When America Is the Rogue
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, March 30, 2006
Expose an individual to violence and depravity long enough and he’s likely either to join in or become numb to it. Something along those lines seems to be happening to the American public regarding those vague vile wars on Iraq, on “terror,” on themselves. The scandals aren’t diminishing. To the contrary. Tales of mayhem and massacres are verging on the routine. But the reaction, aside from obvious discontent and an abandon-the-Bush-ship signal for a slew of once-upon-a-time warmongers, is either more calls for blood from that quickly diminishing corps of diehard Bush brigades (because we haven’t dropped enough bombs in three years) or… tired indifference.
Abu Ghraib, it turns out, was summer camp compared with what has happened beyond Abu Ghraib, what keeps happening since. Americans don’t recognize themselves in their projections on Arab lands. Their little “Support Our Troops” stickers are becoming increasingly ironic badges of imbecility, of insults to Iraqi civilians to whom troop support translates into daily humiliations and outright killings at the hands of trigger-jittered soldiers, who see a suicide bomber behind every bush. So the American public is retreating to itself, as if not looking is a way of staving off the reckoning. Break scandal after scandal. Reveal that GIs may have executed a couple dozen people, some of them too old to fire a weapon, in a mosque, reveal that the president has been having Ngo Dinh Diem fantasies about the Iraqi prime minister. The reaction is the same. A little outrage in a few editorials, a column or two, a few dozen blogs. But from the public at large: Inattention. Focus only on “American Idol.” Grasp for innocence where you can more readily find it, on the sound stage of a Fox Television variety show where it’s still possible to believe that the best talent can still win and the greatest threat to western civilization is the clash between Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell—the dim and dour of America’s moral compass. And for a little relaxation from the tension later on, there’s always Bill O’Reilly and the rest of Fox’s brown-shirted line-up of puff-swaddled bullies. “Support Our Troops” indeed—just as long as they stay out of our faces, the reminders of their inglorious fate safely and soundly distant. Like rogues. The troops are living up to the expectations. And when the press discovers it, the reaction is, of course even more virulent toward the messenger: The media have it all wrong. The media are the enemy. Isn’t that what Bush’s recent PR offensive cheerleading for the war has been all about? Let’s call it waterboarding with whitewash.
Take the story of Task Force 6-26, reported in the New York Times on March 19: “As the Iraqi insurgency intensified in early 2004, an elite Special Operations forces unit converted one of Saddam Hussein's former military bases near Baghdad into a top-secret detention center. There, American soldiers made one of the former Iraqi government's torture chambers into their own interrogation cell. They named it the Black Room. In the windowless, jet-black garage-size room, some soldiers beat prisoners with rifle butts, yelled and spit in their faces and, in a nearby area, used detainees for target practice in a game of jailer paintball.” Their intention, the paragraph goes on almost by means of rationalization, was to find Mussab al-Zarqawi, whose DNA is becoming increasingly similar to those WMDs: His existence may be more myth than reality, and the occupation forces’ obsession with him is all to the insurgents’ advantage. But what does it matter why the Black Room existed. The mere fact of its existence under American control is the disgrace, not least because the same place was used by Saddam Hussein as a torture chamber. The Americans, never keen on the sort of symbolism that blares louder than the desert sun in the Middle East, in 2003 transferred Baghdad’s Green Zone from Saddam’s forbidding seat of power to their own, as The Atlantic’s William Langewiesche so vividly described it in a November 2004 Atlantic report. They weren’t content with aping the old tyrant’s luxuries and conceits. They had to adopt Saddam’s basement methods, too, and not always by proxy. His thuggery has been replaced by the two main Shiite militias’ and their “men in black,” death squads that roam streets and roadblocks for errant Sunnis. ( U.S. foreign policy, of course, has a long, ignoble history of conveniently veiled associations with death squads.) But it’s also been replaced, institutionally, by the force and arbitrariness of the occupation, by its lethal insecurity coupled with any great power’s outsized arrogance. Task Force 6-26’s “Black Room” was, is, like the CIA’s “black sites” and Bush’s contemptuous “we do not torture” one-liner, the expression of that institutional thuggery. Yet the story came and went with hardly a ripple in the nation's shallowed tub of scruples.
The fact that Saddam used the Task Force basement as a torture chamber is only one of the many details that should (but seemingly doesn’t) flood American living rooms with outrage. The other is this, barely touched on in the New York Times story: When Donald Rumsfeld’s top aide ordered a subordinate to “get to the bottom” of any misconduct, it was to Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin that he wrote the memo. “General Boykin said through a spokesman on March 17 that at the time he told Mr. Cambone he had found no pattern of misconduct with the task force,” the Times reports. And that’s that as far as Boykin is concerned. No mention of Boykin’s background, which implicates his motives and ridicules his credibility. Boykin, you see, is the Christian bigot who once said of a Somali warlord that “I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol,” who claimed that the United States was in a holy war against Satan, that Bush was in the White House “because God put him there,” who took his video and bigotry show on tour around evangelical churches and who, when word of his Christian-Taliban-style crusading finally got out to the press (the evil one, once again), was promoted by Rumsfeld. Boykin was then put in charge of reforming Abu Ghraib and other Iraqi prisons. Task Force 6-26’s party basement, naturally, was one way to reform it according to Boykin’s tenets. So his telling Cambone that he had found no pattern of misconduct was like one brute telling another that the little gulag encampment they’re looking after is really a dandy place God and country would be proud of. For Cambone, too, is a brute: As Sydney Blumenthal wrote two years ago in the Guardian, Cambone, a conservative defense intellectual appointed to the new post of undersecretary of intelligence, “is universally despised by the officer corps for his arrogant, abrasive and dictatorial style and regarded as the personal symbol of Rumsfeldism. A former senior Pentagon official told me of a conversation with a three-star general, who remarked: ‘If we were being overrun by the enemy and I had only one bullet left, I’d use it on Cambone.’” (Counterpunch’s Jeffrey Sinclair has the Cambone story in detail.)
The Times did not see fit to refer to any of Boykin’s background, or Cambone’s. Its story was revealing. But so was the allowance for a vat of whitewash. “Military and legal experts,” the Times wrote, “say the full breadth of abuses committed by Task Force 6-26 may never be known because of the secrecy surrounding the unit, and the likelihood that some allegations went unreported.” But mostly, because with the likes of Cambone and Boykin in charge, reflecting the will and desire of the Bush junta, the American public is no longer on a need-to-know basis regarding the doings of its government. There really is no high-level conspiracy to deceive the public or flout the Constitution. There is only a Grand Inquisitor-like presidency that’s giving the public what it wants: It wants immunity. It wants plausible deniability of the unconscionable. And it’s getting what it wants.
Pierre Tristam is an editorial writer and columnist at the Daytona Beach News-Journal, and editor of Candide's Notebooks. email: email@example.com