Scott Horton of Harper's gives us chapter and verse of the Justice Department's very deliberate -- and insultingly brazen -- sabotaging of its own case against the Blackwater mercenaries who murdered 17 Iraqis in Nisoor Square back in September 2007. As any sentient observer could have told you then, these hired killers -- gorging on taxpayer dollars as they assisted the mass-murdering invasion and occupation of Iraq -- were never going to do time. Why should they? They were just doing what they were paid, by us, to do: kill ragheads.
The case was dismissed by a federal judge last week due to prosecutorial misconduct. In an interview with Democracy Now, Horton explained how the bad deal went down:
[The] decision to dismiss these charges had nothing to do with lack of evidence or weak evidence against the Blackwater employees. To the contrary, there was copious evidence. There was plenty of evidence prosecutors could have used that they evidently weren’t prepared to, including eyewitnesses there. The decision to dismiss was taken as a punishment measure against Justice Department prosecutors based on the judge’s conclusion that they engaged in grossly unethical and improper behavior in putting the case together.
And specifically what they did is they took statements that were taken by the Department of State against a grant of immunity; that is, the government investigators told the guards, “Give us your statement, be candid, be complete, and we promise you we won’t use your statement for any criminal charges against you.” But the Justice Department prosecutors took those statements and in fact used them. They used them before the grand jury. They used them to build their entire case. And they did this notwithstanding warnings from senior lawyers in the Justice Department that this was improper and could lead to dismissal of the case. It almost looks like the Justice Department prosecutors here wanted to sabotage their own case. It was so outrageous.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that’s possible?
SCOTT HORTON: I think it is possible. Specifically in this case, there were briefings that occurred on Capitol Hill early on in which senior officials of the Justice Department told congressional investigators, staffers and congressmen that essentially they didn’t want to bring the case. In fact, one of the congressmen who was present at these briefings told me they were behaving like defense lawyers putting together a case to defend the Blackwater employees, not to prosecute them. And I think we see the evidence of that copiously in Judge Urbina’s opinion.
Horton also notes the bipartisan nature of the ongoing, long-standing moral rot at the "Justice" Department:
It was a decade of gross prosecutorial abuse. We saw lawyers at the US Department of Justice issue opinions attempting to justify torture and mistreatment of prisoners. That was adopted as a legal mantra of the department. [And is now being upheld by the Obama Administration in several court cases.] We saw hundreds of politically motivated prosecutions being brought, one of which is already withdrawn. That was the prosecution of Senator Stevens of Alaska. But we have the Siegelman case, the Paul Minor case, many others, where notwithstanding now overwhelming evidence of misconduct by prosecutors, the Justice Department standing its ground. ...
It’s really quite a mountain of evidence now pointing to serious misconduct by Justice Department prosecutors. And there’s very little evidence — although most of this occurred on the watch of the Bush administration, there’s very, very little evidence that Eric Holder has realized the gravity or severity of the situation or taken any appropriate measures to deal with it.
I'm afraid I must disagree with Horton on this last point. I believe that Eric Holder and his boss recognize very well what is going on in the Justice Department. They just don't want to do anything about it. Why? Because no faction of greasy pole-climbers ever wants to give up any of the powers it inherits when it takes over the reins of a government. A highly politicized, deeply corrupt prosecutorial arm is a very powerful tool. And just as Obama is strenuously upholding all the major assertions of authoritarian power the Bush Regime made in other areas (including the arbitrary right to seize anyone -- or kill anyone -- the Leader or his minions arbitrarily declare a suspected "enemy"), he is diligently protecting the dirty workers in the Justice Department. It is not a failure or oversight on Obama's part: it is deliberate policy.
Horton also notes that despite all the heartfelt noble promises of both candidate Obama and candidate Clinton during their glorious progressive agon for the presidential nomination in 2008, the mercenaries of Blackwater -- and other firms in the ever-expanding security goon community -- are still swelling their bellies at the government trough:
AMY GOODMAN: What about the US continuing to work with Blackwater, now called Xe, X-e? You have just this latest news of two government—Blackwater operatives reportedly killed last week at the CIA base in Afghanistan.
SCOTT HORTON: Well, that’s right. In fact, I would note that one of the statements the Iraqi government made in response to this was that even though Blackwater was no longer formally a contractor in Iraq, they found that many of the Blackwater employees had simply recontracted with the new contractors there, so they were still in place. And the Iraqi government said that’s completely unacceptable.
Well, the problem is that the US has not changed its pattern of heavy reliance on private security contractors. If anything, we’re actually seeing that reliance increase in connection with the operations in Afghanistan. And in fact, there are only a handful of qualified and authorized service providers. So Blackwater, almost by definition, is going to continue to hold a large part of these contracts as they’re awarded, not with — this is notwithstanding promises that were made by Hillary Clinton, when she was running for president, to terminate the Blackwater contracts. I mean, now she is Secretary of State, and Blackwater is still the principal security contractor to the State Department.
This is all tediously predictable. But in the end, there is a perverse sort of justice at work here. For why should the goon squads of Blackwater be put on trial, when those who hired them go free? The mafia don who orders a hit is considered equally culpable with the button man who actually does the job.
In the end, it is almost obscene to pursue a few hired killers for a single incident, when our highest, most honored officials routinely order mass killings of innocent people all over the world, year after year, without the slightest blush. On the contrary, they boast about it, laud themselves for it, and invite our admiration and support for their "toughness."
For be assured: these bombing runs and house raids and drone strikes are all carried out with the full knowledge that innocent people -- that is, people who have not been arbitrarily declared an "enemy" based on god knows what "intelligence" (lies, whispers, rumors, denunciations, misinformation from double agents, etc.) -- will be killed. An "acceptable level" of "collateral damage" is factored into the matrix of mission planning.
For example, in the early days of the invasion of Iraq, the acceptable level was 30 innocent people -- women, children, the old, the sick, and all other non-combatants. Any mission that was likely to kill more than 30 innocent people had to be signed off personally by Pentagon chief Don Rumsfeld. As far as can be determined, few -- if any -- such missions were ever cancelled by Rumsfeld. Missions which fell below that threshold -- that is, missions in which more than two dozen innocent people were likely to be killed -- were left up to the discretion of commanders in the field.
The acceptable level of civilian deaths in today's operations is not known. (Although it appears that at least eight children can be handcuffed and murdered at any given time.) Very likely the levels change according to the shifting political winds, the nature and location of the mission, the forces and weapons involved in carrying it out, etc. These sorts of details are more closely guarded now. The story about Rumsfeld's mass-death warrants came out in the heady days of "Mission Accomplished," when our masters waxed more lyrical about their special military genius. In fact, the story was put out in order to show how "surgical" and "humane" the American invasion was: "See, we're not just blowing everybody to hell over there! We care. Why, if it looks like we're going to slaughter more than 30 people, Rummy himself has to give the nod!"
In any case, almost every day, our highest officials knowingly and willingly give their approval to the destruction of innocent human lives. (And we won't even get into their culpability for launching operations -- or actively supporting operations -- that ravage societies and foment even more violence in the resultant chaos and blowback, as in Somalia, Yemen, Colombia, Gaza, the Sunni-Shiite civil war in Iraq, etc., etc.) In the past decade alone, they have been responsible, by direct or collateral hand, for the murder of well over a million people around the world. By the end of this decade, if the present policies of "surge" and expansion continue, it is likely that the number of innocent people killed in the American "War on Terror" will be approaching -- if not surpassing -- the Holocaust.
Blackwater is indeed an odious organization, filled with -- and led by -- unsavory characters. But these goons are pipsqueaks with popguns next to our lauded, godly good and great who send their bloated war machine around the earth, "in search of monsters to destroy."
It is often forgotten how "legal" the Nazi regime in Germany really was. It did not take power in a violent revolution, but entered government through the entirely "legal" procedures of the time. The "legal" vote of the "legally" elected Reichstag gave Adolf Hitler the powers to rule by decree, thus imparting strict "legality" to the actions of his government.
Indeed, there were several cases when those who felt the government had overstepped the bounds of law in a particular instance actually took the Nazi regime to court, and won. Why? Because the government was bound by "the rule of law." And the fact is, almost the entire pre-Nazi judicial system of the German state remained intact and operational throughout Hitler's reign. The "rule of law" carried on.
Of course, as the Nazi regime plowed forward with its racist, militarist, imperialist agenda, this "rule of law" became increasingly elastic, countenancing a range of actions and policies that would have been considered heinous atrocities only a few years before. This trend was greatly accelerated after the Regime -- claiming "self-defense" following an alleged "invasion" by a small band of raiders -- launched a war which soon engulfed the world.
Naturally, in such unusual and perilous circumstances, jurists were inclined to give the widest possible lee-way to the war powers of the state. After all, as one prominent judge declared, the war had pushed the nation “past the leading edge of a new and frightening paradigm, one that demands new rules be written. War is a challenge to law, and the law must adjust."
-- No, wait. I must apologize for my mistake. That last quote was not, in fact, from a German jurist during the Nazi regime, but from a ruling issued this week by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit -- one of the highest courts in the land. The quoted opinion -- written by the legally appointed Judge Janice Rogers Brown -- was part of a sweeping ruling that greatly magnified the powers of the government to seize foreigners and hold them indefinitely without charges or legal appeal.
The court denied the appeal of Ghaleb Nassar al-Bihani, who has been held in captivity for more than eight years. What was his crime? He served as a non-combatant clerk for a unit on one side of the long-running Afghan civil war. This war was fought largely between factions of violent extremists; Bihani had the misfortune to be serving in the army of the "wrong" faction when the United States intervened on behalf of the opposing extremists in 2001. Jason Ditz summarizes the case well at Antiwar.com:
Bihani was a cook for a pro-Taliban faction fighting against the Northern Alliance before the 2001 US invasion, and his unit surrendered during the initial invasion.
The Yemeni citizen is accused of “hostilities against the United States” even though he arrived in Afghanistan nearly six months before the US invasion. Not only did his unit never fight against American forces, he was a cook who doesn’t appear to have ever participated in any combat at all. Despite this, he was declared an enemy combatant.
Let's underscore the salient fact: Bihani never took up arms against the United States, was involved in no combat against the United States (or anyone else, apparently), played no part in any attack on the United States. Yet the court ruled that the United States can arbitrarily declare Bihani an "enemy combatant" and hold him captive for the rest of his life.
But the eminent judges did not stop there in their entirely "legal" ruling. As the New York Times reports, they went to declare that "the presidential war power to detain those suspected of terrorism is not limited even by international law of war." And later: "the majority’s argument [is] that the president’s war powers are not bound by the international laws of war."
Think of that. Let it sink in. The president's war powers cannot be constrained by the international laws of war. Whatever the Leader (no points for translating this term into German) decides to do in the course of a war is thus rendered entirely "legal." He cannot be accused of international war crimes because such things do not apply to him.
With this ruling -- which is all of a piece with many more that have preceded it -- we are well and truly "past the leading edge of a new and frightening paradigm." What is most frightening, of course, is the obscene philosophy of machtpolitik -- the craven kowtowing to the demands of brute force -- that is embodied in Judge Brown's chilling words: "War is a challenge to law, and the law must adjust."
Again, remember the context of this ruling. It deals with the Leader's power over foreign citizens in lands that the Leader's armies are occupying. The judicial "reasoning" expressed by Judge Brown could apply, without the slightest alteration, to the Nazi regime's various programs of mass killing and "indefinite detention" of "enemy" foreigners in occupied lands.
The "resettlement" of Eastern Europe -- in order to provide for the "national security" of the German people and the preservation of their "way of life" -- did indeed require a pathbreaking advance into a "new paradigm" on the part of the law. The exigencies and challenges of the war demanded, as Judge Brown would put it, that "new rules be written."
And so they were. Under the duly, officially, formally constituted German "law" of the time -- as interpreted and applied by obsequious jurists in the mold of Judge Brown and her fellow war power expander, Judge Brett Kavanaugh -- there was little or nothing that was "illegal" in the vast catalogue of Nazi wartime atrocities, including the Holocaust itself. The perpetrators were "only following orders," which had been issued by "legal" entities, acting through "legal" processes, under the direction of the "legal" executive authority, whose unrestrained war powers had been established and upheld by the "rule of law."
Now this legal philosophy -- the primacy of raw, unaccountable power -- is being openly established by the highest courts of the United States. President Barack Obama, whose legal minions fought so ferociously to deny the appeal of the non-combatant captive, has been an ardent proponent and practitioner of this philosophy since his first days in office. His administration has proclaimed that the torturers of the Bush administration will not be prosecuted, because they were just following orders -- orders which had been issued by legal entities, acting through legal processes, under the direction of the legal executive authority, whose unrestrained war powers had been established and upheld by the "rule of law."
It was not always thus. A few years ago, when writing of the "constitutional and moral issues raised by Bush's liberty-gutting 'unitary executive' dictatorship" (which Obama has enthusiastically continued and expanded), I ran across a Supreme Court ruling from December 1866 -- more than 140 years ago: Ex Parte Milligan. In this ruling, which grew out of the wartime excesses of the Lincoln Administration, the Court -- dominated by five Lincoln appointees -- was unequivocal:
Constitutional protections not only apply "equally in war and peace" but also – in a dramatic extension of this legal shield – to "all classes of men, at all times, and under all circumstances." No emergency – not even open civil war – warrants their suspension. Even in wartime, the President's powers, though expanded, are still restrained: "he is controlled by law, and has his appropriate sphere of duty, which is to execute, not to make, the laws."
As I noted earlier in the piece:
It was a decisive ruling against a government that had far overreached its powers, stripping away essential liberties in the name of national security. The Justice who authored the majority opinion was a Republican, an old friend and political crony of the president who had appointed him. Even so, his ruling struck hard at the abuses set in train by his patron. He stood upon the law, he stood upon the Constitution, even in the aftermath of a shattering blow that had killed more than 600,000 Americans and almost destroyed the nation itself.
This is what the Court decided:
"The Constitution of the United States is a law for rulers and people, equally in war and in peace, and covers with the shield of its protection all classes of men, at all times, and under all circumstances. No doctrine, involving more pernicious consequences, was ever invented by the wit of man than that any of its provisions can be suspended during any of the great exigencies of government. Such a doctrine leads directly to anarchy or despotism, but the theory of necessity on which it is based is false; for the government, within the Constitution, has all the powers granted to it, which are necessary to preserve its existence."
The author was Justice David Davis, an Illinois lawyer appointed by Abraham Lincoln after helping run the campaign that gave his old colleague the presidency in the fateful 1860 election. (Davis was also, by a strange quirk of history, the second cousin of George W. Bush's great-grandfather.) By the time the Court issued its ruling, Lincoln was dead, but the after-effects of his ever-expanding suspension of civil liberties during wartime were still roiling through the courts, and through America's fractured society. The Milligan ruling was, in the words of legal scholar John P. Frank, "one of the truly great documents of the American Constitution," a "bulwark" for civil liberties, expansive and exacting in the Constitutional protections it spelled out.
The ruling acknowledged that there are times when the writ of habeas corpus may have to be suspended in an area where hostilities are directly taking place – but even this power, they noted, was highly circumscribed and specifically delegated to Congress, not the president. Lincoln exceeded this authority on numerous occasions, increasing the scope of his powers until the entire Union was essentially under martial law, and anyone arbitrarily deemed guilty of never-defined "disloyal practices" could be arrested or silenced – in the latter case by having their newspaper shut down, for instance. (Lincoln would sometimes – but not always – seek ex post facto Congressional authorization for these acts.) Some parts of the Union that the Lincoln administration thought particularly disloyal were officially put under martial law -- such as southern Indiana, where anti-war agitator Lambdin Milligan and four others were accused of a plot to free Confederate prisoners, and were summarily tried and sentenced to death by a military tribunal.
It was this case that the Court – five of whom were Lincoln appointees – overturned in such a decided fashion.
As noted, that ruling was made in a nation still reeling from a savage, titanic war fought on its own territory. Even in the midst of such turmoil, the idea that "the laws must adjust" to the exigencies of war -- even the extremity of ruinous civil war -- was considered anathema, even to conservative jurists with close ties to the government.
But no longer. Although, unlike a civil war, even the worst terrorist attack imaginable would pose no existential threat to the nation, today the merest whisper of the possibility of a limited terrorist incident shakes the United States to its foundations -- and people willingly line up to be stripped naked by machines, while courts crawl on their bellies before the terrible majesty of unrestrained executive power.
Be assured: the "rule of law" means nothing, protects nothing, sustains nothing. It can always be twisted and stretched by cowards, courtiers and power-seekers. Arthur Silber, as he does so often, cuts to heart of the matter in this powerful essay from 2009, "Concerning the State, the Law, and Show Trials":
The law is not some Platonic Form plucked from the skies by the Pure in Heart. Laws are written by men, men who have particular interests, particular constituencies, particular donors, and particular friends. ... Laws are the particular means by which the state implements and executes its vast powers. When an increasingly authoritarian state passes a certain critical point in its development, the law is no longer the protector of individual rights and individual liberty. The law becomes the weapon of the state itself -- to protect, not you, but the state from threats to its own powers. We passed that critical point some decades ago. The law is the means by which the state corrals its subjects, keeps them under control, and forbids them from acting in ways that the overlords might perceive as threatening. In brief, today, in these glorious United States, the law is not your friend.
Indeed it is not. In our "low dishonest" century, the "rule of law" has become the "lie of Authority" that Auden speaks of. It will not save us. What matters -- as always -- is moral courage in the face of power's encroachments. Sometimes this can be found within an institutional framework, as in the Supreme Court's bold expansion of legal rights to all people, "at all times, and under all circumstances" back in 1866; and of course it can be found in the lives and actions of individuals, acting singly or in concert. Auden again:
Defenseless under the night Our world in stupor lies; Yet, dotted everywhere, Ironic points of light Flash out wherever the Just Exchange their messages: May I, composed like them Of Eros and of dust, Beleaguered by the same Negation and despair, Show an affirming flame.
Let me say -- or rather, reiterate -- up front that it is my personal view that the form of vigorous activism known as non-violence is the only way, or the best way, that we can hope to even begin to address the inherent and intractable conflicts of human existence in a genuinely effective profound, sustainable and humane manner. That is the ideal I strive toward.
Of course, I also recognize that being what I am -- a white man of Christian heritage living safely and comfortably under the penumbra of empire -- it is easy for me to espouse this ideal. No drone fired in the distant black sky is going to kill my children tonight as they sleep warmly in their beds. No raiding party of assassins is going to tear down the door of my parents' house tonight and shoot them at the dinner table. No one with a grudge against me -- or simply in need of quick cash -- is going to sell me into the captivity of a worldwide gulag. I'm not going to be caught in the crossfire of marauding mercenaries on my way to work. I'm not going to wake tomorrow in a refugee camp, my home and livelihood abandoned in the wake of a ravaging "counterterrorism" operation. No foreign soldier is going to shoot me, or abuse me, or humiliate me, or simply refuse to let me pass down the street of my own city. I'm not going to be stopped, "profiled," or regarded with suspicion or hatred simply because of my skin color or the cultural or religious etymology of my name.
If I lived under the bootheel of such forces, I don't how I would react, how firmly I could hold to my ideal. I don't know if I would have the strength of mind and will, or the fortitude and wisdom it would take to resist our primal pull to violence -- especially if I grew up in a culture that exalted certain forms of violence as cardinal virtues. (Of course, as an American, I did grow up in such a culture -- and so has almost every other human being in history. To take the non-violent way is to appear -- and yes, often feel -- unnatural, deracinated, alien.)
Nonetheless, despite all these caveats and complexities, the ideal abides. I decry, denounce and mourn for the use of violence. Each act of violence -- however understandable it might be in context -- is a vast, ruinous defeat for our common humanity.
And of course many acts of violence are not "understandable" in any context, save that of our bestial desire to dominate others in one form or another. Here the defeat is even greater, its reverberations deeper, wider, longer-lasting: a degradation and degeneration that further brutalizes both the dispenser and victim of violence -- especially the former, and especially when the dispensing culture comes to countenance an ever-widening array of violent acts as worthy, necessary, laudable, even honorable.
Each such act perpetuates the cycle of violence, the horrific dynamic of blowback: a self-perpetuating feedback loop that uses itself to engender more violence, in new and expanding forms. We are living today in the midst of a particularly virulent form of this dynamic, the so-called "War on Terror," which I think has been designed -- more or less deliberately so, although the obscene ignorance and arrogance of the powerful have also played their fateful part in unwittingly exacerbating these evils -- to rage on without chronological end, without geographical, limits, and without any moral, social, legal or financial restraints. In his book X Films (reviewed here), Alex Cox uses an apt term borrowed from systems analysis -- POSIWID: The Purpose of a System is What It Does.
The Terror War is not an event, or a campaign, or even a crusade; it is a system. Its purpose is not to eliminate "terrorism" (however this infinitely elastic term is defined) but to perpetuate itself, to do what it does: make war. This system can be immensely rewarding, in many different ways, for those who operate or assist it, whether in government, media, academia, or business. This too is a self-sustaining dynamic, a feedback loop that gives money, power and attention to those who serve the system; this elevated position then allows them to accrue even more money, power and attention, until in the end -- as we can plainly see today -- any alternative voices and viewpoints are relegated to the margins. They are "unserious." They are unimportant. They are not allowed to penetrate or alter the operations of the system.
These reflections were prompted bylast week's attack on the CIA basenear Khost, Afghanistan, and by the reaction to the attack among the operators and servants of the Terror War system. As the world knows, seven CIA officers were killed by a suicide bomber. (Two of the dead were actually Blackwater mercenaries, but as CNN solemnly informs us, the Agency considers such hired guns to be part of the family.) The officers were at a "forward operating base" near the Pakistan border. From this redoubt, they plotted and directed attacks by drone missiles and, if they were similar to other CIA teams, which seems likely, also helped run assassination squads, with bombs and ground raids launched against villages, private homes and other locations which allegedly contain alleged terrorists, both in Afghanistan, which American forces are now openly occupying, and in Pakistan, a sovereign, allied country where American military and security forces are carrying out a more and more open "secret war."
The officers were killed when a suicide bomber -- apparently a 'native' whom the CIA was grooming as a potential agent -- walked into a gym and set off his hidden belt of explosives. Again, as noted above, I decry all deaths by violence, although I direct most of my attention to the violent deaths caused by the gargantuanly disproportionate infliction of state terrorism that characterizes our age, as opposed to the piecemeal pinpricks of small bands of extremists and isolated individuals -- incidents which themselves often betray strong indications of the fomenting or facilitating hand of various operators in the Terror War system.
So it gave me no pleasure to note the grim truth that was confirmed, yet again, by the attack at Khost: Those who live by dirty war, die by dirty war. The CIA-mercenary squad at the base was a key part of what the New York Times rightly describes as the CIA's evolution into a "paramilitary organization." Like all terrorists, they operate outside the law, claiming moral superiority as their justification. And for this particular band, what they have dealt out to others -- sudden death in a surprise attack with no possibility of defense -- they have now been dealt in turn.
Of course, the NYT seems to find no moral problem with the United States of America operating "paramilitary" squads of spies and mercenaries carrying out "extrajudicial assassinations" -- or "murders," as they once would have been called -- in foreign lands occupied by American military forces slaughtering civilians on a regular basis. (We noted one such slaughter in Afghanistan last week; now yet another one is being reported.) The story which carried this description is concerned largely with describing the struggle of these noble bands as they struggle manfully on distant borders to keep us safe.
In this, the tone of the story strongly echoes the genuinely sick-making words of Barack Obama after the incident. From CNN:
"These brave Americans were part of a long line of patriots who have made great sacrifices for their fellow citizens, and for our way of life," U.S. President Barack Obama said in a written statement Thursday.
"The United States would not be able to maintain the freedom and security that we cherish without decades of service from the dedicated men and women of the CIA."
The CIA's decades-long record of sickening crime, outright atrocity, constitutional subversion, bungling, near-unbelievable incompetence, and unrelenting exacerbation of hatred for and violence toward the United States is indisputable. (For just one egregious example, see "The Secret Sharers.") Few government organizations in world history have been so inimical to the national interests of the state they purport to serve. It was with very good reason that John F. Kennedy -- to whom Obama's sycophants often liken their hero -- once declared his intention to "splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds." (Nor can it be entirely coincidental that Kennedy was later murdered in a case that had innumerable ties to the security apparat.)
There is nothing further from the truth -- nothing further from the established historical record -- than Obama's statement that the CIA has been absolutely indispensable in "maintaining the freedom and security" of the United States. On the contrary; the historical record clearly shows that the activities of the CIA have, time and again, reduced both the freedom and security of the people of the United States.
Yet here we have Obama, once again, groveling to this renegade, retrograde, criminal organization -- much as he did early on in his presidency, when he cravenly guaranteed the Agency's thuggish torturers that they need never fear prosecution from his administration for the KGB-like, Stasi-like, Gestapo-like atrocities they had inflicted on their victims.
Instead of shattering the CIA, or even curtailing it, the NYT story confirms, yet again, that Obama is accelerating the militarization of the agency, and giving it broad new scope to deceive and murder. What's more, as we noted here a few days ago, Obama's handpicked "special envoy" for the "Af-Pak front," Richard Holbrooke, admitted, in a little-noticed story last month, that the United States is carrying out covert operations in "every country in the world." And all of this is accepted without debate, without demur, as a just, honorable and natural state of affairs.
And while Obama is praising the murderers, torturers and incompetents of the CIA, the Agency itself is plotting its revenge for the blowback against its own dirty war, as CNN reports, with an obvious frisson of titillation at the tough talk:
"This attack will be avenged through successful, aggressive counterterrorism operations," [an anonymous] intelligence official vowed. "There are some very bad people who eventually are going to have a very bad day," the official promised Friday.
And so, as I wrote the day after 9/11 (and quoted again recently, in this piece about Obama's surging Terror War): "Blood will have blood; that's certain. But blood will not end it. For murder is fertile: it breeds more death, like a spider laden with a thousand eggs. And who now can break this cycle, which has been going on for generations?"
The cycle will go on -- because that is what is wanted. The purpose of the system is what it does.
UPDATE: It turns out that the suicide bomber at the CIA center was not a native being groomed as an agent, as previously reported, but a Jordanian double agent pretending to be a "turned" and repentant extremist, hired, no doubt at great cost, by the CIA and its Jordanian offshoot to "penetrate" al Qaeda.
Once again, live by dirty war, double dealing, deception and murder, die by dirty war, double dealing, deception and murder. But it sure is great to see our Langley boys working cheek-by-jowl with yet another vicious security apparat of yet another dictator.
I wrote a piece here a few days ago on a recent ruling by the Supreme Court, in which the justices agreed with the passionate plea of the Obama Administration to uphold -- and establish as legal precedent -- some of the most egregious of the Bush Administration's authoritarian perversions. This was the gist of the ruling:
The Supreme Court acquiesced to the president's fervent request and, in a one-line ruling, let stand a lower court decision that declared torture an ordinary, expected consequence of military detention, while introducing a shocking new precedent for all future courts to follow: anyone who is arbitrarily declared a "suspected enemy combatant" by the president or his designated minions is no longer a "person." They will simply cease to exist as a legal entity. They will have no inherent rights, no human rights, no legal standing whatsoever -- save whatever modicum of process the government arbitrarily deigns to grant them from time to time, with its ever-shifting tribunals and show trials.
One of the attorneys involved in the case rightly likened the ruling to the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision, in which the Court declared that any person of African descent brought to the United States as a slave -- or their descendants, even if they had been freed -- could never be citizens of the United States and were not protected by the Constitution. They were non-persons under the law; sub-humans.
I noted the grim irony that this principle of non-personhood had now been reintroduced into the law of the land by our first African-American president. (But this is only to be expected, given the law of opposites that so often governs American politics: only a lifelong Red-baiter like Nixon could make an opening to Communist China; only a supposed liberal like Bill Clinton could gut the federal welfare system. And only an African-American president could reintroduce the principle of slavery and get away with it. No doubt it will be a woman president who finally re-imposes a total ban on abortion.)
My piece was picked up by a few other sites, where it attracted some criticism for being too "extreme," too shrill, too panicky and exaggerated. After all, some critics said, this case involves foreigners rounded up in the context of a military conflict. (An undeclared, open-ended, borderless, lawless conflict, but still.) And while one might consider the captives treatment a bit too rough or unjust, it is still a far leap to conclude that the Supreme Court ruling implies some kind of general attack on the liberties of real, honest-to-god American citizens!
Ah, what bliss it must be, to dwell in such sweet ignorance. The many decisions by the Supreme Court and lower courts upholding the federal government's authoritarian power to strip Terror War captives of inherent and inalienable legal rights are part of a larger framework that applies both in theory and in practice to everyone -- American citizens included. What we are seeing is the construction of a new "social contract," the open codification of a new relationship between the individual and the state, in which all powers and rights reside solely in the latter, which can bestow them or withhold them at will, arbitrarily, unaccountable. In contrast, it is the individual who must be totally accountable to the state. The state is bound by no law, but the individual is subject to them all -- including "secret laws" and decrees and executive orders of which he or she has no knowledge.
The state has always tended toward the imposition of this feudal condition, of course -- hence the many balks and bafflements to state power that have been attempted over the years. But now the exaltation of state power over any claim of individual rights is being openly declared, avidly pursued, and judicially ratified.
And yes, Virginia, it all applies to American citizens as well. Chris Hedges demonstrates this clearly in a devastating piece on the case of American citizen Syed Fahad Hashmi. Below is an excerpt, but you should read the whole piece:
Syed Fahad Hashmi can tell you about the dark heart of America. He knows that our First Amendment rights have become a joke, that habeas corpus no longer exists and that we torture, not only in black sites such as those at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan or at Guantánamo Bay, but also at the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in Lower Manhattan. Hashmi is a U.S. citizen of Muslim descent imprisoned on two counts of providing and conspiring to provide material support and two counts of making and conspiring to make a contribution of goods or services to al-Qaida. As his case prepares for trial, his plight illustrates that the gravest threat we face is not from Islamic extremists, but the codification of draconian procedures that deny Americans basic civil liberties and due process....
Hashmi, who if convicted could face up to 70 years in prison, has been held in solitary confinement for more than 2½ years. Special administrative measures, known as SAMs, have been imposed by the attorney general to prevent or severely restrict communication with other prisoners, attorneys, family, the media and people outside the jail. He also is denied access to the news and other reading material. Hashmi is not allowed to attend group prayer. He is subject to 24-hour electronic monitoring and 23-hour lockdown. He must shower and go to the bathroom on camera. He can write one letter a week to a single member of his family, but he cannot use more than three pieces of paper. He has no access to fresh air and must take his one hour of daily recreation in a cage. ...
“My brother was an activist,” Hashmi’s brother, Faisal, told me by phone from his home in Queens. “He spoke out on Muslim issues, especially those dealing with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His arrest and torture have nothing to do with providing ponchos and socks to al-Qaida, as has been charged, but the manipulation of the law to suppress activists and scare the Muslim American community. My brother is an example. His treatment is meant to show Muslims what will happen to them if they speak about the plight of Muslims. We have lost every single motion to preserve my brother’s humanity and remove the special administrative measures. These measures are designed solely to break the psyche of prisoners and terrorize the Muslim community. These measures exemplify the malice towards Muslims at home and the malice towards the millions of Muslims who are considered as non-humans in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
...“Most of the evidence is classified,” Jeanne Theoharis, an associate professor of political science at Brooklyn College who taught Hashmi, told me, “but Hashmi is not allowed to see it. He is an American citizen. But in America you can now go to trial and all the evidence collected against you cannot be reviewed. You can spend 2½ years in solitary confinement before you are convicted of anything. There has been attention paid to extraordinary rendition, Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib with this false idea that if people are tried in the United States things will be fair. But what allowed Guantánamo to happen was the devolution of the rule of law here at home, and this is not only happening to Hashmi.”
The case against Hashmi revolves around the testimony of Junaid Babar, also an American citizen. Babar, in early 2004, stayed with Hashmi at his London apartment for two weeks. In his luggage, the government alleges, Babar had raincoats, ponchos and waterproof socks, which Babar later delivered to a member of al-Qaida in south Waziristan, Pakistan. It was alleged that Hashmi allowed Babar to use his cell phone to call conspirators in other terror plots.
“Hashmi grew up here, was well known here, was very outspoken, very charismatic and very political,” said Theoharis. “This is really a message being sent to American Muslims about the cost of being politically active. It is not about delivering alleged socks and ponchos and rain gear. Do you think al-Qaida can’t get socks and ponchos in Pakistan? The government is planning to introduce tapes of Hashmi’s political talks while he was at Brooklyn College at the trial. Why are we willing to let this happen? Is it because they are Muslims, and we think it will not affect us? People who care about First Amendment rights should be terrified. This is one of the crucial civil rights issues of our time. We ignore this at our own peril.”
Babar, who was arrested in 2004 and has pleaded guilty to five counts of material support for al-Qaida, also faces up to 70 years in prison. But he has agreed to serve as a government witness and has already testified for the government in terror trials in Britain and Canada. Babar will receive a reduced sentence for his services, and many speculate he will be set free after the Hashmi trial. Since there is very little evidence to link Hashmi to terrorist activity, the government will rely on Babar to prove intent. This intent will revolve around alleged conversations and statements Hashmi made in Babar’s presence. Hashmi, who was a member of the New York political group Al Muhajiroun as a student at Brooklyn College, has made provocative statements, including calling America “the biggest terrorist in the world,” but Al Muhajiroun is not defined by the government as a terrorist organization. Membership in the group is not illegal. And our complicity in acts of state terror is a historical fact.
There will be more Hashmis, and the Justice Department, planning for future detentions, set up in 2006 a segregated facility, the Communication Management Unit, at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. Nearly all the inmates transferred to Terre Haute are Muslims. A second facility has been set up at Marion, Ill., where the inmates again are mostly Muslim but also include a sprinkling of animal rights and environmental activists...
I have been writing about this since November 2001, when George W. Bush's authoritarian claims over the liberty -- and lives -- of every human being on earth were first coming to light. (And not in dogged investigative reports, but in open, laudatory stories in the mainstream media.) It is very simple: all the government has to do is declare, arbitrarily, with no due process, that you -- yes, you, Mister and Ms American Citizen -- are a terrorist, or suspected terrorist, or an enemy combatant, and you can be stripped of your legal personhood, plunged into a gulag, confined indefinitely, plunged into isolation -- or killed.
I agree that this is a very upsetting situation, and not very pleasant to think about. But pretending that it is not a reality will not make it go away.
A lone man on an airliner makes a badly botched attempt to ignite what appears to be some kind of hastily cobbled-together device that might or might not have caused some kind of unspecified but apparently non-crippling damage to the plane. The plane lands safely; no one is killed.
Yet the reverberations from this half-baked enterprise quickly roiled the entire world. Within hours, a whole range of new, even more intrusive and draconian security procedures were imposed on travelers across the globe. Governments hastened to launch "security reviews," and promise "tough new measures" not only to thwart terrorists but to root out nests of agitators and "radicalizers" clinging to the soft underbelly of our all-too-tolerant, too-nice-for-its-own-good Western world.
Perhaps most significantly, the non-igniting of the homemade device has "rejuvenated [the] debate ... over the proper balance between security and privacy," the New York Times informs us -- while quoting several "experts" who let us know just which way this "balance" is now going to tilt. These "experts" include Bush retreads like ex-Homeland Security commissar Michael Chertoff, who now dabbles profitably in the "risk management and security consulting" industry -- yet another of our great and good for whom every act of terror (real or imagined, successful or unsuccessful) means boffo box office.
The sudden insertion of Chertoff into the story gives us another example of a grim, enduring truth: the construction of "conventional wisdom" among our media and political elites is always driven, in large part or in whole, by raw, brutal self-interest. The new CW now being assembled before our eyes is a "rejuvenation" of one of the ruling tropes of the 21st century: "Liberty bad, security good."
Here is another story in the news: in an isolated rural province in Afghanistan, 10 people were killed in a raid by American-led forces. The Afghan government, installed and sustained in power by the United States, said the victims were all civilians -- including eight schoolboys.
But there was no international outcry about this incident; it barely garnered a few mentions in the global press. And even these were quickly shunted aside after a NATO official denied the claims of the Afghan government, and affirmed that all those killed in the raid were evil-doers. As the NYT reports:
A senior NATO official with knowledge of the operation said that the raid had been carried out by a joint Afghan-American force and that its target was a group of men who were known Taliban members and smugglers of homemade bombs, which the American and NATO forces call improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.’s. ... “When the raid took place they were armed and had material for making I.E.D.’s,” the official added.
Local officials on the scene in Kunar Province said otherwise. They said 10 civilians had been killed. They said eight of the dead were children:
The governor of Kunar, Fazullah Wahidi, said that “the coalition claimed they were enemy fighters,” but that elders in the district and a delegation sent to the remote area had found that “10 people were killed and all of them were civilians.”
But the NATO official said the Afghans were lying. We will never know the whole truth, of course, for the story will ultimately be controlled by the very force that carried out the attack: the American-led military occupation.
But what an instructive contrast. In one story, an attack which did not happen and which killed no one shakes the entire world. In another story, ten human beings, including eight children, were slaughtered in a sneak attack by night -- and the world can scarcely be bothered to notice.
What is the chief difference between the two? It's simple: the first story lines the pockets and increases the power of imperial elites. Thus it is important, monumental, emotion-ridden; it calls for immediate action. The second story, if it were pursued and publicized with equal vigor, might threaten, in some small way, the profits and power of imperial elites. Thus it is unimportant, run-of-the-mill, a humdrum case of cranky primitives making the usual wild charges against the defenders of civilization. Were children murdered by American forces way the hell over in the village of Ghazi Khan? Maybe, maybe not. Who the hell cares?
There is of course another element of the slaughter in Ghazi Khan that has gone largely unremarked -- although it might actually be quite important, and even have a bearing on cases like the failed attempt at something-or-other on the plane to Detroit.
You can find this intriguing element buried near the bottom the NYT story:
While some conventional American forces are deployed in Kunar, in the more remote areas most operations are carried out by Special Forces.
Here we have a prominently displayed, almost entirely laudatory piece hymning the "success" of "secretive branches of the military's Special Operations forces" -- secret ops which will see "an even bigger expansion next year," the NYT reports.
The uncorroborated story of these great successes is told entirely by unnamed American officials involved in the operations -- yet another case of the NYT's innovative journalistic philosophy, as we noted here the other day: "Always let an anonymous source confirm his or her own claims -- as long as that anonymous source is a government or military official."
The Times notes that it is "not surprising" to see these secret raiders "playing such an important role in the fight." After all, Barack Obama's hand-picked warlord for Afghanistan is Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the long-time "dirty war" commander who ran death squads in both Iraq and Afghanistan for five years before Obama placed him in control of the Af-Pak legions.
As the Times notes -- or rather, tries rather wanly to imply -- the slaughterfest at Ghazi Khan has all the earmarks of one of McChrystal's old death squad ops. A house is targeted -- for what reason, based on what "intelligence" (or denunciation by a local enemy or paid informant), we never know -- and everyone in it and around it is blasted to kingdom come. Then, no matter how many bodies of how many dead children and women are produced, the U.S. military claims that only nasty supervillians -- imminently worthy of "extrajudicial assassination" by sneak attack -- were killed.
Mass death came again to the Iraqi town of Ishaqi last Friday. Nine months after an American raid that killed 11 civilians, including five children under the age of five, another ground and air assault on suspected insurgents in the area left behind a pile of corpses, including at least two children. As with the earlier incident, Friday's attack has produced conflicting stories of what really happened, but the end result is clear: a multitude of grieving, angry Iraqis further embittered against the American occupation.
The latest Ishaqi attack – with "only" 20 fatalities – is of course a mere sideshow in the garish carnival of death that is Iraq today. But in many respects it is a microcosm of the largely unseen reality of the war that grinds on day after day behind the obscuring fog of political rhetoric enshrouding both Washington and Baghdad. In this return to Ishaqi, we find many of the elements that have kept Iraq an open, gaping wound with little chance for healing: constant airstrikes on populated civilian areas, iron-fisted house raids, propaganda ploys, dubious intelligence, disdain for the locals – and the employment of mysterious units that may be blended with government-run (even American-run) death squads.
So what happened on December 9 in the village of Taima in the Ishaqi district, on the shores of Lake Tharthar? The official U.S. military version states that unidentified "Coalition Forces" entered the village shortly after midnight and targeted a location "based on intelligence reports that indicated associates with links to multiple al-Qaeda in Iraq networks were operating in the area." During a search, they took heavy fire from a nearby building. Returning fire, they killed "two armed terrorists" but couldn't quell the attack, so they called in an airstrike that killed "18 more armed terrorists," including two women. Of the latter, the military press release said that "al-Qaeda in Iraq has both men and women supporting and facilitating their operations unfortunately." The unspecified raiders then uncovered a cache of terrorist arms which they photographed and subsequently destroyed.
The identification of the victims as terrorists was made through a "battle damage assessment," said U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver. "If there is a weapon with or next to the person or they are holding it, they are a terrorist," he said.
Yet as Bloomberg News points out, almost every Iraqi keeps a gun – or several guns – in their homes. Indeed, the whole nation has long been armed to the teeth, with even heavy weaponry in private hands throughout the reign of Saddam Hussein. In fact, as Patrick Cockburn notes in his excellent new book, The Occupation, Saddam once had to resort to a national buy-back scheme to try to reduce the level of heavy weapons on the streets. One tribe even showed up with three tanks – "which they were prepared to turn over for a sizeable amount of money." This doesn't mean that the official report of the Ishaqi incident is necessarily wrong, of course. But neither is it a fact that every dead Iraqi found near a weapon in a bombed-out private house is a terrorist.
... Garver firmly refused to identify the troops involved in the raid; he wouldn't even say if they were American, Iraqi, or from some other Coalition ally, the Daily Telegraph reports. "There are some units we don't talk about," he said. But the conclusions of the official report were unequivocal: 20 terrorists killed, no collateral damage – an exemplary feat of arms that brought the Coalition "another step closer to defeating al-Qaeda in Iraq and helping establish a safe and peaceful Iraq."
But local officials from the U.S.-backed Iraqi government had a different view: they said the raid was a bloodbath of innocent civilians. Ishaqi Mayor Amir Fayadh said that 19 civilians were killed by the airstrikes that destroyed two private homes. Fayadh said that the victims included seven women and eight children. An official in the regional government of Salahuddin said six children had been killed. All Iraqi officials agreed that the victims were mostly members of the extended families of two brothers in the town, Muhammad Hussein al-Jalmood and Mahmood Hussein al-Jalmood, the NYT reports. Both Fayadh and Abdullah Hussein Jabbara, deputy governor Salahuddin, insisted that the families had nothing to do with al Qaeda. Locals claimed that the terrorist paraphernalia at the site, such as the "suicide belts," had been planted. American officials denied the charge.
Soon after the attack, reporters and photographers from Associated Press and Agence France Presse arrived on the scene. They took pictures, shot video and talked to grieving members of the al-Jalmood family. Local police gave them the names of at least 17 of the victims, which indicated they were from the same family. The names of at least four women were among them. Many of the bodies had been charred and twisted beyond recognition; some were "almost mummified," AP reports. However, AFP videotaped at least two children among the dead.
When shown the pictures later, Garver said: "I see nothing in the photos that indicates those children were in the houses that our forces received fire from and subsequently destroyed with the airstrike." He did not speculate on where the dead children being mourned by family members after being pulled from the rubble of the bombed-out houses might have come from otherwise. Perhaps the al-Jalmoods kept them in cold storage for just such a propaganda opportunity?
What is the connection between these incidents -- in Ishaqi, in Ghazi Khan, and in countless other towns and villages across America's Terror War fronts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, etc.? You can find it in the first paragraph of the excerpt above -- "the end result is clear: a multitude of grieving, angry Iraqis further embittered against the American occupation."
A little tweaking will fit that passage to cover the entire Terror War, in which thousands upon thousands of innocent people have been killed, engendering an ever-renewing cycle of rage and despair -- a potent and fertile combination for engendering the kind of "radicalization" that allegedly drove the alleged attacker on the Detroit plane.
You want to stop the "radicalization" of young Muslims? It's simple: stop killing innocent Muslims in wars of domination all over the world. Stop running "covert ops" in every nation of the world (as Obama's "special envoy" Richard Holbrooke admitted last week) -- murders, kidnappings, corruption and deception that make a howling mockery of the very "civilized values" these wars and ops purport to defend.
But this will not happen. Because our elites do not want it to happen. They are not protecting values; they are "projecting dominance." And so these oh-so-profitable incidents and insurgencies will go on and on and on.
UPDATE: Jason Ditz at Antiwar.com lays out the inevitable consequences of the failed alleged attempted incident in Detroit: Obama Vows ‘Accelerated Offensive’ in Yemen. While detailing the new thundering bloodlust of Obama and the Congressional hawks, Ditz also points out the inconvenient truth that they are using the Detroit incident as a retroactive "justification" for a new front in the Terror War that they had already opened long before the flight. But read the whole piece, and the many links, to see what fresh hell awaits us all -- especially the people of Yemen.
Wow, that didn't take long at all. Scant days after the American war machine took the cloaking device off its direct military involvement in Yemen, we have an alleged attempted terrorist attack by an alleged attempted terrorist who, just scant hours after his capture, has allegedly confessed to getting his alleged attempted terrorist material from ... wait for it ... Yemen!
Yemen-trained terrorists on the loose in American airplanes! At Christmas! Great googily moogily! It's a good thing our boys are on the case over there right now, pounding the holy hell outta some of them Al Qaeder ragheads! And to think, a few pipsqueaky fifth columnists had been starting to wonder why we were killing dozens of innocent civilians on behalf of an authoritarian regime embroiled in a three-way civil war on the other side of the world.
Well, now they have their answer, by God! Alleged attempted terrorists allegedly trained in Yemen! What else do you need -- a freaking warrant or something? We would obviously be justified in nuking that desert hell-hole and everybody in it! Just think of it -- some guy with some kind of something on an airplane, right there in the Heartland! You gonna stand for that? Exterminate the brutes!
And yet, because we are good, because we are godly, because our heart is always in the right place, even when -- as President Obama himself admitted in his noble Nobel Speech -- we sometimes make mistakes, we have not brought down the full force of the iron rod that God himself has placed into our hands for the chastisement and right order of the world. No, there will be no nukes falling on the children of Yemen tonight. But boy howdy, they'd better get ready for some sure-enough heavy ordnance -- fired from distant ships, from far-flung bases and from computer consoles in leafy Stateside suburbs, where you can bravely kill some alleged attempted somebody-or-other (and everyone in their immediate vicinity), and still make it home in time to to eat supper with the kids.
So here we are. Just one day after the alleged attempted terrorist incident in Detroit, we already have headlines blaring in the New York Times, the "paper of record," tying the alleged attempt to Yemen. How quick and convenient is that? Already the echo chamber is roaring with the all-justifying cacophony: "Terror, Yemen, al Qaeda, Homeland, Bomb, Terror, Yemen, Yemen, al Qaeda."
And it must be true, right? I mean, just look at how well-sourced the NYT story is. "A law enforcement official" -- Police captain? State trooper? G-Man? Traffic cop? -- said that the alleged attempted terrorist said he'd got his "explosive chemicals" from Yemen. (Elsewhere in the paper, other unnamed officials told NYT reporters that the alleged material strapped to the alleged attempted terrorist was "incendiary," not explosive. But who cares? "Bomb, Terror, Yemen!")
Of course, the NYT noted that "authorities have not independently corroborated the Yemen connection claimed by the suspect" (nor, they could have added, have they independently corroborated that the claim was actually made), but still, the completely anonymous "law enforcement official" said that the suspect's claim "was plausible," and even added: "I see no reason to discount it."
Well, it doesn't get more solid than that, does it? They nailed that story down so tight you couldn't pry it open with God's own crowbar. An anonymous source confirmed the plausibility of his own claim. Man, that's ironclad. It's certainly good enough to light up the media firmament with headlines linking "terror in the Heartland" with the empire's newest killing field in a volatile foreign land.
And it turns out that the suspected attempted terrorist, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was already on the radar of our all-encompassing security services -- just like the last Muslim terrorist in the heartland, Major Nidal Hasan. (And, for that matter, just like many of those accused of carrying out the 9/11 attack.) As in almost all of these cases, the question arises: Who is running whom? (For more, see "Darkness Renewed: Terror as a Tool of Empire.")
But this query is precisely the kind of pantywaist handwringing that rightly goes down in the flood of the he-man Homeland Security strutting that always follows these incidents. As we noted here the other day, there's no time for depth, context, history -- or even facts -- when the "frame" is screaming "Terror!"
In any case, whatever facts about the case -- or rather, shards and splinters of filtered information -- that are allowed to emerge from the depths of the security apparat, you can be absolutely sure that, as always, the "facts will be fixed around the policy."
And what is that policy? Why, endless war, of course! The American war machine (which now dominates most of "civilian" society as well) is like a shark: it must keep moving, and feeding, or die. "Terror, Bomb, Yemen!"
In his compelling 2008 book X Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker, director Alex Cox delivers a powerful insight about modern movie audiences that helps illuminate the bizarre, amnesiac nature of modern political audiences as well.
The book as a whole provides a riveting account of the circumstances surrounding the making of ten films shot by the Liverpudlian director, from his film school days at UCLA in the late seventies to his groundbreaking "microfeature," Searchers 2.0, in 2006. One of the films put under the microscope of Cox's affable, witty but hard-hitting analysis is Three Businessmen, from 1998. A work of hyper-realistic surrrealism, the film tells the story of two vaguely and dubiously employed salesmen who meet in a Liverpool hotel then set off to find a place to eat -- and somehow traverse the entire earth in a single night, popping up in such places as Tokyo, Rotterdam, and the Spanish desert (where they meet the titular third companion), yet believing all the while they are still just a few blocks from their hotel.
Falling outside recognizable genre categories, the film puzzled many viewers -- and more importantly, many movie execs and money men. Looking back at its reception, Cox writes:
This brings me to the bigger problems of Three Businessmen -- the way we watch a film. Consider the scenes with Benny and Frank (Miguel Sandoval and Cox) aboard the Metro. While we're aboard the train, it's pretty similar to the Liverpool Merseyrail: a Metro interior is a Metro interior, after all. The train that Miguel and I boarded in Liverpool was painted yellow; the train from which we emerged in Rotterdam was green. You might think this was a pretty clear visual clue: trains don't change colour, after all. Yet almost no one in the audience noticed it. This taught me that people watch films on a shot-by-shot basis. What they see now, they accept as 'reality' within the frame; what was on the screen five minutes ago is already forgotten.
This passage is a near-perfect description of the mechanics of political perception in our day, especially in the land that Gore Vidal famously dubbed the United States of Amnesia. And how could it be otherwise? For almost all of us, politics exists largely (if not solely) on the screen -- the television, the computer, the Blackberry, the iPhone. The electorate is almost entirely an "audience," and nothing else; actual political engagement is left to the "experts": the vicious in-fighters of power-gaming factions (and the witless sycophants who dance attendance on them in the media, the think tanks and academia), and the handful of "cranks," on both right and left, who still raise hell at public hearings and sometimes even take to the streets -- where they are invariably herded into nice, neat "free speech zones," far from any point where their "unserious" opinions might inflict discomfort on the powerful.
The flattened images, the passing wads of constantly updated, continually washed away digital text, throw up their limited frames -- without depth, without history, without context -- and imprint them on our chaotic mental receptors with the frantic, primeval urgency of "now". Now is all there is, now is all we see, now is what we are relentlessly conditioned to accept.
What color is the train? It looks green today. Wasn't it yellow yesterday? Maybe not. Maybe it's always been green.
One of the large mental health hospitals in Israel was recently surprised to receive a young, good-looking patient in a psychotic state who was accompanied by a personal security guard, Yedioth Ahronoth reported on Sunday.
The doctors, who asked why the woman was accompanied by a guard, were shocked to learn that she was a Mossad agent and that the security guard was not assigned to her in order assure her safety or protect her life, but to ensure that she not reveal any state secrets in her shaky mental state.
The Mossad guard's orders were clear: "It is forbidden that the organization's secrets be passed on to those unauthorized to hear them." The doctors, who are unaccustomed to the presence of a third party during their treatment sessions, were left with no choice but to acquiesce to their demands. In addition, the staff had to receive a security clearance before being allowed to work on her exceptional case.
To their complete amazement, another young woman, also accompanied by a secret agent charged with ensuring that the she not leak any state secrets, arrived at the institution just a short time later. The doctors learned that she, too, is a Mossad agent.
It seems evident that the young women were driven mad by acts they have witnessed -- or carried out. These act were literally unspeakable crimes of state -- hence the presence of the state's goons to prevent the slightest whisper of the dark deeds from escaping.
This story's efficacy as both paradigm and prophecy for our modern world could hardly be bettered.
While we were all out doing our Christmas shopping, the highest court in the land quietly put the kibosh on a few more of the remaining shards of human liberty.
It happened earlier this week, in a discreet ruling that attracted almost no notice and took little time. In fact, our most august defenders of the Constitution did not have to exert themselves in the slightest to eviscerate not merely 220 years of Constitutional jurisprudence but also centuries of agonizing effort to lift civilization a few inches out of the blood-soaked mire that is our common human legacy. They just had to write a single sentence.
Here's how the bad deal went down. After hearing passionate arguments from the Obama Administration, the Supreme Court acquiesced to the president's fervent request and, in a one-line ruling, let stand a lower court decision that declared torture an ordinary, expected consequence of military detention, while introducing a shocking new precedent for all future courts to follow: anyone who is arbitrarily declared a "suspected enemy combatant" by the president or his designated minions is no longer a "person." They will simply cease to exist as a legal entity. They will have no inherent rights, no human rights, no legal standing whatsoever -- save whatever modicum of process the government arbitrarily deigns to grant them from time to time, with its ever-shifting tribunals and show trials.
This extraordinary ruling occasioned none of those deep-delving "process stories" that glut the pages of the New York Times, where the minutiae of policy-making or political gaming is examined in highly-spun, microscopic detail doled out by self-interested insiders. Obviously, giving government the power to render whole classes of people "unpersons" was not an interesting subject for our media arbiters. It was news that wasn't fit to print. Likewise, the ruling provoked no thundering editorials in the Washington Post, no savvy analysis from the high commentariat -- and needless to say, no outrage whatsoever from all our fierce defenders of individual liberty on the Right.
In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal Monday to review a lower court’s dismissal of a case brought by four British former Guantanamo prisoners against former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the detainees’ lawyers charged Tuesday that the country’s highest court evidently believes that "torture and religious humiliation are permissible tools for a government to use."
...Channeling their predecessors in the George W. Bush administration, Obama Justice Department lawyers argued in this case that there is no constitutional right not to be tortured or otherwise abused in a U.S. prison abroad.
The Obama administration had asked the court not to hear the case. By agreeing, the court let stand an earlier opinion by the D.C. Circuit Court, which found that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act – a statute that applies by its terms to all "persons" – did not apply to detainees at Guantanamo, effectively ruling that the detainees are not persons at all for purposes of U.S. law.
The lower court also dismissed the detainees’ claims under the Alien Tort Statute and the Geneva Conventions, finding defendants immune on the basis that "torture is a foreseeable consequence of the military’s detention of suspected enemy combatants."
The Constitution is clear: no person can be held without due process; no person can be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. And the U.S. law on torture of any kind is crystal clear: it is forbidden, categorically, even in time of "national emergency." And the instigation of torture is, under U.S. law, a capital crime. No person can be tortured, at any time, for any reason, and there are no immunities whatsoever for torture offered anywhere in the law.
And yet this is what Barack Obama -- who, we are told incessantly, is a super-brilliant Constitutional lawyer -- has been arguing in case after case since becoming president: Torturers are immune from prosecution; those who ordered torture are immune from prosecution. They can't even been sued for, in the specific case under review, subjecting uncharged, indefinitely detained captives to "beatings, sleep deprivation, forced nakedness, extreme hot and cold temperatures, death threats, interrogations at gunpoint, and threatened with unmuzzled dogs."
Again, let's be absolutely clear: Barack Obama has taken the freely chosen, public, formal stand -- in court -- that there is nothing wrong with any of these activities. Nothing to answer for, nothing meriting punishment or even civil penalties. What's more, in championing the lower court ruling, Barack Obama is now on record as believing -- insisting -- that torture is an ordinary, "foreseeable consequence" of military detention of all those who are arbitrarily declared "suspected enemy combatants."
And still further: Barack Obama has now declared, openly, of his own free will, that he does not consider these captives to be "persons." They are, literally, sub-humans. And what makes them sub-humans? The fact that someone in the U.S. government has declared them to be "suspected enemy combatants." (And note: even the mere suspicion of being an "enemy combatant" can strip you of your personhood.)
This is what President Barack Obama believes -- believes so strongly that he has put the full weight of the government behind a relentless series of court actions to preserve, protect and defend these arbitrary powers. (For a glimpse at just a sliver of such cases, see here and here.)
One co-counsel on the case, Shayana Kadidal of the Center for Constitutional Rights, zeroed in on the noxious quintessence of the position taken by the Court, and by our first African-American president: its chilling resemblance to the notorious Dred Scott ruling of 1857, which upheld the principle of slavery. As Fisher notes:
"Another set of claims are dismissed because Guantanamo detainees are not ‘persons’ within the scope of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act – an argument that was too close to Dred Scott v. Sanford for one of the judges on the court of appeals to swallow," he added.
The Dred Scott case was a decision by the United States Supreme Court in 1857. It ruled that people of African descent imported into the United States and held as slaves, or their descendants — whether or not they were slaves — were not protected by the Constitution and could never be citizens of the United States.
And now, once again, 144 years after the Civil War, we have established as the law of the land and the policy of the United States government that whole classes of people can be declared "non-persons" and have their liberty stripped away -- and their torturers and tormentors protected and coddled by authority -- at a moment's notice, with no charges, no defense, no redress, on nothing more than the suspicion that they might be an "enemy combatant," according to the arbitrary definition of the state.
Barack Obama has had the audacity to declare himself the heir and embodiment of the lifework of Martin Luther King. Can this declaration of a whole new principle of universal slavery really be what King was dreaming of? Is this the vision he saw on the other side of the mountain? Or is not the nightmarish inversion of the ideal of a better, more just, more humane world that so many have died for, in so many places, down through the centuries?