by Markus Miessen
The United States became engaged in two distinct conflicts, Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) in Iraq. As a result of a Presidential determination, the Geneva Conventions did not apply to al Quaeda and Taliban combatants.” (1) – Schlesinger Report
The present re-read
Analysing the relationship between space and power, many questions arise about how far spatial conditions have influenced and continue to affect conscious violations of Human Rights. A few years into the 21st century, decreasing public confidence in political decision-making and its transfer has made way for an overbearing universal ethics of mediated truisms. Post 9/11 in particular, one can trace an increasing habit of politicians to convert the mis-en-scene and tools of spatial planning in order to create microclimates, which do not obey any legal framework. There is evidence that spatial planning has been used as a mechanism to convert spaces into strategic weapons of physical punishment. Simultaneously, one is witnessing the re-appropriation of issues such as representation, psychological framework and an increasingly monotheistic politics.
In 2004, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben re-interpreted the United States’ “war against all evil” as a symbolic gesture that envisions an alteration of the political landscape. Two months after the September attacks in 2001, the Bush administration – in the midst of what it perceived as a state of emergency – authorised the indefinite imprisonment of non-citizens suspected of terrorist activities. This policy, according to Agamben, should be understood as “The State of Exception” (2), a powerful strategy that enables the transformation of a contemporary democracy into a civil dictatorship. Agamben argues that the state of exception, which was meant to be a provisional measure, has become part of the everyday fabric.
When the American president George W. Bush sent a TV-message to Vladimir Putin (3), claiming that even in times of war one has to obey the guiding principles of democracy, Bush appeared concerned about the fact that Putin, after the massacre of Beslan (4), had announced to strengthen and fortify the “verticality of power” (5). Ever since, the American president has ensured to clarify that in “times of war” – which in his present-day sense is an ongoing endeavour – the “old” rules and international rights are no longer applicable and can therefore be “temporarily” suspended. This development essentially prepares the ground for a “war” that neither requires justification nor is the policy undertaken on terrorism rationally related to its prevention. Instead, it strengthens a policy that was already under way before the Twin Towers fell: “the war on terrorism needs to be read always as in quotes, because it is not in any conventional sense a war – no national enemy, no troops, no territorial goals as such.” (6) Rather than fighting the symptoms, the U.S. administration had blocked multi-lateral politics for too long. This policy finally turned into a boomerang effect and – propelled by irrational motives due to being caught by “surprise” – conclusions were drawn rapidly.
In such reinterpreted register of geopolitics, “rights” are being exposed to the higher principle of potential war and the response towards international terror. In this sense, military order, which turns supreme, can temporarily defer international law. Accordingly, military judges replace civil courts and, in the name of National Security, the president – as the civil leader of the military – embodying unrestricted powers. It is no news that – today – the underlying principle of justification is whether or not a particular action is taking place in the name of national interest while this very interest is being defined by the power that pursues it. In this context, the term “terror” is being pollinated with “war”. Consequently, “war” allows for all civil rights to be suspended.
Taking such developments into consideration, it is not surprising that the countless individuals imprisoned in Camp X-Ray & Delta (Guantanamo Bay, Cuba), the detention centre at Bagram airport (Afghanistan), Abu Ghuraib prison (Iraq) and numerous third-country penitentiaries, have been deferred into territories that are lacking of Human Rights monitoring, influenced by a White House directive that “terrorist” suspects do not deserve the rights given to prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions. But in the General Provisions of the Geneva Conventions relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War (7), a different code is outlined, which claims that one has to “ensure respect for the present Convention in all circumstances”(8) and renders a clear definition about prisoners of war. According to the Conventions, prisoners of war “are persons, who have fallen into the power of the enemy: members of other militias and members of other volunteer corps, including those of rganized resistance movements operating in or outside their own territory, even if this territory is occupied.” (9) In order to prevent submission to the Geneva Conventions, the captured individuals and groups could therefore be moved into territories, which disobey the Conventions, or territories that do not fall under its jurisdiction. The U.S. government therefore started to set up spatial constructs, which – in their belief – are not accountable to any higher authority.
This method of creating extra-legal territory also includes a technique known as “extraordinary renditions”. (10) In April 2005, Human Rights Watch released a summary of evidence of U.S. abuse of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan, Cuba and other programmes of secret CIA detention. (11) The U.S. government openly admits that they seek diplomatic assurances from states where torture is a common phenomenon, one in which one state requesting that another make an exception to its general policy of employing torture with respect to just one individual. Such technique has deeply disturbing implications. Pro- actively proposing the creation of such territorial and legal islands of protection illustrates the imperative function of space within the equation and comes close to accepting the ocean of abuse that surrounds it. (12) In case foreign authorities or the United Nations have condemned such practices of torture, the U.S. has proven to spatially transfer prisoners while simultaneously releasing a flood of new legal documents, which allow for particular codes of conduct within the military and the CIA. This technique, however, is neither new nor being practiced by the United States alone. The government of the United Kingdom is reportedly in negotiations with the Algerian and Moroccan governments, countries in which abusive treatment and torture is common, to allow the transfer of terrorism suspects. (13) In the eyes of the architects of such legal documents, a war against Iraq – for example – is legal, because it presents a case in self-defence and, further, an action in the interest of humanity.
Crime and its becoming
“How can our government speak with authority about the evil of torture in countries like Egypt and Syria and Uzbekistan when it is knowingly making deals with the worst elements of those regimes to send people to the very dungeons where they torture prisoners?” (14) – Tom Malinowski, Washington Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch
When Giorgio Agamben, both prior and post-9/11 (15), discussed the principles of western society, he rendered a threatening image that is gaining its momentum from legal documents all the way back to the Roman Empire. Influenced by Hannah Arendt’s work on totalitarianism and the institutional form of rights (16) Agamben attempts to trace a historic process, one that is not a singular phenomenon, but a progression towards his primary thesis: there is an unforeseen solidarity between democracy and totalitarianism. According to the Roman legal system, the one who threatened the republic was treated as a public enemy: as “Homo Sacer” – the one without rights – one was reduced to nothing but a living being and could be executed. (17)
The Patriot Act – enacted in October 2001 – allows the United States government to take any individual into custody, who is suspected to threaten National Security. But George W. Bush’s new military order turns those who are incarcerated in Guantanamo’s Camp X-Ray & Delta into lawless individuals, exteriorised from any juridical support-structure because of their territorial, that is spatial, status. Like so many other political prisoners in the course of history, these individuals have lost their juridical identity by having been put through a selection of political and spatial filters. Although Agamben’s critique is radical in the sense that it is introducing an oversimplified and accelerated concept of comparison, what he is essentially doing is to lay bare the danger of nationalistic structures. The videos and photographic footage that came out of Iraq’s Abu Ghuraib prison illustrate the drastic relevance of Agamben’s theory of the Homo Sacer. The naked bodies piled on top of each other and its sadistic choreography blend into a scene that recalls the fatal imagery of the 20th century.
Throughout history, cultures have projected that what they considered as “evil” beyond their own territorial borders. Historic evidence illustrates that as soon as one realises that the reasons for so-called “evil acts” can be located inside one’s own territory, one refers to an existing “cruel” imagery on the outside in order to claim justification.
In the case of Abu Ghuraib, we can trace the imagery of the colonial victor, but the space itself becomes exchangeable. And so does its historic reference. One reason for the public reception being so overwhelming could be described simply by tracing an existing imagery. Rather than evoking a shock due to its specific message, the images coming out of Abu Ghuraib overlap with an existing 20th century imagery, a blend of the death camps of Auschwitz, the pictures of deformed bodies in Vietnam, the death squad killings in El Salvador, the killing of the Tutsi in Rwanda, the genocides in Turkey, Sudan and Cambodia and the war crimes of collective punishment in Fallujah. Such excesses would always have two things in common: they were tied to a particular, delineated territory and an imagery of the subordinate subject. In this pornography of violence, the stage would change, but the choreography stays the same. Trying to bridge the gap between associated territories and the mainland, the U.S. is trying by all means to refer back to the outside, avoiding legal focus on their exterritorial enclaves while simultaneously talking about a “clean war”. (18)
Spatial enclaves and the return of radical punishment
“Breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees; pouring cold water on naked detainees; beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair; threatening male detainees with rape; allowing a military police guard to stitch the wound of a detainee who was injured after being slammed against the wall in his cell; sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light (…).” (19) – Major General Antonio M. Taguba
Within this imagery, there seems to be a strong link to what Michel Foucault described as the “ceremonial of punishment” (20): “some prisoners may be condemned to be hanged, (…) others, for more serious crimes, to be broken alive and to die on the wheel, after having their limbs broken; others to be broken until they die a natural death, others to be strangled and then broken, others to be burnt alive, (…) and others to have their heads broken.” (21) In Discipline & Punish, The Birth of the Prison, Foucault illustrates in how far physical punishment has become the most hidden part of the penal process and “as a result, justice no longer takes public responsibility for the violence that is bound up with its practice.” (22) As opposed to historic reference, in the 20th century – he argues – the spectacle of punishment has shifted to the trial.
But if there is no trial, there is no scene. The disappearance of public punishment goes hand in hand with the decline of spectacle. Commenting on space and power, Paul Hirst subsequently defined such politics as “a much contested concept: it has many different meanings and possible spatial locations.” (23) Foucault’s treatment of the relation between a new form of power and a new class of specialist structures regarded this both as the consequence and the condition of the rise of forms of “disciplinary power” from the 18th century onwards: “power is thus conceived of a fundamentally negative, as a punitive relation between the dominant and the subordinate subject.” (24) This form of power based on surveillance, which individuates and transforms, is defined by the penitentiary prison with its cells spatially isolating its inmates, with a central structure of inspection. What Hirst describes as the essential characteristics of Bentham’s Panopticon – “an idea in architecture” (25) – that is to say the principle that the many can be governed by the few, can be traced through the history of penitentiary construction. This is probably best exemplified by Abu Ghuraib’s “Liberty Tower”, a central inspection structure overlooking the territory: a space that enables both a certain correlative perspective and power relations. Although Foucault’s writings on the Panopticon originate from the 1970’s, his work seems more relevant than ever. He dissects the relationship between space and power.
In order to illustrate the effect of institutional space and its power-relations, Philip Zimbardo – professor emeritus at Stanford University – carried out an experiment in 1971 to test a simple question: what happens if you put “good” people in an “evil space”? To run the experiment, student volunteers were randomly assigned to plan the role of prisoner or guard in a simulated prison. Although all participants had been examined and were confirmed to be mentally healthy, guards soon became sadistic and prisoners showed severe signs of depression. After six days, the study had to be stopped in order to prevent further abuse. The experiment clarified how the power of social and spatial constructs distorts personal identities and values as students had internalised situated identities in their roles as prisoners and guards. When Zimbardo gave an interview to the Edge Foundation in 2005, he argued that “understanding the abuses at this Iraqi prison starts with an analysis of both the situational and systematic forces operating on those soldiers working the night shift in that little shop of horrors.” (26) According to Zimbardo, his experiment illustrated the competition between institutional powers versus the individual’s will to resist. Control through humiliation provided regular occasions for the guards to exercise control over the prisoners, illustrating that the relationship between pleasure and pain, in a territory that is spatially independent and functioning under its own set of rules, is no longer based on a framework of human reasoning.
Spatial autonomy as the blueprint of evil
“Camp X-Ray is an island, on an island, on an island. It is a sealed off zone (…), which is itself sealed off from the rest of the island of Cuba. That is one of the reasons the US chose to bring suspects here: it is impossible to get to, unless the US military flies you in.” (27)
– BBC report, 2004
The Naval Base Guantanamo Bay on Cuba is essentially a territory in which prisoners can be held indefinitely beyond scrutiny of US courts. Some of the prisoners have been held there since 2001. Since it is not considered U.S. territory, those imprisoned there have none of the rights of someone brought to American soil. Unlike military bases on U.S. territories, Guantanamo is central to the strategy of preventing judicial review of the legal status of prisoners. Located on Cuban territory, it is the “legal equivalent of outer space”; mainland locations were ruled out as prison sites because they fall under the jurisdiction of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. (28)
Amnesty International has compared the territory with Soviet concentration camps known as Gulags, where resistance was legal proof of the need for “treatment”. The U.S. government does not accept the inmates’ status as Prisoners of War, because, according to U.S. authorities, they have not been fighting in uniform, representing a delineated, governed territory. (29)
The spatial construction of Camp Delta consists of a maze of fences, razor wire and guard towers. Walls are made from chain-link and cells are protected from the elements by corrugated metal sheets. Prisoners spend most of their time in their cells, sitting on the floor or lying on foam sleeping mats. At night the entire territory is lit up so the guards can see their prisoner’s every move. The construction of additional detention units was completed by mid-April 2002, and done by Brown & Root Services (BRS) – a subsidiary company of oil-venture Halliburton – approximately five miles from Camp X-Ray. Each detention units is 8 feet long, 6 feet 8 inches wide and 8 feet tall and constructed with metal mesh on a solid steel frame.
Each detainee is provided with a foam sleeping mattress, a blanket, and a 1/2 inch thick prayer mat. (30) It is precisely these conditions that have been meticulously designed in order to alter the behaviour of inmates and cause symptoms such as chronic depression, suicide, interpersonal rejection, psychiatric disorder and trauma. It comprises a physical design with the intention to enforce confession. What is of imperative nature to the conditions in Guantanamo is that spatial components are being used as a tool to both punish and coerce. As soon as the aim is achieved – that is the detainee confessing – the spatial conditions are altered. Detainees who are willing to comply and confess have the opportunity to become a “level one” detainee and live in Camp Four, where prisoners are housed in communal settings. The implications of this type of outsourcing of torture and extra-territorial incarceration at Guantanamo are enormous. There is a reality to space that introduces both physical conditions and a framework that facilitates its existence: part of the suffering of those men is because they are in a specific space that might be too hot, too small, or enforces severe depression, anxiety, hallucinations and loss of motor skills.
After heavy criticism regarding the camp’s spatial conditions, in March 2005, the Pentagon announced the shipment of inmates at Guantanamo to prisons in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Yemen, despite fears they could face even worse human rights abuses. These transfers were similar to the much-criticised practice of renditions, under which the CIA had moved prisoners to Syria and Egypt. (31) Since inmates face transfer to countries known to practise torture, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had told the Pentagon as early as 2002 that detainees would suffer from similar conditions; conditions that are shockingly similar to earlier references, starting with the politics of disappearances in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s as well as the Chinese prison camps that still exist in a political framework in which one party rules by definition.
Returning to Agamben, totalitarianism strikes one as extremely modern, because it preposes the omnipotence of a single person. Under these conditions, the individual bureaucrat only has to follow orders, which often results in the plea that the individual did only follow orders and is therefore not accountable. This implies the giving up of one’s own capacity to act and finally turns any act of cruelty into a banality, pretending that “there is no alternative (TINA).” (32)
At Abu Ghuraib, the spatial conditions were disturbing. Imprisoned in 12 by 12 foot cells that were “little more than human holding pits” (33), the detainees were waiting for their call. What Foucault had once, through Bentham’s Panopticon, explained as the subtle form of political control in the microclimate of a prison has turned into a scenario in which there is neither political control on the micro-scale he describes, nor a fully operative legal framework, which seems to be able to deal with this parasitic relationship between politics and space. Although one can trace these territories on a map geographically, they have been hoisted to a juridical meta-level on which humiliation through spatial and physical practice becomes part of the everyday fabric.
Although the “camp” should by no means be understood as a possible answer to some of the political questions that are continuously being raised by the “architects of power”, at least the camp offers a spatially defined framework, which can be judged and held responsible as a physical condition. Instead of further renditions that isolate human targets by withdrawing them from any evident physical environment while dehumanising the individual, tomorrow’s politics of de-escalation should reach for an architecture of Human Rights. In an ideal world, such application of spatial standards would prevent future scenarios in which architects’ commit crimes against Humanity.
Those crimes regarding the organisation of the built environment through the deliberate misuse of spatial components are in desperate need of further analysis, not by politicians or Human Rights groups, but architects and planners trying to dismantle and understand the physical relationship between space and power. Both Guantanamo and Abu Ghuraib are a showcase in the failure of ethical planning and a manifesto of the powerful, creating a blend of physical and non-physical components that create an overall fabric of control-space. The question therefore needs to be: do we need a Geneva Convention for the built environment, a court of justice to persecute spatial war crimes?
Somewhere between the flood of Human Rights documents, the Stanford Prison Experiment, Zacarias De La Rocha’s “is all the world jails and churches?” (34) and Salman Rushdie’s claim that “we need more teachers and fewer priests in our lives” (35), one starts to trace the failure and bitterness of geopolitics. But zooming out of the spatial enclaves, there is hope: breaking the stoic narrative that suggests the return to preenlightened vision, resisting the re-introduction of moral truisms, turning inside-out the model of the world in which religion is part of the public realm, the answer – on a larger scale – can only be the return to secular politics.
1 Schlesinger, J. R., “Final Report of the Independent Panel to review DoD Detention Operations”, Arlington (VA), August 2004,
2 Agamben, G., The State of Exception, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004
3 Lersch, P., “Demokratie im Ausnahmezustand – Die Verhüllte Freiheitsstatue“, in: Spiegel Online, 27. Oktober 2004
4 On September 1, 2004 terrorists captured more than 1300 hostages at a School in Beslan, South Russia. This act of terror was directed specifically at children. Hundreds of children spent 53 hours without water and food in an overcrowded hot gymnasium, wired with explosives. They witnessed the beatings and murders of family members, friends and teachers.
5 Strong presidency and presidential administration; president’s appointees in the Federal Districts; appointed governors, party formation from above, selective justice; state-controlled TV
6 Marcuse, P., “The ‘War on Terrorism’ and Life in Cities after September 11, 2001”, in: Graham, Stephen (ed.), Cities, War and Terrorism – Towards an Urban Geopolitics, Oxford: Blackwell, 2004, p.263
7 The Geneva Conventions consist of four documents passed in Switzerland in the aftermath of World War II. They present the international treaties setting rules about the conduct of war. They form the centrepiece of humanitarian law and seek to protect people from the sorts of assaults endured in the fight against Nazism. Almost every country has ratified all four of the conventions, including the United States
8 http://www.genevaconventions.org/ “Geneva Conventions relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War”, General Provisions,
9 ibid., Article 4 (A.2)
10 “Renditions and Diplomatic Assurances – Outsourcing Torture“ [see: http://www.hrw.org/campaigns/torture/renditions.htm]
11 “Getting Away with Torture? Command Responsibility for the U.S. Abuse of Detainees”, Vol. 17, No. 1(G), April 2005 [see: http://hrw.org/reports/2005/us0405/]
12 Yuval Ginbar, legal advisor to Amnesty International, cited in “The Tacit Acceptance of Torture”, [see: http://hrw.org/reports/2005/eca0405/4.htm#_Toc100558824]
13 “Diplomatic Assurances allowing torture – Growing Trend defies international law“, April 15, 2005 [see: http://hrw.org/english/docs/2005/04/15/eu10479.htm]
14 Malinowski, T., in: “U.S. State Department 2004 Human Rights Reports – Testimony to U.S. House of Representatives”, Human Rights Watch document, March 18, 2005 [see: http://hrw.org/english/docs/2005/03/18/usint10347.htm]
15 In “Homo Sacer” (1995, Italian original version) and “The State of Exception” (2004)
16 Arendt, H., The Human Condition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958
17 See Agamben, G., Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics, Stanford (CA): Stanford University Press, 1998
18 See also: Zweifel, S., and Pfister, M., “Die 120 Tage von Abu Ghraib”, in: Cicero, June 2004
19 Hersh, S. M., “Torture at Abu Ghraib”, New Yorker, 3 May, 2004, [see also: http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/?040510fa_fact]
20 Foucault, M., Discipline & Punish – The Birth of the Prison (first translated by Alan Sheridan in 1977), New York City: Vintage Books (Random House), 1995, p.8
21 Soulatges, J. A., Traite des crimes, I (1762), cited in: Foucault, M., Discipline & Punish – The Birth of the Prison (first translated by Alan Sheridan in 1977), New York City: Vintage Books (Random House), 1995, p.32
22 Foucault, M., Discipline & Punish – The Birth of the Prison (first translated by Alan Sheridan in 1977), New York City: Vintage Books (Random House), 1995, p.9
23 Hirst, P., Space and Power – Politics, War and Architecture, Cambridge: Polity, 2005, p.26
24 ibid., p.167
25 ibid., p.169
26 Zimbardo, P., “You can’t be a sweet cucumber in a vinegar barrel – a talk with Philip Zimbardo”, in: Edge, January 19, 2005
27 Lister, R., “Grim life at Guantanamo”, in: BBC, Feb 7, 2002
28 see “Guantanamo Bay – Camp Delta”, in: www.globalsecurity.org/military/facility/guantanamo-bay_delta.htm
29 “Bush lässt Alternativen zu Guantanamo prüfen”, in: Spiegel Online, June 9, 2005
30 see “Guantanamo Bay – Camp Delta”, in: www.globalsecurity.org/military/facility/guantanamo-bay_delta.htm 31 see
Goldenberg, S., “US faces Cuban prison crisis”, in: The Age, March 13, 2005
32 Term coined by Pierre Wack, a French oil executive arguing that strategy as it had been practiced (straight-line extrapolations from the past) did little to frame the choices that would define the future. The true role of strategy in his sense of the world was to describe a future worth creating, and then to reap the competitive advantages of preparing for it and making it happen. Strategy, in other words, was about telling stories
33 Hersh, Seymour M., “ Torture at Abu Ghraib,” New Yorker, 3 May, 2004, [see also: http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/?040510fa_fact]
34 De la Rocha, Z. M., “Vietnow”, in: Evil Empire (recorded by Rage Against The Machine), 1996 (Sony Music)
35 Rushdie, S., “In Bad Faith“, in: The Guardian, Monday March 14, 2005
This text is a short extract from an essay to be published in the forthcoming book “5 Codes – Architecture in the Age of Fear and Terror” (Birkhäuser – Basel/ Boston/ Berlin).
Markus Miessen is an architect, researcher and writer teaching at the Architectural Association. He is the co-author of “Spaces of Uncertainty” (Mueller & Busmann, 2002) and currently acts as a spatial consultant to the European Kunsthalle Cologne. His forthcoming publication “Did someone Say Participate? An Atlas of Spatial Practice” (MIT Press/ Revolver, co-edited by Shumon Basar) will be published in June.