Monday, June 19, 2006

The War on Terror Jumps the Shark; or, God Help AMerica

When I heard last week that government and military officials had characterized the recent trio of suicides by detainees at Guantanamo Bay as "a good PR move" and as "not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare against us," my first thought was, "That's it: the war on terror has jumped the shark." This has to be a new height in absurdity, I thought; these detainees are supposedly our deadly enemies (or so our leaders keep telling us), so haven't they just done us a huge favor by removing themselves as possible threats? How bureaucratically fixated do you have to be to see a supposed enemy's self-destruction—not even in the course of a suicide attack, mind you—as an act of war? ("Make sense? It's just like a suicide bombing, but without the bomb.") But then my perplexity turned to anger as I realized that there was a logic behind these characterizations. It's a sick and ghastly logic, and it's not in the least surprising that the Bush administration swiftly backpedaled away from those remarks as they'd prefer that this sick and ghastly logic stay hidden, but it's too late: thanks to those spokespersons, we've now caught a glimpse of this logic out in the open, like a big, pox-ridden roach suddenly revealed by a flip of the kitchen light. Those spokespersons may have inadvertently done us a huge national favor by letting a bit of this logic slip out into the open, as now we can get a better idea of what America looks like in its terms. The result is not pretty.

The logic looks something like this. If your goal is not just to remove your enemy as a threat (the prime goal in normal war, surely) but to keep them under your thumb, subject to your whim, dejected and powerless, with no hope of escape or release and no reason to expect justice, for as long as you want and regardless of whether you have adequate evidence that they deserve this imprisonment, so that death is their only sure way out of their predicament, and you want all the while to maintain the fiction that you're doing this purely for self-defense and not out of any yearnings toward sadism—well, then your enemy's suicide is an act of war rather than a favor they've done you. It removes them as a threat in one way, to be sure, but if your goal in imprisoning them is not merely to remove them as a threat but to humiliate and oppress them, then suicide represents their only sure-fire way of frustrating your sadism. Any critical attention it brings to the whole operation is an added bonus for the prisoner—and a curse for the jailer. By this logic, lonely acts of self-destruction become acts of asymmetrical warfare and good PR moves. Of course, such a logic and such a "goal" are unworthy of embrace by a civilized nation, but alas, that doesn't seem to have stopped us.

I know what some people are thinking at this point: But the detainees are terrorists! They're bad men! Our leaders have said so! This may well be true of some of them—again, if so, shouldn't we see their suicides as acts of surrender rather than acts of war?—but let's review some of what we've found out about Guantanamo thanks to the National Journal. The NJ examined court documents on 132 detainees (approximately a fourth of the Guantanamo detainee population); out of these,

The NJ's examination of 314 transcripts of prisoner pleadings before Combat Status Review Tribunals at Gitmo produced "similar results": most of the men were captured outside of Afghanistan, most in Pakistan—some in "indiscrimate sweeps for Arabs," and some allegedly as the result of bribes and rewards offered for turning over Arab refugees. Here is how NJ summarized its findings about the Guantanamo detainees:
Many of them are not accused of hostilities against the United States or its allies. Most, when captured, were innocent of any terrorist activity, were Taliban foot soldiers at worst, and were often far less than that. And some, perhaps many, are guilty only of being foreigners in Afghanistan or Pakistan at the wrong time. And much of the evidence -- even the classified evidence -- gathered by the Defense Department against these men is flimsy, second-, third-, fourth- or 12th-hand. It's based largely on admissions by the detainees themselves or on coerced, or worse, interrogations of their fellow inmates, some of whom have been proved to be liars.
The NJ found, for example, that one prisoner had made accusations against more than 60 inmates—over 10% of the detainee population. When one suspicious and dutiful U.S. officer did some digging, however, he found that none of the men this prisoner had accused of being at a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan had even been in Afghanistan at the time the accuser said he saw them there. Then there's the case of Murat Kurnaz, who was snatched off a bus full of Islamic missionaries in Pakistan in October 2001 and condemned entirely on the basis of a brief, anonymous memo, even though other documents in his file—including testimonials from both U.S. and German intelligence services—denied that there was any evidence linking him to Al Qaeda. And let's not forget the use of sarcasm as evidence:
One man slammed his hands on the table during an especially long interrogation and yelled, "Fine, you got me; I'm a terrorist." The interrogators knew it was a sarcastic statement. But the government, sometime later, used it as evidence against him: "Detainee admitted he is a terrorist" reads his tribunal evidence. The interrogators were so outraged that they sought out the detainee's personal representative to explain it to him that [sic] the statement was not a confession.

A Yemeni, whom somebody fingered as a bin Laden bodyguard, finally said in exasperation during one long interrogation, "OK, I saw bin Laden five times: Three times on Al Jazeera and twice on Yemeni news." And now his "admission" appears in his enemy combatant's file: "Detainee admitted to knowing Osama bin Laden."

The NJ stories do not claim that all the detainees at Guantanamo are victims of monkey justice like this; indeed, the NJ acknowledges that there is good evidence that some of the men there really are serious terror threats. What about the three men who killed themselves last week? According to the Charlotte Observer (whose reporters broke the suicide story and whose reporters were also, surprise surprise, recently ejected from Gitmo, along with other journalists):
The U.S. Defense Department released the identities of three Guantanamo detainees who committed suicide.

Saudi Arabians Mani Shaman Turki al-Habardi Al-Utaybi and Yassar Talal Al-Zahrani -- identified earlier by Saudi officials -- and Ali Abdullah Ahmed, were the prisoners who hung themselves Ahmed's nationality was not provided, but U.S. military officials earlier said that two Saudis and one Yemeni had taken their lives:

  • Ali Abdullah Ahmed of Yemen was identified by officials as a mid-to-high level al-Qaida operative who has been non-compliant and hostile to the guard force; was a long term hunger striker from late 2005 to this May.
  • Mani Shaman Turki al-Habardi al-Utaybi of Saudi Arabia was a member of a militant missionary/recruitment group for al-Qaida and other jihadist terrorist groups and had been recommended for transfer to another country.
  • Yassar Talal Al-Zahrani of Saudi Arabia was a front line fighter for the Taliban and traveled to Afghanistan to take up arms against anti-Taliban forces.
The "mid-to-high level al-Qaida operative" sounds fairly scary; ditto maybe the "member of a militant missionary/recruitment group, " though check out the case of Farouq Ali Ahmed for a less threatening possibility for what a "missionary" connection might mean. And "front line fighter for the Taliban" is not the same thing as "terrorist":
By the fall of 2002, it was common knowledge around CIA circles that fewer than 10 percent of Guantanamo's prisoners were high-value terrorist operatives, according to Michael Scheuer who headed the agency's bin Laden unit through 1999 and resigned in 2004. Most of the men were probably foot soldiers at best, he said, who were "going to know absolutely nothing about terrorism." Guantanamo prisoners might be pumped for information about how they learned to fight, which could help American soldiers facing trained Islamic insurgencies. But the Defense Department and FBI interrogators at Guantanamo were interested more in catastrophic terrorism than in combat practicalities. They kept asking "every one of these guys about 9/11 and when was the next attack," questions most of these low-level prisoners couldn't answer, Scheuer said.
But this is beside the point. If these guys were really The Enemy, then they've done us a favor by destroying themselves; if we think their suicides were "an act of asymmetrical warfare" rather than an admission of defeat, it must be because we're interested in more than just neutralizing these people as threats. There's that logic again.

Back in the Sixties, Harlan Ellison wrote an (in)famous short story called "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream." It's about a quintet of people trapped in the bowels of a malevolent supercomputer called AM—which at first meant Allied Mastercomputer, then Adaptive Manipulator, then Aggressive Menace, and finally, in a grotesque echo of both Descartes and Yahweh, merely I AM. To the people trapped within him, AM might as well be God; he can do as he wills with them, and what he wills is hell. Almost omnipotent and thoroughly malevolent, AM reconstructs reality at whim, visiting hunger, thirst, violence, and madness upon his helpless captives, rearranging their very bodies and minds, driving them to the edge of death but never letting them die, always bringing them back for further torment, year upon year upon year. Like a lot of great science fiction, the story may not be literarily great (Ellison supposedly wrote it in a single night in 1966, and the first-draftiness shows through in places), but its highly condensed allegorical suckerpunches startle the mind in ways that the mind never quite forgets. And then there are passages like this:

AM went into my mind. He walked smoothly here and there, and looked with interest at all the pock marks he had created in one hundred and nine years. He looked at the cross-routed and reconnected synapses and all the tissue damage his gift of immortality had included. He smiled softly at the pit that dropped into the center of my brain and the faint, moth-soft murmurings of the things far down there that gibbered without meaning, without pause. AM said, very politely, in a pillar of stainless steel bearing bright neon lettering:

AM said it with the sliding cold horror of a razor blade slicing my eyeball. AM said it with the bubbling thickness of my lungs filling with phlegm, drowning me from within. AM said it with the shriek of babies being ground beneath blue-hot rollers. AM said it with the taste of maggoty pork. AM touched me in every way I had ever been touched, and devised new ways, at his leisure, there inside my mind.

The hero/narrator of "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" is, ultimately, a kind of Jesus in reverse: seizing an opportune moment, he kills his fellows to free them from AM's otherwise inescapable torments. In a final perverse twist on the Christ story, however, the hero is condemned to eternal life in the clutches of AM, as AM stops him before he can kill himself and then alters him into a soft, helpless, jellylike creature that can only shamble about, accepting AM's torments and absorbing AM's hatred, denied even the sweet release of a scream by AM's reconstructive ministrations (hence the title). There's an image you don't soon forget, let me tell you.

Until I heard suicide described as "an act of asymmetrical warfare," I'd have sworn that it was only a matter of historico-typographical accident that you can't spell America without AM. Until I heard human self-destruction referred to as "a good PR move," the connection between AM and AMerica had honestly never occurred to me. It took the Bush II Administration to take the connection from merely typographical to sadly analogical, to take AM from being a dark, perverted analogue of God to being a dark, perverted analogue of my country. The resemblance, thank God, nature, humanity, luck, or whatever, is still not close; until recently, however, I wouldn't have thought it was there at all. But an America governed by a logic which sees even suicide in terms of war and PR is an America already well along in the process of mutating into the United States of AM.

Thankfully, this is Juneteenth, so I can close by remembering better days, pre-mutation days, when America was stepping up into the light rather than down into the shadows. Maybe when we get rid of the current cabal and its lunatic logic we can start moving in the right direction again.

The Wachowski's must have "borrowed" AM's virulent hatred of humans for Agent Smith's tirade against humanity as he tortures Morpheus in The Matrix.
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