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On Monday U.S. District Court Judge Henry Kennedy ruled in what Carol Rosenberg described as a “heavily censored 28-page ruling” that Guantánamo detainee Adnan Abdul Latif was to be released. While he was locked up at least four years longer than necessary, it still is good news. Another captive has been freed and the inmate population there has been reduced by one. For as happy a turn of events as this is for Latif, though, it is a small part of a very gloomy picture.
Most obviously there is the case of fellow Guantánamo inmate Omar Khadr. His military commission reads almost like a caricature of a Kafkaesque show trial. Colonel Patrick Parrish, the presiding judge, allowed “confessions” produced by the threat of violence. He also allowed Evan Kohlmann, a comically unqualified layman, to testify as an expert in al Qaeda while conveniently ignoring that Kohlmann’s knowledge (such as it is) has nothing whatsoever to do with Khadr.
Even the details have a police state feel. Sketch artist Janet Hamlin was prevented from merely drawing outlines of the jurors, so her pictures have the strange (and chilling) depiction of numbers in the jury box where human beings should be.
Beyond Guantánamo, there was the report this week of what the New York Times delicately described as “the Obama administration’s shadow war against Al Qaeda and its allies.” America is now secretly engaged in intelligence and military operations in over a dozen countries. On tactics alone this seems disastrous. Obama counterterrorism adviser John Brennan - yes, that John Brennan (though see here) - describes using a “scalpel” approach to the bombing campaigns.
Historian and author David Mets has described (pdf) the many euphemisms applied to them over the years, including “strategic bombing,” “tactical airpower,” “surgical strike.”. The continual need for re-branding suggests that maybe it is not perfectible in the way forever promised. Precise language is periodically recycled because the current term of choice is constantly being discredited by the ultimately crude nature of air warfare.
There are other issues too. Could CIA drone pilots be classified by other governments as illegal enemy combatants under the same logic America has used to justify its “all the world’s a front” approach? If operators were captured, wouldn’t America have trouble objecting if they were mistreated - held for years without charge, coerced or tortured into telling their captors what they wanted to hear, having it used as evidence in a hastily convened military tribunal?
The long term implications are easy to see as well, because we are already getting a good look. The Jerusalem Post reported that reserve Israeli Defense Force officer Eden Abergil “posted photographs from her compulsory service on Facebook, showing her with detained Palestinians who were handcuffed and blindfolded”. A Facebook group was created for her supporters:
Members of the group also added photos from the Abu Ghraib scandal, with the caption: “This is what Americans do to Iraqi soldiers - Guys, can we really compare?!! Eden only took a picture next to them - she didn’t humiliate them or anything.”I know most Americans have moved on from Abu Ghraib, but the rest of the planet has not - and will not. In one sense the Abergil story is as old as conflict itself; “When you unleash the terrible, fearsome and tragic thing that is war, it brings out the worst in some of the teenagers who fight it.” That is not what caused Abu Ghraib to become part of the ingrained view of America, though. It was the endorsement of it at the highest levels: Major General Geoffrey Miller being transferred from Guantánamo to “Gitmoize” Iraqi jails; the White House insisting it was a few bad apples, nothing to see here, move along, no command responsibility. Deny, obstruct and whitewash was the official response, and that is what Americanized it.
Every country has its bad actors and is capable of falling into the grip some kind of irrational frenzy. Even some of those America maltreated have a certain sympathy; on being released from Guantánamo Lakhdar Boumediene was almost astoundingly generous: “‘The first month, okay, no problem, the building, the 11 of September, the people, they are scared, but not 7 years. They can know whose innocent, who’s not innocent, who’s terrorist, who’s not terrorist,’ he said. ‘I give you 2 years, no problem, but not 7 years.’” We can no longer plead such trauma, though. That is why the show trials and secret bombings will not be over when the last verdict is read or the rubble stops bouncing. They are destined to become part of the global imagination. No matter how much we insist with exasperation that it’s old news, we will be stuck with it.