Guantanamo Bay Through The Eyes Of Artist Molly Crabapple

Molly Crabapple
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Molly Crabapple is a New York illustrator and artist who has aptly been called “equal parts Hieronymus Bosch, William S. Burroughs and Cirque du Soleil.” She recently visited the detention facility at the US military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba as only the third person allowed to draw the prison and court proceedings at what has become one of the most iconic and controversial plots of land in the world in the last decade. Her visit coincided with the pre-trial hearings of admitted 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his co-conspirators. And she wrote about it in an illustrated essay for VICE. TPM’s Catherine Thompson spoke to Crabapple last week about what she hoped to accomplish with her sketch pad in the face of 24/7 military escorts and in the midst of what she wrote was “a concentration camp on the Caribbean.” She returns to Gitmo later this month.


TPM: I’d like to ask some about your sketches and your drawing process. How did people react to the act of you sketching while you were there? Watching the trials, for instance?

MOLLY CRABAPPLE: People in general liked it. Sketching in general – anywhere, not just in Gitmo, but in life, in the world – is a profoundly disruptive act. Because you’re creating something when you’re kind of expected to consume or sit passively. I’ve always sketched things as a way to get into them, whether it was a fancy nightclub or, you know, to have kids think I was cool, whatever. I always used drawing as a bridge.

I think a lot of the Army people liked my drawings. When I was in court, I wasn’t allowed to take my sketchbook out of the courtroom without an official censor stickering each page. And they were kind of disturbed initially that there were two sketch artists there. Because there’s this one brilliant woman named Janet Hamlin who’s been coming for seven years and who documents everything. They’re super-used to Janet and how she works. She’s an amazing court artist. But I think it kind of freaked them out that there were two of us, because we get to bring extra things into the courtroom. Normal journalists aren’t allowed to bring anything into the courtroom at all except a notebook and a pencil. They can’t bring a bag; they can’t bring contact solution, nothing. And we get to come in with our art supplies.


Official court sketch artist Janet Hamlin. Hamlin has been drawing Guantanamo Bay for seven years.

TPM: You mentioned how your opera glasses got taken away. You needed them because you say there’s three layers of bullet-proof glass between you and the people in the courtroom. It was necessary to see through that? There was such a literal, physical, spatial divide between the sketch artist and the press and the courtroom?

CRABAPPLE: Oh yeah, I mean, the person that we’re all most interested in drawing is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, right? And he’s the person who’s sitting the farthest away from us. He’s sitting so far away, in this corner, like, we can barely see his face. And everyone wants us to draw his face. That’s the most interesting thing for any media outlet out of the trial. They don’t want us to draw detailed renderings of the back of a bailiff’s head. So we really needed those. They also took Janet’s stadium glasses that she had been wearing for years. I think because they were freaked out about me bringing in something, so they took both of ours. And again, it really hurt our process because we couldn’t actually see his face. It was just so far away.

TPM: You think that spacial separation is deliberate?

CRABAPPLE: Yeah, I think everything about that place is about making things harder, making things less transparent, obfuscating things. This is a place where they won’t even admit that Camp 7 – which is where Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abd al Rahim al Nashiri are … they won’t admit it exists. This is a place where even how KSM dyes his beard is classified.


9/11 defense attorney James Connell.

TPM: I watched your interview on HuffPost Live and you mentioned the feeling of constantly being watched. The press office was guiding everybody everywhere and things were so cut-and-dry as to where you were allowed to go and what you were allowed to see. Could you elaborate on that feeling of being monitored while you were reporting on this.

CRABAPPLE: Well, you wear a badge around your neck that says “Military Escort All Times”. Your phone has a sticker on it that says ‘consent to monitoring’. There’s no wi-fi there, so you – well, there is but there’s no wi-fi in the press center. So basically you have to, like, plug in your internet to this cable that I’m sure, you know, everything that’s going through that is being monitored also.

And when you’re in the press room, as soon as you tweet something about Gitmo, the press officers will read your tweet aloud to you.

TPM: That kind of hits home in this post-NSA revelations world we’re living in.

CRABAPPLE: Yeah, I know, and that’s kind of what our iPhones are. You kind of consent to monitoring also.

So you’re never allowed to be alone, unless you’re sleeping, pretty much. When I would just sit down and draw something there would just be a bunch of press officers that would kind of gather around me. They’re all very nice, lovely people, but you’re just sort of never allowed to … allowed to be alone.


TPM: This was actually another one of my questions. I found it fascinating the way that you looked at the word ‘classified’, both in your article and in your sketches. The way you portray it it’s almost as if these military brass-types strip the word of all meaning because they can’t even comment on what is classified and what isn’t. The word becomes almost meaningless. In particular, in the sketch of defense attorney Walter Ruiz and Vice Admiral MacDonald, that sketch, to me seems to capture a manipulation that’s coming from both the defense and the prosecution. Were both sides were complicit in manipulating that word?


9/11 defense attorney Walter Ruiz cross-examines a witness.

CRABAPPLE: I don’t think the defense attorneys were manipulating the word ‘classified’. The classification they have to deal with is insane. This is an example. The entire, — they call it ‘opinions and experiences’ of their defendants — are classified. So, like, anything about the defendant’s life is classified, and they’re not allowed to bring it up publicly. So the defense is kind of pushing back against that useless classification.

Another thing that came up during the trial was there was a spokesman from the Red Cross and the defense wanted the Red Cross to release to the defense records of the defendant’s torture. Because the Red Cross keeps records on that. And the Red Cross was arguing that they shouldn’t have to give these records because the purpose of the Red Cross wasn’t to tell anyone about the torture that they had witnessed except the government that’s been doing the torturing.

And, the defense was like, well, we can’t use our client’s memories, because they’re classified, so can we use your Red Cross records? And the Red Cross was, like, no.

TPM: It’s like the detainees have even lost possession of their own lives?

CRABAPPLE: I think at the point where you’re getting a rubber tube shoved into your stomach and a can of liquid pumped into it, how much self-possession do you really have at that point?

TPM: Yeah. It’s just, on a mental level, that’s fascinating to me.

CRABAPPLE: I mean, not everyone’s memories are classified. The only people whose memories are classified are the people who went through rendition, and who were interrogated by the CIA. So, those are the high-value detainees. I think that there are some others. But Nabil Hadjarab memories are not classified, for instance.

TPM: So there’s a clear hierarchy of detainees?

CRABAPPLE: Yeah, they have these guys that they call the ‘high-value’ detainees, who are actually the detainees who did terrible things. Then the rest of the people, to me, seem more like the people who are just sort of randomly swept up in this.


Soldiers at Camp Justice.

TPM: Tell me a little bit more about what it was like visiting Camp X-Ray? I know you said it was a really physically and emotionally grueling experience. What did you feel when you were sketching that?

CRABAPPLE: Well, when you go there, you get to actually stand in these open metal mesh cages that these men lived in for months, and it’s just incomprehensible. I have no idea how people lived there. They didn’t have toilets. Essentially, they had these sort of pipes put into the wall that they could urinate into – the base basically had buckets. They didn’t have running water. The air is just swarming with mosquitos. You’re just standing there and you’re looking at these cages and you’re thinking, “Oh my God, we imprisoned men in things that I wouldn’t put a dog in.”

And it’s sort of heartbreaking when you realize that a lot of these guys were people who we hadn’t captured ourselves. So we don’t really know if they’re enemy combatants or not. A lot of them were probably not enemy combatants.

There’s a particularly heartbreaking case of these three young men from Britain–

TPM: The Tipton Three?

CRABAPPLE: Yeah, the Tipton Three, who basically were in their late teens. They were in Pakistan for a family wedding. And like teenage dudes were thinking, “Let’s go to Afghanistan and smoke weed, and, like, see a war. That’ll be cool.” And then they just got caught by bounty hunters. And then two years later, after incalculable trauma they’re back in England living productive lives.

TPM: So, would you say from your research and from your experience, that that’s the majority of the cases?

CRABAPPLE: You know, it’s very hard for me to say that. I’m not an expert. But I think that the majority of cases were not people that we picked up ourselves.

Eighty-six percent of them, the detainees, when they did the study, were picked up by Afghans and Pakistanis for bounties. I do think that it’s interesting that over 600 people have been released from Gitmo. And of the people who were released, the recidivism rate is, like, fifteen percent. So I think that if these people were actually ‘the worst of the worst’ terrorists, as Rumsfeld said – the recidivism rate would actually be a lot higher.

TPM: If you were to distill it and to say it as succinctly as possible, what is your takeaway from that visit?

CRABAPPLE: That America, out of fear after September 11th, imprisoned many innocent men under the most brutal conditions, set up a Kafka-esque legal process that made it very, very hard for them to get their freedom, and is still keeping them there because of fear and political grandstanding.

TPM: And what would you say is the most significant thing that you learned in your time there that didn’t necessarily fit into the piece you wrote for Vice? What is something that you would like to share with people that didn’t quite make it in?

CRABAPPLE: Oh god, that’s a really interesting question. I’m gonna have to think about this for a moment. I think one thing that didn’t make it in that made me very, very angry as a New Yorker was that at Guantanamo Bay you do have some people who are mass murderers: Khalid Sheikh-Mohammed is a mass murderer. He is, he is a mass murderer who masterminded the World Trade Centers going down and deserves to be in prison for the rest of his life. But having him in this bizarre kangaroo trial, and in this prison that’s filled with people who are either innocents or incredibly low-level people, it cheapens the case against him and it makes me so mad as someone who lived through the bombing of the twin towers that we’re not having honest justice enacted with him.

TPM: Are you a native New Yorker?

CRABAPPLE: I am, yes.

TPM: Did you have any kind of expectations or hopes for what the Vice article would provoke, and did it have the sort of reaction that you were hoping it could have?

CRABAPPLE: I wanted people to realize that the men at Gitmo are people with families, hopes, dreams for the future, many of them have children, many of them have wives. I wanted them to see the detainees as humans. It’s so often that the discourse around it is, like, “They’re terrorists. Lock them up forever to keep us safe.”

So many of them, the vast majority who are slated for release are … they’re just people, and to me it seems like the greatest crime in the world, to lock people up that you have no case against up indefinitely, and perhaps until they die, just because you don’t want to lose political points or because you’re afraid. Which, to me, that’s not what America is.


TPM: I want talk about more of the sketches you shared with us. In the Vice article you mention Glenn Morgan but the sketch you gave us has Joe Torillo from the FDNY along with Glenn Morgan and I didn’t see Torillo mentioned. Who is Joe Torillo?


Glenn Morgan and Joe Torrillo watch the 9/11 pre-trial hearings. Morgan’s father was killed in 9/11. Torrillo, a New York firefighter, survived being buried under the towers.

CRABAPPLE: Yes. So there were several other people, who were amazing people, who I just wasn’t able to put in because of space constraints. But they flew down Joe Torillo. They flew down another woman called Linda Gay whose husband was killed on one of the planes during 9/11, and there was another firefighter. Joe is an extraordinary speaker. He spoke about his experience of being buried alive in the rubble of the towers and thinking he was going to die and then being saved. He described his FDNY badge kind of like a religious totem for him. It was very, very, very affecting for me as a New Yorker to listen to these people because I remember 9/11 so vividly. I was here for it. I mean, he’s an extraordinary man. I’m just sorry I didn’t get to put him in the article. I could’ve written a book about this.

TPM: And out of these people who were affected by 9/11 specifically, who came down to watch the trials, what stood out to you about them, and how would you characterize their reactions to the trial?

CRABAPPLE: There’s a real diversity of opinion among them. We did a press conference before the trial started, so I don’t have a good idea of what they thought about how it was going, except for one woman, which I’ll get to later. Before the trial started there was a real diversity of opinions. Rita Lasar thought they should be tried in New York. Linda Gay, whose husband was killed, thought that they should not have legal representation from … she didn’t think that the government should pay for their lawyers. She was quite happy for them to rot in Gitmo. She sat in the court every day with a photo of her husband and stared at KSM. She didn’t want her husband to be forgotten.

The one reaction that I do know is that Rita, whose brother was killed in the towers, wrote on Facebook later how upset she was that they were bugging the rooms where the clients met their lawyers. There were listening devices in the smoke detectors. She was so furious, and she was like, “These guys killed my brother, why can’t we just like, you know, do a trial that’s fair? Why do we have to do these ridiculous things?”

TPM: So she was upset that the trial that was being subverted in some way?

CRABAPPLE: Yeah, exactly. You’re not allowed, in an American court, you’re not allowed to do that and she was very upset about that. She felt like … I mean, I can’t speak for her, but the sense I got was that she felt like the proper way to honor the people who died, including her brother, was to do a fair American trial for these people.

TPM: So, another question of mine was that your sketches do have a couple lines of dialogue from the trials on them. Did you decide on that just based on what was said in real time, based on the scene you were sketching, or was there something more subjective than that? Were you trying to draw attention to anything in particular? How did you decide what text to accompany your sketches?

CRABAPPLE: Honestly, I was just sitting in the court and then something stood out to me and I just scribbled it down. This was almost like stream of consciousness.

TPM: You touched on this earlier, but I read the essay that you wrote on Vice about why you draw pictures, and you say that drawing is disruptive because you’re producing when you’re expected to consume. How do you think that you disrupted Gitmo by going in there and doing your sketches?

CRABAPPLE: I’m only the third artist who’s ever drawn at Gitmo. Janet, when she draws – and she’s a brilliant artist – she is, she’s becoming a camera. She’s trying to be as objective as she can so she can create a record for history, which is a very, very important thing. But that’s not what I do. What I wanted to do was … I wanted to create a very emotional and evocative and almost jarring picture of what it feels like, visually, to be there. I wanted to kind of get past people’s defenses and people’s preconceptions of Guantanamo.

TPM: So do you think you produced something different from the visuals you were expected to consume and draw?

CRABAPPLE: Well, I think that when a lot of journalists go down to Guantanamo – and everyone that I was with was an amazing journalist. They’re much more traditional journalists and they write about the details of the trial. They do investigative stuff about, like, who’s hunger-striking. They speak to the lawyers. They speak to the Guantanamo spokespeople. But they don’t really write about what the experience of covering it is like. And I felt like that could be my contribution, that I wasn’t taking myself out of it like a traditional journalist would, but rather I was trying to bring the reader there with me so that the reader would understand what it felt like to be in Guantanamo.


Guantanamo Bay coastline.

TPM: For my last question, for somebody who doesn’t follow this closely necessarily, what do you want the world to know about Guantanamo?

CRABAPPLE: I want them to know that a lot of the people there probably aren’t guilty. I think that’s the most important takeaway from it, that a lot of the people there were people who were sold for bounties that we have no proof that they did anything, and that they’re just stuck there because of politics.

Molly Crabapple returns to Gitmo later this month.

Additional editorial assistance by Stephen Calabria and Josh Marshall.

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