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The new normal

By Jess Whyte - posted Friday, 18 March 2005

For the last three years, two Australian citizens, Mamdouh Habib and David Hicks were held without charge at Guantanamo Bay. For three years, media coverage focused on Hicks, while Habib was rarely mentioned. Perhaps this was because Hicks’ father Terry appeared to epitomise the “little Aussie battler”; perhaps it was because Habib’s wife Maha wore a hijab. In an Australia in the midst of a frenzy over Middle Eastern asylum seekers and the “Islamaphobia” engendered by the war on terror, Habib’s fate was relegated to an occasional page ten story.

This all changed with the announcement in January 2005 that Habib would soon be released without charge, which followed the filing of an affidavit in a US court that alleged he’d been tortured in Egypt, before being sent to Guantanamo Bay.

Suddenly the media were interested in Habib, and the Australian Government was scrambling to silence him, threatening to confiscate payments for any interviews under proceeds of crime legislation. Despite this, Habib sold his story to Sixty Minutes, reportedly for $200,000 dollars. The program, which covered the torture allegations and grilled Habib about alleged terror links, was advertised with the phrase: “For the first time, your chance to judge Mamdouh Habib for yourself.”


Mamdouh Habib’s story, however, is not just about Mamdouh Habib.

His story is a global one, of anti-terror legislations, new concentration camps, the normalisation of torture, and the erosion of civil and political rights. In short, it is the story of the dramatic increase in the repressive powers of nation-states in the wake of September 11.

On September 14, 2001, three days after the 9-11 attacks on New York and Washington, US President George W. Bush declared a state of emergency. In the period immediately following the attacks, the USA interned 5,000 Arab and Muslim men, and introduced the USA PATRIOT Act (pdf file 1.9MB) - an acronym for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism” - which subjects non-citizens to massively extended state powers of surveillance and deportation.

The use of emergency powers in times of war is nothing new. What’s new is the nature of the so-called war. While emergency powers have generally been used for defined periods, the Bush administration has portrayed the war on terror, and the need for emergency powers, as stretching into the infinite future. This “war”, we are told, may never end - or at least not in our lifetimes. The starkest example of this is the establishment of an interrogation camp at Guantanamo Bay, and the assurances from figures like Donald Rumsfeld that detainees may be held there until the “end of the war”.

How are we to understand this shift towards the permanent use of emergency powers? The work of Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben is concerned with what he calls the “normalisation of the state of exception”. The state of exception has historically referred to the suspension of law, enabling the state to act without constraint in subduing a specific disorder or emergency. For example: emergency powers during wartime, or in response to riots. While the state of exception involves suspending the normal order, it aims at the restoration of normality.

Under the war on terror however, these criteria no longer apply. Declared in response to a war without end, the state of emergency overflows temporal boundaries, and as Agamben points out, comes to be confused with the rule. In other words the exception that exists in the context of the war on terror is an exception without limit. No longer distinct from the norm, the exception has become the norm. As a 2003 report by the US Lawyers Committee for Human Rights puts it, “the expansion of executive power and abandonment of established civil and criminal procedures have become part of a ‘new normal’ in American life”.

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This is an extract from the current cover story on the new online journal Signature. Read the full story here.

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About the Author

Jess Whyte is a writer, and a PHD candidate in Monash University’s Centre for Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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