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Suicide: an act of asymmetric warfare

By Harry Throssell - posted Friday, 21 July 2006

This year’s Australian Orwell prize has been awarded to the Australian Wheat Board and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for “excellence in deception and determined distraction”.

The citation at the Australia Press Freedom dinner in April recognised a “superb team effort that created Australia’s biggest scandal, from the AWB executives who spoke no evil, to the DFAT officials and their masters who went above and beyond the call of duty to see no evil, to the Australian public and the media who as a result heard no evil”.

Winner of the International Gold Orwellian was US Vice President Dick Cheney who “peppered his hunting companion in the face, neck and shoulders with birdshot, then waited a full four days before ending his silence and admitting it was his fault”.


George Orwell’s last book, Nineteen Eighty-Four, published seven months before his death in 1949, showed how language in totalitarian society would eventually hide from the powerless the intentions of the powerful. Such a regime would be up and running by 1984 with a new form of verbal communication, “Newspeak”, eventually making all other modes of thought impossible.

In his introduction to the 1987 edition, Ben Pimlott suggested Orwell’s prophecy was wrong because his predictions had not come about by 1984. However, in his own appendix to Ninety-Eighty Four, Orwell wrote, “it was expected that Newspeak would have finally superseded Oldspeak [Standard English] by about the year 2050”. So there’s still plenty of time and evidence that it’s on the way.

When three prisoners in Guantanamo Bay military detention centre hanged themselves, reports David Rose of The Observer, the centre’s commander said it was “not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetric warfare against us”.

The dead men, he said, had “no regard for human life, neither ours nor their own”. A defence department spokesman said there was no need to regret these deaths because, “These guys were fanatics like the Nazis, Hitlerites, the Ku Klux Klan, the people they tried at Nuremberg,” and the Pentagon reclassified hanging as “manipulative self-injurious behaviours”.

A guard told another prisoner shortly before the suicides, “They have no hope in their eyes. They are ghosts and they want to die. No food will keep them alive right now.” No charges had been laid against the men.

It turns out six-person teams of military police were supposed to patrol past each cell every 30 seconds. Doors are made of see-through mesh and bright neon lights shine permanently. Yet these three detainees managed to tease bedsheets through the mesh walls, tie them into nooses and hang themselves. This would have taken considerable time, and a neurologist said the men would have taken up to five minutes to expire.


In Steven Poole’s new book Unspeak he demonstrates how modern language frequently distorts meaning rather than clarifies it, usually with an ideological purpose, in many areas of life:i.e., community, nature, tragedy, operations, terror, abuse, freedom, extremism. In the chapter on abuse - which often means torture - he describes how two prisoners at the Bagram US base in Afghanistan died after what was officially called “repetitive administration of legitimate force,” reminiscent of the Chinese “death by a thousand cuts”.

Repeated blows just above the knee targetted the peroneal nerve, a specific technique used to disable the leg. A military policeman testified, “It became a kind of running joke, and people kept showing up to give this detainee a peroneal strike just to hear him scream out ‘Allah’. It went on over a 24-hour period [with] over 100 strikes”.

Coroners later compared it to the results of being run over by a bus - and it turned out the victim was an innocent taxi driver. Poole comments it is difficult to see how deliberate, regular strikes on a sensitive part of the body which kill a man can be described as “legitimate force”.

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About the Author

Harry Throssell originally trained in social work in UK, taught at the University of Queensland for a decade in the 1960s and 70s, and since then has worked as a journalist. His blog Journospeak, can be found here.

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