Jul 16, 2008

Terminal uniqueness

I'm half way through Jane Mayer's heart-sickening book The Dark Side — and intend to blog more on it when I'm finished — but my first thought is that if there is a single thread which facilitated the abuse and torture of detainees, it is the belief that September 11th was historically unique. Again and again, you hear it said by the Program's architects: everything changed after 9/11, it was a "new type" of war, a "new type" of enemy, the gloves were off, etc. That is how everyone in the book sounds — as if America were the first nation in history to suffer terrorist attack or civilian slaughter.

This is not to rob 9/11 of its horrifying power but every historical atrocity was seen as unique, unprecendented, from the French terror to the Holocaust to the Stalinist purges. And yet Cheney's men operated in a kind of historical vacuum. "It seemed to me odd that the actors weren't more troubled by what they were doing," said Alberto Mora, General Counsel of the United States Navy. "I wondered if they were even familiar with the Nuremberg trials — or with the laws of war."

As Mayer points out, America had in the past faced other mortal enemies, equally if not more threatening, without endangering its moral authority by resorting to state-sanctioned torture. "In previous conflicts, the US has dealt with tens of thousands of detainees without repudiating its obligations under the [Geneva] conventions," said William Taft, Colin Powell's attorney. "I have no doubt that we can do so here, where only a relative handful of persons is concerned."

During the revolutionary war, Washington and the Continental army were regarded by the British as "illegal combatants" undeserving of the protections afforded usual soldiers; Washington insisted, contrarily, that British prisoners be treated "with humanity, and let them have no reason to complain of us copying the Brutal British army."

In October of 2001, a British intelligence officer told Tyler Drumhelle, Chief of CIA's Clandestine Operations in Europe. "You need to learn from our history." He brought up the IRA. "We decided to turn the terrorist's tactics back on them. For a time, it worked. It stopped the immediate attacks. But watch out. Its dangerous. I makes you the bad guys. And when it gets to court — and in your society, just like ours, it will — every one of those guys will get off."

Which is what will probably happen with all but a handful of the detainees. Because Cheney acted in the certainty that the period in history he happened to find himself in was without precedent. It seems such an innocent claim on its surface — surely suffering grants us special status? makes us different? — were it not that its consequences are always so pernicious. It was this sense of absolute uniqueness that allowed the administration to treat its detainees as less than human. The converse — a recognition that suffering is pretty much the only constant in human affairs — has always shown us the way out. How do you undo the patient painstaking infliction of damage? With patient, painstaking books like The Dark Side.

Among the revelations:—
  • "A CIA analyst warned the Bush administration in 2002 that up to a third of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay may have been imprisoned by mistake, but White House officials ignored the finding and insisted that all were 'enemy combatants' subject to indefinite incarceration."
  • "The [CIA] analyst estimated that a full third of the camp's detainees were there by mistake. When told of those findings, the top military commander at Guantanamo at the time, Major Gen. Michael Dunlavey, not only agreed with the assessment but suggested that an even higher percentage of detentions -- up to half -- were in error. Later, an academic study by Seton Hall University Law School concluded that 55 percent of detainees had never engaged in hostile acts against the United States, and only 8 percent had any association with al-Qaeda."
  • "The International Committee of the Red Cross declared in the report, given to the C.I.A. last year, that the methods used on Abu Zubaydah, the first major Qaeda figure the United States captured, were 'categorically' torture, which is illegal under both American and international law. The Red Cross document 'warned that the abuse constituted war crimes, placing the highest officials in the U.S. government in jeopardy of being prosecuted.'"

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