we can observe an exciting new evolution in the naming of these unfortunates. People in Guantanamo Bay are not prisoners or even detainees but clients.
Such is the preferred language of a former interrogator at Guantanamo, who recorded this segment for NPR detailing how useful the prisoners were for her own spiritual journey:
When I returned to work, I began to meet again with my clients, which is what I chose to call my detainees.
Clients! It’s a good example, once again, of another theme in Unspeak — the way the language of commercial transaction can be called upon to smooth over and normalize any situation of violence, horror or injustice. Naturally, a pedant will point out that a man imprisoned in Guantanamo without trial is not exactly a client of his interrogators, if by “client” we understand a free agent choosing to solicit a service from a therapist or other specialist. But if we have already swallowed the description of torturers as experts and consummate professionals, and even of military spouses as service providers, then calling prisoners “clients” fits right in.
Or perhaps the interrogator is more learned in classics than we suspected, and she is consciously making reference to the sense of the original word cliens in Roman antiquity. Consider what the OED gives as the first meaning of our word “client”:
A plebeian under the patronage of a patrician, in this relation called a patron (patrōnus), who was bound, in return for certain services, to protect his client’s life and interests.
Ah, so in this set-up it is the client who performs the services. Well, that is just the story the interrogator tells:
My clients may never know this, but my year with them helped me to finally heal. My nightmares stopped.
I do love a happy ending, don’t you?