World Behind Bars

| Thu Aug. 28, 2003 2:00 AM EDT


    "Pentagon sources report one hopeful sign that the military is thinking creatively and unconventionally about Iraq. The Pentagon's special operations chiefs have scheduled a showing tomorrow in the Army auditorium of 'The Battle of Algiers,' a classic film that examines how the French, despite overwhelming military superiority, were defeated by Algerian resistance fighters.

    A Pentagon flier announcing the film puts it in eerie perspective: 'How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas ... Children shoot soldiers at point blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.'"

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From Washington Post columnist David Ignatius's piece, 'Think Strategy, Not Numbers'

For those who don't remember, managed to miss, or weren't old enough to see Gillo Pontecorvo's remarkable 1965 film The Battle of Algiers, I should fill you in on what Ignatius in his column doesn't bother to say. (He's intent on arguing about overmilitarizing the Iraqi conflict and trying to solve occupation problems by sending in more troops.) The French had a plan indeed, carefully laid out, to destroy the national independence movement in the city of Algiers, which was divided into small linked cells. The plan was to capture cell members, torture them immediately and mercilessly, so that they would break quickly and the French could get to the next cell members before anyone knew the cell's secrecy was broken, and so on, right up the ladder to the leadership. It was unbearably brutal and, according to the film, tactically successful in breaking the urban resistance, but it did not in the end stop the movement to free Algeria of French control. (Of course we all know what the Algerian revolution finally degenerated into, itself a commentary on where such cycles of brutality lead, no matter who officially wins what.)

But the men who are running our post-9/11 war on terror don't necessarily need tips from Pontecorvo's old film. We seem to have made it there on our own. Newsweek's Christopher Dickey recently explored American "interrogation techniques" in an online column, linking our version of torture to the new Bermuda Triangle of injustice that we're developing worldwide: "[T]he idea," he writes, "is to keep most of the important players out of the United States. Apparently there is no shortage of black holes in which to soften up the bad guys, although only a few are publicized. 'The most interesting thing about interrogations is how the U.S. government and military capitalizes on the dubious status (as sovereign states) of Afghanistan, Diego Garcia, Guantanamo Bay, Iraq and aircraft carriers to avoid certain legal questions about rough interrogations,' my [military] friend told me." But here's the thing, imperial tactics abroad, always initially meant only for lesser peoples and races (who don't, of course, know the meaning of democracy and freedom, who don't have our values) sooner or later head for home, as has already happened in the case of Jose Padilla, as Dickey makes clear.

In the meantime, what was once a makeshift, seat-of-the-pants, extralegal set-up in Guantanamo Bay is fast becoming a permanent and expanding installation, the ever-less-makeshift capital of what it may not be too soon to call an American gulag. All that's evidently missing now is the (kangaroo) courthouse and some sort of execution chamber. The military just announced, according to Frank Griffiths of the Associated Press, that it

    "will build a fifth camp at Guantanamo Bay to hold and interrogate detainees from its war against terror... in another signal its mission here will be a long-term one. Camp V will make room for 100 more detainees, increasing the capacity at the remote naval base in eastern Cuba to 1,100, Lt. Col. Pamela Hart said.

    Since the detention center first opened in January 2002, it has grown from open-air, chain-link cells that some likened to animal cages to trailer-style quarters where detainees have a metal bed, a sink and toilets that flush. It holds about 660 men from 42 countries detained for alleged links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network or the ousted Afghan Taliban regime that sheltered it. They include three youths - ages 13-15 - whom the military says it probably will recommend for release soon.

    ...

    Asked about the growing permanence of the camp, Hart said, 'We will be here as long as the war on terrorism continues.'"

If you want to get a sense of the way our secret, thoroughly extralegal war on terror actually is being conducted, take a look at a recent piece by Guardian reporter Rory Carroll in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn on the bodysnatching of five foreign Muslims working and living in the Southern African state of Malawi. They were spirited out of the country, probably by the CIA, interrogated for a month and then released elsewhere in the world. It's a strange and disturbing tale from a small, poor, democratic African nation to which I can't do justice in a brief quote here:

    "Their relatives hired a team of lawyers led by Shabir Latif, who practised at the bar in the UK. 'Malawi has the best constitution south of the Sahara and guarantees basic rights which were denied my clients,' he said. A high court judge issued an injunction barring deportation, ordering the authorities to charge the men or release them on bail.

    It made no difference. The five were spirited abroad. 'Who can I produce in court now? Their ghosts?' Fahad Assani, Malawi's director of public prosecutions, asked the court in exasperation. 'These people are out of reach for us. It's the Americans who know where they are.'

    Amnesty International noted the irony of the men being transferred on the day the State Department released a report about US efforts to promote human rights worldwide. Colin Powell also recently lectured African leaders on respecting the rule of law."

The unintended consequences of this were riots and a rise in religious tension in Malawi.

Among democratic states, we are not alone with our mini-gulags beyond the prying eyes of citizens. My own eye was caught by Aviv Lavie's long piece, 'Inside Israel's Secret Prison,' in Ha'aretz's Friday magazine. Israel has long been involved in a cyclic war of terror, just now heating up again. It is also a country in the process of building a wall essentially meant to incarcerate its enemies, a country once again bracing for another round of suicide bombings, a country losing its democratic character. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out to have its own version of Guantanamo, lodged not in some exotic spot, but somewhere on its own territory, though in response to inmate questions about where they are, Lavie tells us, the guards respond "on the moon" or "in outer space." The long piece begins:

    "Detainees are blindfolded and kept in blackened cells, never told where they are, brutally interrogated and allowed no visitors of any kind. Dubbed 'the Israeli Guantanamo,' it's no wonder facility 1391 officially does not exist.

    M, who serves in the Intelligence Corps reserves, remembers the first time he was sent to do guard duty at Camp 1391. Before climbing to the top of the observation tower he received an explicit order from the responsible officer: 'When you're on the tower you look straight ahead only, outside the base, and to the sides. What happens behind you is none of your business. Do not turn around.'

    ...

    There are in fact certain points of resemblance between the American detention camp in Cuba and the Israeli site, mainly in relation to the legal questions that hover over them and the gnawing doubt about whether they are consistent with the values of democracy."

Ground Zero Nation

At the moment, the Bush administration is threatening to ease air pollution requirements for oil refineries, power plants, and other industrial facilities that want to upgrade themselves. It's like deciding to let industrial plants along New York's Hudson River turn it back into a flowing cesspool. Charmingly enough, the EPA seems to be taking this step, according to the latest Associated Press report, based on something less than persuasive data. "The Environmental Protection Agency," AP tells us, "relied on anecdotes from industries it regulates for its argument that relaxing air pollution rules for industrial plants will cut emissions and health risks, congressional investigators said Monday."

And then just the other day we learned that in one place the EPA had already relaxed air pollution standards, secretly, through lies and evasions, and based on nothing at all. I'm talking, of course, about Ground Zero. Laurie Garrett of Newsday (and author of The Coming Plague) offers examples of exactly how they went about this:

    "Discovery of asbestos higher than safe levels in dust samples from lower Manhattan was changed to state that 'samples confirm previous reports that ambient air quality meets OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] standards and consequently is not a cause for public concern.'

    Language in an EPA draft stating that asbestos levels in some areas were three times higher than national standards was changed to 'slightly above the 1 percent trigger for defining asbestos material.'

    This sentence was added to a Sept. 16 press release: 'Our tests show that it is safe for New Yorkers to go back to work in New York's financial district.' It replaced a statement that initial monitors failed to turn up dangerous samples. A warning on the importance of safely handling Ground Zero cleanup, due to lead and asbestos exposure, was changed to say that some contaminants had been noted downtown but 'the general public should be very reassured by initial sampling.'"

Anyone who went downtown in Manhattan soon after 9/11 and had their lungs explode in about 30 seconds, without getting within a couple of blocks of Ground Zero, or who simply considered what would be the result after maybe 10,000 computers, untold tons of Xerox toner, vast amounts of asbestos and god knows what else smashed into dust shouldn't be surprised by all this. Certainly, we in New York were speculating about this at the time. Paul Krugman of The New York Times, in another of his superlative columns, suggests one explanation of why the administration did this and what financially it had to gain.

What nobody has yet commented on, however, is the way an administration which aligned itself so strongly with the "heroes of 9/11" and the policemen, firemen, and others who braved the pit of the collapsed Towers for so many weeks was actually consigning them to a hell of dangers without a whisper of a warning. Perhaps many of them would have gone anyway, but then they would have chosen knowing the worst. The cravenness of the Bush men is really beyond words.

And now, with more lies and more secrecy, hiding the data under reassuring words and photo-ops of the President against the background of natural scenes of great beauty, they would like to turn America into a Ground Zero Nation of pollution. Then we would all be in the pit.

Finally, I include a column, "Turn down the volume while it's possible," by Jay Bookman of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, partially because it's sane and partially because it predicts the sort of increasingly insane fall I think we're likely to have.

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