Like a giant octopus that occasionally surfaces when prodded – or hungry – the seething mass of sheer malevolence at the core of U.S. foreign policy sometimes breaks through to the front pages – most recently, in Sunday’s Washington Post, in the form of a story detailing a secret Justice Department memo, written by Jack L. Goldsmith, former director of the Office of Legal Counsel – and author of Pinochet, Head-of-State Immunity, and International Human Rights Litigation in U.S. Courts. The document is a draft opinion that rationalizes the "disappearing" of detainees in Iraq, and their transport to nations where human rights protections don’t get in the way of interrogation techniques.
The Geneva Conventions – the 1949 treaty signed by the U.S. that regulates the treatment of prisoners in wartime – clearly forbid "individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory . . . regardless of their motive." Yet "as many as a dozen" detainees have been "disappeared" – hidden from the Red Cross – and spirited out of the country, according to the Post:
"The draft opinion, written by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel and dated March 19, 2004, refers to both Iraqi citizens and foreigners in Iraq, who the memo says are protected by the treaty. It permits the CIA to take Iraqis out of the country to be interrogated for a ‘brief but not indefinite period.’ It also says the CIA can permanently remove persons deemed to be ‘illegal aliens’ under ‘local immigration law.’"
The U.S., which cannot – and will not – enforce its own immigration laws, is now intent on enforcing the immigration laws of other nations. Ah, the ironies of empire!
The disappeared Iraqis pose a delicate legal problem of a different sort for U.S. officials who authorize actions deemed a "grave breach" of the Geneva Conventions, as explained in a footnote to the Goldsmith memo. The Justice Department draft also notes that this would be a "war crime" according to our own laws, and goes on to warn the administration:
"For these reasons, we recommend that any contemplated relocations of ‘protected persons’ from Iraq to facilitate interrogation be carefully evaluated for compliance with Article 49 on a case by case basis."
They’re getting nervous in Washington about the prospect of a war crimes charge, and with good reason.
This is only the most recent sighting of the dark secret at the core of America’s dirty war in Iraq. There was the story about systematic abuse in Afghan prisons maintained by the U.S., and before that Abu Ghraib. It was Seymour Hersh who blew the lid off the U.S. government’s secret network of torture chambers scattered at undisclosed locations all around the world, revealed in a series of articles for the New Yorker. It’s all part of an operation code named "Copper Green," the details of which are elaborated on in his excellent – and frightening – recent book, Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib.
Copper Green was a creation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his top lieutenant, Stephen Cambone: in the post-9/11 atmosphere of "moral clarity," they set up a secret army of assassins, interrogators, and specialists in torture techniques whose task it was to fight terror with terror. At first directed at ferreting out Osama bin Laden and the top al-Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan, this "special access program" – a program so top secret that only the president and a select group were in on it – soon opened up a branch operation in Iraq.
The U.S. military, increasingly on the defensive, was desperate to develop sources of intelligence inside the growing insurgency. The "Gitmo-ization" of the prison system maintained by the U.S. in occupied Iraq was ordered from the top, and we saw the results in those horrific photographs – of which we have yet to see the worst. The idea was to so humiliate and subjugate detainees that we could send some of them back into the population as snitches – under threat of revealing graphic evidence of their coerced activities to family, friends, and associates. According to this rationale, supposedly suggested by the writings of Raphael Patai, author of The Arab Mind, shame can be used to manipulate and ultimately pacify Arabic males, since honor or the lack of it is the moral mechanism that regulates their actions. Strip them of their honor, and you have them by the cojones.
Such a theory, however, seems oddly counterintuitive: why assume systematic abuse won’t boomerang on the perpetrators, returning as "blowback" in the form of terrorism? The result is more likely to be a replication of the depressingly familiar "cycle of violence" that inflames the West Bank, and keeps the violent passions of the Middle East burning at white-hot intensity. That this may very well be the idea is a thought that strikes even the casual observer: Abu Ghraib was a gift to bin Laden, and to the cause of radical Islamism worldwide, such as the mujahideen could never have won on their own, pictorially confirming what bin Laden and his cohorts have been saying all along – that the U.S. is at the head of a Satanic conspiracy to destroy all that is holy. To any Muslim, or, indeed, to anyone outside the West, the Abu Ghraib photos didn’t need captions.
In the U.S. and Great Britain, however, it was quite a different story: the "abuses" (i.e., acts of torture) were depicted as random "isolated" incidents carried out by a few individuals of lower rank. The scapegoats were quickly rounded up, charged, and railroaded into prison, while all testimony from high-ups was suppressed and the Senate investigation was delayed if not derailed until after the election.
The temporal proximity of U.S. presidential elections and Halloween is no accident, I would maintain: and, in any event, the results are always a horror. This time is no different. However, what’s truly frightening, this scary season, is not the prospect of uncovering yet more gruesome details about our secret torture chambers, our war crimes, our seemingly deliberate campaign to empower bin Laden even as we pretend to fight him. What’s truly Halloweenish is the complete absence of the war crimes issue from the presidential race. Have the words "Abu Ghraib" ever passed John Kerry’s lips? Oh, maybe once or twice – but he didn’t say much. Only what he felt – "revulsion" – not what he would do.
If Kerry had taken the risk of making this a big issue, he would have started acting the statesman before taking office – that, combined with his debate performance, would by now have put him over the top as far as looking more presidential than the current occupant of the White House. And that, I submit, is the main motivating factor behind the swing vote that makes all the difference on Election Day: Bush has already lost the election, but Kerry has yet to win it. By acting as if he’s already won – by getting up there on the bully pulpit and showing some real leadership – Kerry could have already sewn it up by now.
Oh, but that would clash with the Democrats’ idea of being "tough," of emblazoning their bumperstickers with dumbass slogans like "For a Stronger America." Stronger than what – Rome? Russia? The EU? All other nations put together? The law of causality? God?
They need to get tough, all right: with George W. Bush. But it’s almost too late for that, now. If the Democrats lose this election, they will have no one to blame but themselves: not Ralph Nader, not the Libertarian Party (which is arguably drawing just as many disaffected Democrats as libertarian Republicans, or at least enough to make a significant difference), not voter fraud (there seems to be enough of that on both sides to effectively cancel out the overall effect).
Kerry has called for Rumsfeld’s resignation, but doesn’t raise the larger issue of how and why Abu Ghraib happened beyond calling for an official commission to investigate. He hasn’t made an issue of the growing war crimes scandal and the shroud of official secrecy that veils the truth about the war we are waging for a simple and all too obvious reason: if Kerry wins, the apparatus of global "counter"-terrorism is his to command – and he wouldn’t hesitate to use it just as the current president and his advisors have done. Kerry has told us this probably more than a couple of hundred times by now: that he wouldn’t hesitate to "hunt down the terrorists and kill them." Which "terrorists," and where? Kerry’s various declarations are vague enough to cover all possible bases.
Kerry is promising to be a better interventionist, to fight and "win" a morally and militarily problematic war. Instead of dismantling the apparatus of torture and exposing the secret network of bloodstained dungeons run by Bush’s expert neocon torturers, Kerry will inherit it, succeed in hiding it a little better, and use it for his own purposes.
It must be my Randian roots, but this issue illustrates why I cannot vote for Kerry – without ever considering a vote for Bush. I can’t help believing that, by casting my vote, I am sanctioning whatever actions that candidate will take once they’re in office. I must, in an important sense, take responsibility and be judged, just as President Kerry, or President Whomever, will be judged in the court of history. By voting for a candidate who, in his capacity as commander in chief, knowingly permits – and commits – war crimes, I am sanctioning those crimes. I become an accomplice. And so do we all as long as we allow such a government to remain in office.