A. Naomi Paik
Rightlessness: Testimony and Redress in U.S. Prison Camps since World War II
The University of North Carolina Press, 2016
Reviewed by Andi T. Remoquillo
According to A. Naomi Paik, “rightlessness” is a state-facilitated condition in which racialized Others are organized and confined to camps, stripped of their political rights, denied the basic necessities that uphold human dignity, and represented as threats to US security (Paik 2-5). Therefore, rightlessness becomes “the condition that emerges when efforts to protect the rights of some depend on disregarding the rights of others.” (4) Meanwhile, the neoliberal nation state maintains and defends its false benevolence through the guise of protecting “real” Americans by containing those that are deemed to be ‘dangerous.’ Paik disrupts this flawed notion and unapologetically demonstrates how the imprisonment of Japanese Americans,
HIV-positive Haitian refugees, and Muslim “enemy combatants” was, and continues to be, propagated by white supremacy.
Rightlessness: Testimony and Redress in U.S. Prison Camps since World War Two is a critical, historical overview of US prison camps dating back to the 1940’s when Japanese Americans were systematically collected and detained after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Through her analysis, Paik meticulously pieces together an original and well-documented argument that unveils the imperialist-laden politics of US neoliberalism and what she deems as the false humanitarian missions of the state via prison camps. In less than 300 pages, Paik breaks down Japanese internment camps and draws connections to detention centers situated in Guantanamo Bay by skillfully working through various court documents, camp records, official correspondences, and individual testimonies. In so doing, Paik argues that each camp is connected through the state’s racial politics and refusal to address them. Paik asserts that the remnants of each prison camp lives on through the emergence of each new camp in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, particularly in the ways that these spaces continued to be racialized and regarded as distinct from ‘normal’ US society (83).
The organization of Rightlessness is effective, as Paik moves chronologically while maintaining that each camp does not exist in isolation, but rather as part of an expansive legacy concerning US imperialism and racism. Furthermore, Paik’s analyses within each chapter stays true to her main objective of presenting a corrective history by centering the voices and struggles of the rightless themselves. This is a stark difference to the ways in which the rightless undergo the “epistemic violence of erasure” in both imprisonment and redress (35). The book is divided into three parts: the internment of Japanese Americans across the United States from 1942-1946; the detainment of HIV-positive Haitian refugees at the naval base at Guantanamo Bay from 1991-1993; and finally, the imprisonment, interrogation, and torture of the “enemy combatant” at Guantanamo Bay from 2002-present. Paik begins each discussion by detailing the emergence of the camps, who was detained in them, and the political and racial climate in the US at the point of each camps’ establishment. She identifies camps as “institutions of removal” which “frees the state from the constraints of right recognition and enables the subjection of camp inmates to systemic control over their existence.” (7) General background information on the actual camps, however, is only supplementary to Paik’s main discussion on how people are turned into prisoners, deprived of rights, and removed from a political community. I found this point to be most salient in Part Three, where Paik describes the ambiguous yet highly racialized creation of the “enemy combatant” under the Bush administration at the turn of the
twenty-first century. According to Paik, the “enemy combatant” was an entirely new category of people purposefully made unintelligible and ambiguous for the sake of justifying the mass-detention of Muslim men at Guantanamo Bay (166).
In order to shatter the widely accepted belief that the prison camps were necessary, Paik spends most of her time focusing on the rightless themselves by positioning testimonies collected from redress and protests as central to the book’s argument. Additionally, Paik presents testimonies as invaluable evidence that not only challenges the position of the US government as the ultimate guarantor of rights (34), but also highlights the ways in which testimonies are “at once highly particular and yet situated and communal.” (14) Meaning, testimonies show us that while the rightless are stripped of political rights in camps, their refusal to remain quiet is a form of collective action that disrupts the state’s attempt to control them. For example, Paik reframes Japanese Americans’ refusal to be silenced during redress trials when their testimonies went over the allotted time (37), and the hunger strikes at Guantanamo Bay when Haitian refugees were indefinitely detained under unsanitary conditions (135), as key moments for understanding how rightlessness is challenged.
However, Paik also points out the limitations of testimonies and resistance within an imperialist, neoliberal state. When discussing HIV-positive refugees, the author uncovers the fraught nature of “choice” when living in an indefinite state of rightlessness; the hunger strikes lead to severe dehydration and starvation, while other detained refugees opted for suicide to remove themselves from rightlessness altogether (132). Additionally, although testimonies represent a “counterarchive of struggle,” (13) the rhetoric of redress oftentimes functions as a way for the state to relieve itself from guilt while still justifying the camps’ existence. Paik asserts that this does nothing to prevent similar “mistakes” from happening again. She first establishes this critique in chapter one, “Internment Remains: The 1988 Civil Liberties Act and Racism Re-Formed,” when analyzing the ways in which the state justified Japanese internment as an “isolated” event that occurred only after the US experienced its first foreign attack and made no reference to the racism that mobilized imprisonment. Therefore, while redress movements occurred in the 1980’s, the state still failed to acknowledge the already existing anti-Asian sentiments which made internment so quickly executable and widely accepted (30). Throughout the book, Paik showcases how racist sentiments pervasive during the second World War made the xenophobic treatment of the Haitian refugees and Muslim men so widely accepted by the American people.
Rightlessness is a provocative critique of the state that is accessible and relevant to all readers, in and outside of academia. Paik excavates the testimonies of those made politically voiceless and re-presents US prison camps since World War II as xenophobic, interrelated, and directly indicative of neoliberal US politics, not the exception to them. Moreover, in order to restate the importance of testimonies, Paik brings the book full circle by referencing Paul Gilroy who argues, “our conduct must be closely guided not just by this terrible history but by the knowledge that these awful possibilities are always much closer than we like to imagine” (229). In the last pages of her book, Paik delivers her final and most urgent point: “If we see the direct predicament of rightless people as heralding our collective future, then the struggle against rightlessness and the forms of power that produce it is motivated not by charity for these others, but by solidarity organized around a shared vision of a future that we fight for together.” (229) Rightlessness is therefore more than just a critique against prison camps, but a call for action to combat rightlessness and the wrongful, state-sanctioned containment of racialized groups.