And so the abuses go on. On Monday,
as the nation honored its war dead for what was everywhere called their
sacrifices for freedom, the Guardian reported on the latest twist in
the long, sordid tale of Guantanamo captive Jamil el-Banna (which we
reported on earlier here: Deeper Into Darkness: Slavery and Betrayal in
Bush’s Gulag).
Banna, a UK citizen, has been held in Gitmo for more
than four and a half years. He was snatched in Africa by the Americans
after British intelligence gave the CIA false information about him.
They were trying to force him into becoming an informant on Muslim
activities in Britain; when that didn’t work, they gave him over to the
Americans, who have held him — and tortured him — without charges all
this time. Now, years after they knew he had been captured on false
evidence, the Americans have finally cleared him for release — one of
hundreds of the “worst of the worst” in Gitmo who turned out to be
completely innocent -. But Bush’s little bulldog, Tony Blair, refuses
to allow Banna back into the UK, threatening to send him instead to his
native Jordan — from which Banna escaped in 1994 after being tortured
by the American-allied regime there. The Guardian notes:

This month Mr Banna was seen in
Guantánamo by his lawyer, Zachary Katznelson from the group Reprieve.
According to Mr Katznelson’s transcript of the meeting, seen by the
Guardian, Mr Banna said: “The British government has let me stay here
for four and a half years. What crime did I commit? Together with the
Americans, they have kept me from my children. They have deprived me of
the chance to see them grow up, to hold them, to kiss them, to laugh
with them, to play with them. There is no way to turn back time, to
give me back those moments.” During the visit, Mr Banna was allowed to
watch a home video of his children, including his first sighting of his
four-year-old daughter Maryam…

Speaking from Guantánamo, while
shackled to the floor, Mr Banna said: “I have always told the truth. I
have no information about terrorism. I’ve said since the very first
day: put me on trial anywhere at any time. I will gladly stand up and
tell my story. And I know that a fair court would set me free. But
there is no chance of that here in Guantánamo. There is no justice
here.” Mr Banna said his diabetes is not being treated and his sight is
deteriorating….During the visit Mr Banna also said that letters from
his children were taking up to 16 months to reach him….

The [UK] government has maintained a position that it has no obligation to help British residents held by the US in Guantánamo.

And so here is where we are, here
is what is quietly accepted — when it is not enthusiastically embraced:
a system where innocent men are kidnapped by secret agents then kept
imprisoned, chained and abused for years on end, without charges, with
only the barest minimum of grudgingly granted and increasingly
restricted legal representation, then threatened with a new “rendition”
to the torture chambers of faithful allies. Where American citizens can
be snatched, imprisoned and tortured into madness at the arbitrary
order of the national leader, who can subject any citizen to this
process simply by declaring them — again, arbitrarily — an “enemy
combatant.” It is staggering for someone who came of age during the
Cold War to see the United States and Britain turning into a sort of
modern-dress version of East Germany.

The realities outlined above are
precisely the kind of thing that the good old boys down at the feed
store would have likened to “something them Commies might do.” And a
goodly proportion of such “heartlanders” indeed responded favorably
when national politicians had the courage to cast the abuses of that
era in such terms, i.e., as something inimical to American ideals,
American identity. That movement was soon washed away, of course,
primarily by the blowback from decades of bipartisan imperial
gamesmanship – in this case, the Iranian revolution, the inevitable
result of 30 years of American-sponsored repression by the Shah, whose
brutal regime had been implanted by the Americans after a CIA “regime
change” black op destroyed Iran’s secular democracy in 1953. Jimmy
Carter, like the rest of the American Establishment, was fanatically –
and stupidly – devoted to the corrupt and vicious Iranian despot; and
for his sins, Carter was given the hostage crisis that crippled his
presidency and foredoomed him to defeat by the Reagan-Bush gang.

These newly empowered militarists
dealt only in the darkest Cold War tropes, those which held that
“anything goes” in the savage quest for world dominance. Ironically,
the Rightists didn’t define themselves in opposition to the Soviet
Union, because they approved of so many of the Soviets’ methods.  There was actually very
little ideological content in the Reagan-Bush militarists’ opposition
to the Soviet Union. They didn’t really care what the Soviets stood for
or didn’t stand for, or what they did or didn’t do; they just found the
Soviets useful as a big bogeyman to “scare the hell out of the American
and thus skew the system for the benefit of their own
war-profiteering clique. As soon as the Soviet Union collapsed, they
found other bogeymen: first the regime of Saddam Hussein that they had
just spent a decade supporting, then the Islamic extremists whom they
had also supported during those same years. (So you see, there was a
connection between Saddam and al Qaeda after all; they were both
pampered favorites of the militarist Right.)


This idea of Cold War mores acting
as an impediment to the open embrace of tyranny, torture and terror by
the government cannot be pushed too far, of course. While it was almost
certainly a contributing factor in emboldening the post-Vietnam,
post-Watergate Democrats to enact some reforms, it was obviously not
the only one. And the present-day acquiescence to Bush’s new “United
Stasi of America” system cannot be put down solely to the loss of that
automatic, almost unconscious revulsion to anything that smacked of
Soviet-style tyranny (or its forerunner in the popular mind, fascist

But it is a fact that we now have
generations who came of age (or to political awareness) only after the
dark militarists (and their off-shoot, the “militarists lite” of the
Clinton Administration and the Democratic Leadership Council) seized
the zeitgeist. And without the touchstone of that widespread internal
bias against tyranny to draw upon, those who uphold the Constitution,
the rule of law and common decency now have to expend enormous amounts
of energy arguing about issues that should have been settled long ago.
There should not even be a debate over the “proper” use of torture,
over whether we should “waterboard” captives or not. There should not
even be a debate about the president’s “right” to ignore the laws
passed by Congress with “signing statements,” executive orders and
secret directives. There should not even be a debate over secret,
unrestricted government surveillance into every aspect of our lives.
There should not even be a debate about maintaining a concentration
camp at Guantanamo Bay, or holding people captive for years on end
without charges and genuine due process. There should not even be a
debate about launching a war of aggression against a nation that had
not attacked us – and continuing that war after grinding the conquered
land into ruins, displacing and degrading millions of its citizens, and
killing more than 650,000 innocent people.

There shouldn’t be a debate on any
of these issues in America, or in Britain, or in any country that calls
itself civilized, that calls itself a democracy, that calls itself
free. But we have been forced into this humiliating position, in part
because we have lost something in the national character – some kind of
bedrock morality – that we still possessed, at least vestigially, even
in the miasmic Seventies. It seems to have been replaced by a moral and
physical cowardice that I never thought I would see in the United

And here we come to the crux of the
matter. Those who defend the new, open authoritarianism do so because
“9/11 changed everything.” The events of that day, we are told, justify
the evisceration of the Constitution, the militarization of society,
torture, indefinite detention, aggressive war and hundreds of thousands
of instances of “collateral damage.” Because we must do “whatever it
takes” to prevent the Islamists from hurting us again, or even taking
over our entire country.

Of course, most if not all of the
politicians who make hay of this fearmongering — Bush, Cheney,
Guiliani, Lieberman, etc. — don’t really believe it; if they did, they
would not avidly pursue and support policies that are guaranteed to
increase the threat of terrorism by several magnitudes. (Although their
cheerleaders in the wingnut blogosphere really do believe it; they
really do quake in fear at the thought of big bad Muslims coming to get
them, and they are more than willing to sacrifice the Constitution —
and the lives of an unlimited number of American soldiers and foreign
civilians — to keep themselves safe and cozy at their keyboards.) But
the cowardice that the politicians play upon obviously has some
resonance in the wider public (in addition to the wingnut bootlicking
fringe), and must account at least in some degree for the widespread
indifference to the ongoing murder of the Republic. The internal
touchstone of anti-tyranny has been replaced by a touchstone of fear.

Again, all of this is passing
strange to anyone who lived through a substantial portion of the Cold
War. For decades, the genuine threat of imminent destruction hung over
our heads, consciously and unconsciously permeating every moment of
existence. The force that threatened us (or seemed to; as anyone who’s
read James Carroll’s House of War knows, the real history of those
years shows that it was the United States that came closest to
launching world-ending nuclear holocausts during that time) was one of
the most powerful and well-armed states in the history of the world,
fully capable of annihilating millions of Americans in an instant, and
standing in the vanguard of a movement that controlled more than half
the world’s population.

Yet in the face of this very real
existential threat, American liberties actually expanded enormously
over the decades of the Cold War; the Civil Rights movement is only one
example. America was able to absorb and embrace tremendous
stresses of social and political change even with the dagger of nuclear
war pointed squarely at its heart. Americans were able to stop an
unjust war, bring down a criminal president and put fetters on
government power — and still preserve their “national security” from
the greatest danger it had ever known.

Yet today, we are told that we must
“curtail” our liberties, countenance evil practices (“the dark side, if
you will,” as Dick Cheney calls it), give the government unfettered
power, ignore the open lawbreaking of the president, and continue an
unjust war…because of the threat posed by a collection of small,
scattered, isolated groups of religious primitives, often at each
other’s throats, despised by their own co-religionists for their
murderous perversions of the faith, and unable to gain a foothold in
any country that has not been brought to ruin or chaos by the
geopolitical games of the major powers. The fact that cynical
power-seekers and war profiteers have been able to inflate this deadly
but minor scourge into a globe-straddling monster capable of destroying
the United States and enslaving its people speaks volumes about the
timorousness that has entered America’s national character. It is as if
a man who once had fought off an angry lion with his bare hands was now
frightened to death of a rabid cat.

In the end, of course, it doesn’t
matter where the combination of cowardice, ignorance and belligerence
that has characterized the American character in the 21st century comes
from. It is here, it is our reality, our shame — and our

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