- Rightlessness: Testimony and Redress in U.S. Prison Camps since World War II by Naomi Paik
The attacks of September 11, 2001, left their mark on many academic pursuits, especially in the humanities and social sciences. But nowhere has the war on terror pressed more urgently for a reorientation of scholarship than in the studies of punishment and prisons. The invention of enemy combatants and their indefinite detention at Guantanamo Bay, the practices at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, the proliferation of black sites and torture practices have challenged our discussions of American mass imprisonment to break out of their confined institutional focus and tie incarceration to the larger project of statecraft in an era of mass migrations and transnational mobility
Rightlessness: Testimony and Redress in U.S. Prison Camps since World War II heeds this call admirably. The American state, argues Naomi Paik, has [End Page 648] repeatedly removed foreign nationals as well as American citizens from legal recourse and the very ability to claim rights. Expelled from the political community of the nation state that endows its members with allegedly "inalienable" rights, these prisoners have suffered legal invisibility in temporary and spatial exceptions typically called "camps." This has happened on such a regular basis since World War II—and especially in the last twenty-five years as the end of the Cold War consolidated the "ascent of human rights as a primary political discourse"—that Paik feels justified to argue that "rights and rightlessness have become increasingly central to U.S. state power" (9–11). Situated at different points on a "spectrum" of rightlessness, camp prisoners may suffer different levels of physical violence, but, Paik explains, they always endure "epistemological violence." Having to counter the state's narrative that rendered them voiceless and illegitimate, prisoners nonetheless have no alternative but to appeal to the state for recourse. Paik calls the testimony of the rightless a "counterarchive of struggle," and it is here where the author does most of her original work (13).
The author explores the struggle for justice and redress through inmates' testimony for three types of camps. Part one discusses the state of rightlessness of Japanese Americans in internment camps. Paik's most significant contribution comes from her careful reading of redress in 1988. Rather than reject the concept of race-based mass internment, the redress hearings conceded merely lack of cause, forced the testimony of victims into five-minute tidbits that once again silenced them, and compelled Japanese Americans into the role of the "model minority." Paik follows this political history with a fine-grained and thoughtful reading of examples from Japanese American postwar poetry and film as testimonials and artifacts in the internees' "counterarchive of struggle."
Part two introduces the reader to the somewhat less familiar plight of Haitian refugees who fled the 1993 military coup, only to be rounded up by US forces and detained in camps in Guantanamo Bay. Whereas most were themselves forcefully repatriated, a few hundred remaining refugees found themselves in an indeterminate state of imprisonment because they or a relative had been diagnosed with HIV. Left with nothing but their bodies to contest their rightlessness, prisoners hoped to reclaim visibility with a hunger strike. Paik deftly ties this much-overlooked injustice to the US's long tradition of quarantining Haiti as a dangerous source of infection and rebellion. Lastly, part three brings us to contemporary Guantanamo Prison and the continued and indeterminate isolation of enemy combatants from the ability to claim basic rights.
Paik's argument has significant appeal, and her close readings of prisoners' testimonies—particularly in the case of redress for Japanese American internment—demonstrate what careful historical reading of primary sources can do. Paik's studious introduction undersells the significant drama of her camp stories. The plight of refugees from Haiti's military coup in 1993 deserves wide attention, and the enduring anguish of Japanese Americans too often vanishes behind the "model minority" myth and the Reagan administration's official apology. The details of...