December 10, 2005
"The captured terrorists
of the 21st century do not fit easily into traditional systems
of criminal or military justice, which were designed for different
needs. We have to adapt."
I've previously charged Condoleezza
Rice with having an appalling ignorance of history. I don't mean
the kind of knowledge--dates of battles, names and terms of treaties,
etc.-- that earns a good grade on an exam. We know Condoleezza
got good grades in school. No, I mean a deeper understanding
of the economic, social, and moral forces of history and of the
irrepressible role of truth despite the countless attempts to
Guerilla warfare, terrorism,
and fanatical causes are not new to the 21st century, they are
as old as human society, and governments have had many ways of
dealing with them. This goes so far as governments changing around
those regarded as terrorists and heroes, according to the needs
of the time, much the way victors in a war define who were the
good guys and bad guys.
One thing history surely does
tell us is that nothing is more dangerous than Condeleezza's
tendency to speak in sweeping, virtually meaningless generalizations
about the people she regards as foes. Every war of aggression,
every wave of state terror, every deadly fanatical cause has
used just such terms. People are described with de-humanized
slogans, making them easy to hate and abuse. We should all go
on a personal terror alert when powerful figures talk this way.
The assertion of a special
case or status in the current situation is utterly dishonest.
It is more than dishonest: it is a deliberately constructed logical
fallacy calculated to elicit the idea of special measures from
listeners. It is America's special measures that Condoleezza
went to Europe to defend.
The special measures of concern are secret prison camps and torture.
Condoleezza's basic approach at the start of her trip was to
assert that the United States doesn't do anything nasty or underhanded
while at the same time just telling everyone to mind their own
business. That didn't get her very far, and she had to adjust
her words in the face of incredulity, frustration, and anger.
Then Condoleezza demonstrated
a remarkable ability to turn around American policy or at least
to seem to be doing so. In one day, she went from firmly stating
that Americans abroad were exempt from certain international
commitments of the United States in treating prisoners to saying
they were bound. European leaders were publicly contented with
what seemed a concession, but the truth is they were just not
prepared to stand up to threats Condoleezza whispered in their
"The United States
has not transported anyone and will not transport anyone to a
country where we believe he will be tortured. Where appropriate,
the United States seeks assurances that transferred persons will
not be tortured." Condoleezza Rice
I wonder then what could have
been happening then when a German citizen was kidnapped in Macedonia
about two years ago, drugged, flown to Afghanistan, kept for
five months, tortured, and finally left abandoned in some bleak
place in Bosnia when his American Gestapo captors apparently
learned they had made a mistake?
I wonder what was going on
when a Canadian citizen whose plane made a stopover in the U.S.
was removed, imprisoned, and denied his rights? He happened to
be a dual citizen with the country of his birth, Syria, so instead
of sending him where his wife, children, and home were in Canada
and where he repeatedly asked to be returned, he was deported
to Syria for a year of (totally predictable) brutal imprisonment
There are many such cases known,
and they must be regarded as more than administrative glitches.
What are all those mysterious places in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan,
Romania, Poland, and as far away as Diego Garcia, now run by
American crew-cut thugs and to which there is no access? What
are all the many hundreds of flights recorded by dedicated amateur
plane spotters and checked back to registration? Are we to believe
the US is not running a huge, illegal secret prison and torture
How could such an enterprise
possibly conform to international agreements and treaties? Are
there really thousands of people looking for free trips in shackles
to nowhere courtesy of the CIA? Thousands ready to give up all
rights and years of their lives voluntarily to satisfy the urges
of American paranoia? Of course not, to ask the question is to
know the answer.
I don't want to quibble about
the meaning of torture. The CIA term "enhanced interrogation
technique" is straight out of the horrors described in Orwell's
Politics and the English Language. If, as one wag put
it, it isn't torture, then why not use it on Cheney in getting
to root of current scandals in Washington? Of course, it's torture.
So simple a thing as deprivation
of sleep can reduce a healthy human being to delusions in a short
time. One of Israel's favorite tortures has been to keep captives'
heads in a large hood, shaking them vigorously while their heads
bob and bounce around inside the hood, making them dizzy and
anxious, perhaps feeling their necks might be snapped. Sounds
like no big deal compared to pulling out finger nails? Try it
on your kids for a week or two. The CIA is known to use "waterboarding,"
submerging a victim strapped to a board in just enough water
to cause him to gulp, gurgle and gasp, panicking him into thinking
he is being drown, over and over.
Nothing, I repeat nothing,
the United States thinks it is protecting itself from is worth
this descent into moral hell.
"The United States will
use every lawful weapon to defeat terrorists"
That statement is a platitude,
useful only to stir blood at a Fourth of July speech in Muncie,
Indiana. It tells us nothing. It is inherently evasive because
the lawfulness of tactics being used is the very issue in question.
We all recall with a frown
or a grimace Bill Clinton's playing with truth when he testified,
"It depends on what you mean by the word is"?
Although his statement concerned a relatively trivial matter,
it is actually representative of something far greater and more
sinister that has grown to become an integral part of American
political culture. American politicians and their creatures like
Condoleezza simply have become expert in the art of giving an
interview or a speech and avoiding saying almost anything meaningful.
Artful lying, subtle avoidance, and giving an answer different
than the question asked have become a basic set of political
Members of the American government,
more and more, resemble those sleazy well-prepared witnesses
on the stand who just can't recall point after point or a cheap
lawyers who rephrases a statement to a similar-sounding one and
assure you, yes you have his word on that.
The string of lies and misrepresentations
leading up to the invasion of Iraq alone are enough, in the words
of Charles Laughton in Witness for the Prosecution, "to
make the Testament leap from her [the witness's] hand."
Only recently, after a year
of denials about using napalm at Fallujah, despite the words
of witnesses and the charred bodies of victims, we learn that
white phosphorus was used. Indeed, Marines are trained to use
white phosphorus to drive people out to places where they can
shoot them, only the people are supposed to be soldiers, not
civilians. Now, I am not sure people whose flesh is roasted to
bubbling globs care whether the Marines used napalm or white
phosphorus doing it.
But on such fine distinctions
and guarded answers stands the word of the United States today.
"No, Sir, I don't understand how those good folks got roasted,
but I can assure you we did not use napalm." So when Condoleezza
asserts, as she did a while back on a trip to Canada, that "the
word of the United States is as good as gold," you just
have to smile bitterly.
John Chuckman lives in Canada.