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“Our ‘American Sniper’ Sickness”: How American Exceptionalism Wrought Guantanamo

Let me begin with a disclosure: I have not yet had the chance to experience “American Sniper,” Clint Eastwood’s phenomenally successful new film starring Bradley Cooper as the late Chris Kyle, the Iraq War veteran and Navy SEAL who is supposedly the most lethal long-range sharpshooter in U.S. military history. Aside from 1992’s “Unforgiven,” Eastwood’s searing anti-Western masterpiece, I’m not a big fan of the Man With No Name’s work, which I often find kitschy and generic. Still, my not having seen the film yet is due less to my qualms with the Chairman than the fact that, until recently, no one seemed to care much about the movie one way or the other. Funny what a $100 million opening weekend, and the “liberal” media’s Pavlovian fear of conforming to the out-of-touch coastal elitist stereotype, can do.

So rather than engage in the questionable practice of reviewing a movie I have yet to see (and which has already been ably reviewed by Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir), I’d like to focus instead on an analogy established in “American Sniper” that those who have had the opportunity to see it say is among its central themes. Namely, that all 7 billion-plus humans in the world can be separated into three groups: wolves, sheepdogs and sheep. The wolves are the bad guys, the theory holds, while the sheep are most everyone else. And sheepdogs? They act like wolves, but only in order to protect the sheep.

The lecture from Kyle’s father that brings the schema into “American Sniper” is apparently a creation of the film’s screenwriter, who may have borrowed it from former U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, according to a piece from Slate. But whether or not Kyle actually held this mindset himself isn’t too important, at least not for my purposes. What matters, instead, is the fact that the “sheep, sheepdogs, wolves” breakdown resonates so powerfully with millions of Americans — and not just those who’ve seen Eastwood’s latest. It may sound nice, as formulas that promise to simplify our impossibly complex world often do; but it can take its adherents to some hideous extremes.

At heart, the sheepdog analogy, at least in the context of “American Sniper” and the Iraq War, is a kind of Aesopian repackaging of the hoary idea of American exceptionalism. Rather than view every human being as an individual, capable of making any number of decisions based off of their history and circumstance, the sheepdog worldview essentializes its targets, divorcing action from identity. It’s not that wolves are wolves because they kill; sheepdogs do that, too. Wolves are wolves because, well, they just are. They’re the “bad guys.” It’s as simple as that.

Similarly, the sheepdogs, who are the real protagonists in this morality play, also cannot be recognized as such by anything they’ve actually done. Sheepdogs coerce, they intimidate, they bribe, they maim, they kill. The difference, of course, is that the sheepdogs’ target is always a wolf. Except when it isn’t. To take an example from the “American Sniper” trailer (which, as something of a movie-theater junkie, I’ve seen more times than I can recount), there’s at least one moment in the film when Kyle and his fellow sheepdogs have to decide how to treat the Iraqi women and children being manipulated or forced into helping the wolves.

But, at least in the trailer, when Kyle’s got a prepubescent in his cross-hairs, there’s little question of whether the child, if left unharmed, will be making it more likely that violence will befall a sheep or sheepdog in the near future. He will. He’s carrying a weapon. Instead, the only question in that moment is whether Kyle has what it takes to assume the sheepdog’s burden, knowing that, as one of his fellow-soldiers whispers, “they” (presumably the sheep in Washington) will “fry [him] if [he’s] wrong.” Having not seen the film, I don’t know whether Bradley Cooper’s Kyle ultimately shoots the little boy; but in the real world, in Afghanistan, soldiers were told to take lethal action against “children with potential hostile intent.”

There’s something else that sheepdogs do, something arguably more wolflike than anything mentioned above. It’s been in the news a lot lately, and I’d hazard a guess that its recent prominence has more than a little to do with the American public’s enthusiasm for a film that makes their country’s fundamental goodness crystal clear. It’s torture — and as we were reminded last fall, with the limited release of the Senate’s so-called torture report, it’s something American sheepdogs did during the early years of the war on terror. And they did it a lot.

According to a thoughtful and insightful essay at Vulture by author and Iraq War veteran Brian Turner, “American Sniper,” like countless Hollywood war movies before it, pays essentially no attention to what the war years felt like to non-Americans. And, needless to say, we pay even less attention to those non-Americans we’ve labeled as wolves, the ones we’ve decided to leave at the sheepdogs’ mercy. Which is why “Guantanamo Diary,” the just-released and heavily redacted memoir from Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a 44-year-old Mauritanian and longtime Guantanamo Bay prisoner, is so vital and so stunning. Written by Slahi in the colloquial English he picked up after spending more than a decade in the custody of his tormenters, the diary is as close as most of us will ever get to understanding the living hell this man — who has never been charged with a crime, and whom a judge ordered released in 2010 — continues to suffer.

Slahi’s book, which has been covered repeatedly and expertly by the Guardian, is an historical watershed and a literary triumph. I won’t even attempt to do it justice here. But I do hope that even those who don’t have the time, wherewithal or stomach to read it at least take a moment to think about how the kind of American exceptionalism typified by the sheepdog analogy can often play out in the real world, and in the lives of real human beings. In perhaps the diary’s most chilling moment, Slahi, desperate to end one of his countless rounds of pointless torture, all but begs the men who are beating, freezing, sexually abusing and sleep-depriving him to just say what it is they want to hear. When he tells them that, in order to “confess” to their outlandish accusations, he’d have to indict other innocents, these American sheepdogs respond with a revealing and total lack of concern.

“So what?” Slahi quotes his torturer saying. “We know your friends are bad, so if they get arrested, even if you lie about [redacted], it doesn’t matter, because they’re bad.” Guilty, innocent; why bother with a distinction? Slahi’s a wolf, regardless. And despite all of the pronouncements over the years from Americans who swore the morally disastrous war on terror had taught them valuable lessons, the popularity of “American Sniper” testifies that there’s one conclusion many of us are still unwilling to reach: We can tell ourselves we’re sheepdogs who protect the vulnerable flock from bloodthirsty wolves. But a sheepdog and a wolf act much the same way, and in the dark of a Guantanamo torture chamber, it can be hard to tell the difference.

 

By: Elias Isquith, Salon, January 24, 2015

January 26, 2015 Posted by | American Exceptionalism, Iraq War, Torture | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Whose Values Did The Torture Program Uphold?”: We Can Press For Those Responsible To Be Held Accountable

Who are we?

That’s one question begged by the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s torture of detainees after Sept. 11. There are other questions, but this may be the key one. And it is getting harder to answer.

“That’s not who we are,” President Barack Obama declared of the abusive pressure tactics used by American interrogators on detainees in foreign holding tanks, supposedly to extract information about terror plots. But some of those seem so gratuitously abhorrent, it’s a stretch to even call them interrogations. Where is the interrogation component of force-feeding people their meals rectally? How much valid information could you get on the 17th day of one long, round-the-clock interrogation? What investigatory purpose is served by leaving a prisoner naked until he dies of hypothermia?

Politicians may quibble over the semantics of the practices and the politics of the report’s release, just before Democrats lose control of the Senate. Apologists for the program, both from the Bush administration and the CIA, reject the word “torture.” Former Vice President Dick Cheney goes so far as to call the 6,300-page report “full of c–p,” even as he acknowledges no authorization was given for rectal force-feeding. Call it what you want, but when the purpose is to terrify, degrade, in some cases bring people convicted of no crime to the brink of death, and leave them emotionally and physically broken down, one can only hope those tactics would be anathema to most Americans.

Elected leaders, including Obama, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, whose committee brought out the report, and Republican Sen. John McCain, who knows torture first-hand, believe its release will show the world, as Feinstein said, “that we are in fact a just and lawful society.” McCain said Americans need to know “when the values that define our nation are intentionally disregarded by our security policies.”

Whose values did the program uphold — The CIA’s? The Bush administration’s? That’s hard to answer since the report doesn’t look at individual culpability. Cheney’s justifications aside, the CIA did not inform the administration or get approval for some measures. On the other hand, secret legal memos sent by the Bush administration set forth a covert CIA program abroad to conduct such interrogations. Officials claimed an anti-torture treaty only applied inside the U.S. And though one of Obama’s first acts in office was to ban those practices, even Obama officials reportedly considered upholding the interpretation.

So, who are we? Are there two different sets of American values to employ selectively, according to circumstances? Was the CIA satisfying itself that the ends justify the means, even though those harsh techniques were of little ultimate value in capturing Osama bin Laden? Did agents grow oblivious to the boundary lines and become dehumanized like the Abu Ghraib captors, rogue elements with enough power to abuse? Or were they opportunists like James Mitchell, the Florida psychologist who designed and implemented the program with his partner for a cool $80 million, though never schooled in the mindset or tactics of al-Qaida?

Now that this has happened, can we still claim to have those shared values in the rule of law? Can we still claim the moral authority to condemn human rights violations in Yemen or North Korea? Even though we braced for global fallout from the report, knowledge of our abhorrent interrogation practices have already contributed to terrorist recruitment efforts, even of U.S. citizens.

Americans are not unique. Like everyone, whether we do bad or good depends largely on the cues we get from our environments. Those who lack faith that the system treats everyone equally might not see a need to play by the rules. Much has been made, for instance, of the looting and rioting in the wake of a Ferguson grand jury’s failure to indict a white police officer for the fatal shooting of an unarmed young black man. Without revisiting the merits of that case or justifying the behavior, there was clearly an element of nihilism that didn’t spring from bad upbringings, as some people have claimed. It reflected a lack of belief that justice is for all. So hold the looters responsible but in the long run, let’s make sure our police forces, prosecutors and courts model the rules of fair play.

We Americans can’t change what took place in our names in secret faraway holding pens, but we can press for those responsible to be held accountable. We can vow not to let it happen again on our watch. We can use our votes and our voices to assert our common values when our leaders sometimes seem to have lost their way.

Who are we? We are the voters and the taxpayers, the office-seekers and marchers and peaceful protesters, guided by an enlightened Constitution, a belief in doing what is right and a democracy that demands our engagement.

 

By: Rekha Basu, Columnist for the Des Moines Register; The National Memo, December 17, 2014

December 18, 2014 Posted by | Bush-Cheney Administration, Rule of Law, Torture | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Dick Cheney’s America Is An Ugly Place”: Foremost Champion Of Amoral Patriotism, Residing Well Beyond Good And Evil

I used to like Dick Cheney.

I can still remember watching him on NBC’s Meet the Press back in the early 1990s, when he was serving as defense secretary under President George H. W. Bush. Whether he was talking about the collapse of the Soviet Union or making the case for expelling Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait, Cheney was impressive. Unlike so many career politicians and Washington bureaucrats, he came off as charming, sober, smart, unflappable, and sincere.

Today? Well, I’ll give him this: He still seems sincere.

Some day I hope some psychologically gifted writer will turn his attention to Dick Cheney and explore just what the hell happened to him after the Sept. 11 attacks. Something about the trauma of that day — perhaps it was the act of being physically carried by the Secret Service into the Presidential Emergency Operations Center under the White House — flipped a switch in his mind, turning him into America’s foremost champion of amoral patriotism.

The man interviewed on Meet the Press this past Sunday resides completely beyond good and evil. Despite the manifest failure of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” to generate actionable intelligence, he has no regrets whatsoever. (“I’d do it again in a minute.”) He expresses nothing but contempt for the Senate intelligence committee’s 6,000-page report, based on 6 million pages of documents, meticulously cataloging forms of treatment that virtually every legal authority in the world and every totalitarian government in history would recognize as torture. Waterboarding, “rectal feeding,” confining a prisoner in a box for a week and a half, dangling others by their arms from an overhead bar for 22 hours at a time, making prisoners stand on broken bones, freezing prisoners nearly to death — none of it, according to Cheney, amounts to torture.

What does constitute torture? For Cheney, it’s “what 19 guys armed with airline tickets and box cutters did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11.” (Maybe our military response to the events of that day should have been christened “The Global War on Torture.”)

Perhaps most stunning of all was Cheney’s response to Chuck Todd’s question about 26 people who, according to the Senate report, were “wrongfully detained” by the CIA at its overseas black sites. The imprisonment and torture of innocent people? “I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective.” The end justifies any means. Got it.

Cheney’s hardly the first person to defend such a position. Machiavelli advocated a version of it in The Prince. It’s been favored by some of the most ruthless nationalists and totalitarians in modern history. And it’s expressed in Book 1 of Plato’s Republic by the character Polemarchus (the name means “leader in battle”), who defines justice as helping friends (fellow citizens) and harming enemies (anyone who poses a threat to the political community). This is what patriotism looks like when it’s cut off from any notion of a higher morality that could limit or rein it in. All that counts is whether an action benefits the political community. Other considerations, moral and otherwise, are irrelevant.

The problem with this view, which Socrates soon gets Polemarchus to see, is that amoral patriotism is indistinguishable from collective selfishness. It turns the political community into a gang of robbers, a crime syndicate like the Mafia, that seeks to advance its own interests while screwing over everyone else. If such behavior is wrong for an individual criminal, then it must also be wrong for a collective.

But this judgment presumes the existence of a standard of right and wrong that transcends the political community. Just as an individual act of criminality is wrong because it violates the community’s laws, so certain political acts appear worthy of being condemned because they seem to violate an idea of the good that overrides the politically based distinction between friends and enemies.

There are many such standards. In the Republic, Plato’s Socrates nudges Polemarchus toward the view that true justice is helping friends who are good and harming no one. Then there are the Hebrew Bible’s commandments and other divine laws, Jesus Christ’s insistence on loving one’s enemies, categorical moral imperatives, and the modern appeal to human dignity and rights — all of these universal ideals serve to expand our moral horizons beyond the narrow confines of a particular political community and restrict what can be legitimately done to defend it against internal and external threats.

Against these efforts to place moral limits on politics stand those, like the former vice president, who claim that public safety depends upon decoupling political life from all such restrictions. Friends and enemies, us and them, with us or against us, my country right or wrong — it doesn’t matter which dichotomous terms are used. All of them emphasize an unbridgeable moral gulf separating the political community from those who would do it harm. And that gulf permits just about anything. Even torture. Even the torture of innocents. Even redefining torture out of existence in order to exonerate the perpetrators. Everything goes, as long as friends are helped and enemies are harmed.

That’s what Dick Cheney — along with a distressingly large number of Americans — understands by patriotism: a willingness to do just about anything to advance the interests of the United States and decimate its enemies.

Just like a lawless individual.

Just like a gang of robbers.

 

By: Damon Linker, The Week, December 16, 2014

December 17, 2014 Posted by | Dick Cheney, Meet The Press, Torture | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Painfully Obscene”: Dick Cheney’s Tortured Appearance On ‘Meet The Press’ Should Be His Public Swan Song

It pretty much goes without saying that any pundit or political writer coming from the left side of center can be expected to presume Vice President Dick Cheney to be nothing less than the political equivalent of Darth Vader.

However, there has remained a small cadre of left leaning pundits and commentators willing to give a fair hearing to the man who was arguably the most powerful Vice-President in the nation’s history—a group I previously would have included myself to be among.

After Mr. Cheney’s appearance on Sunday’s “Meet The Press”—where he employed twisted rationales coupled with outright, provable and painful lies to support his position on torture—finding a commentator from either side of the aisle willing to give credibility to Cheney, let alone those from the left, should prove exponentially harder if not completely impossible.

While there was nothing particularly surprising or odd about Cheney highlighting the politics that may have played a role in last week’s release of the Senate torture report, even the most ardent Cheney supporter had to question the logic of the Vice President’s answers—which are better characterized as retorts—most notably Mr. Cheney’s constant deflection of a question asking for his definition of illegal treatment of detainees.

Cheney’s response?

Torture is  “an American citizen on his cellphone making a last call to his four young daughters shortly before he burns to death in the upper levels of the Trade Center in New York on 9/11.”

Cheney would be right were he to pose this as an example rather than the defining metric when seeking to determine an act of torture.  The horrendous, unthinkable experience referred to by Cheney is, unquestionably, one example of inflicting torture—and a pretty good example of horrific torture at that—but hardly the sole method that Cheney insisted on pretending to be the case.

Yet, each time Cheney was asked for a more realistic and more encompassing definition of torture that would rationally go beyond any one particular example, he continuously returned to the experiences of our lost countrymen on 9-11. This seemed, in the mind of Dick Cheney, to be the only standard to be applied when determining if our interrogation methods may have exceeded the legal bounds imposed by the Geneva Convention for the treatment of detainees.

At a point, it became more than clear that Cheney had pre-planned this “non-answer” for his appearance, thinking it to be very clever.

By pretending that only a horrible infliction of agony similar to what was heaped on the victims of 9-11 would rise to a level that could be termed torture, the Vice-President was simply sending a coded message to his supporters to remind them that, given what the bad guys did to us, there was nothing too horrible that we could do to them—Geneva Convention be damned.

Of course, that includes waterboarding, a practice that Cheney continued to argue is not an interrogation method that constitutes torture or a violation of international law.

I can appreciate that there are a great many Americans who agree that torture should be employed in the circumstances we have faced in our battle with terrorists. Indeed, a CBS News poll out today reveals that while more than half of all Americans believe that waterboarding is torture, just a bit less than half of the American public believes that the use of torture is sometimes appropriate .

If Cheney had shown up on “Meet The Press” and argued that what we did was torture but that, in his estimation, it was completely appropriate to engage in such torture under the circumstances, a far more meaningful discussion could have ensured.

Instead, Cheney played a game of saying that what we did was not torture while winking to his loyal supporters in the audience in an effort to say that what we did certainly was torture…but you know you loved it.

In what might have otherwise been amusing, had the entire performance not been so painfully obscene, Cheney actually went on to admit that there did exist actions that constitute torture, separate and apart from the one and only criteria he was willing to subscribe to involving 9-11 victims.

When Chuck Todd reminded the Vice-President that the United States prosecuted and hung Japanese soldiers following WWII for engaging in the waterboarding of American soldiers, Cheney answered that this was not the reason we hung offending Japanese soldiers. According to Cheney, we prosecuted these people, “For a lot of stuff, not for waterboarding… and they did a lot of other stuff.”

 

By: Rick Ungar, Forbes, December 15, 2014

December 17, 2014 Posted by | Dick Cheney, Torture, Waterboarding | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Make This Monster Pay A Price”: Why We Needed To Hear From Dick Cheney One Last Time

Former Vice President Dick Cheney’s time is about up, in many senses. For a Republican Party trying to look forward, he shouldn’t be a go-to voice for the media on national security policy. His sneering attacks on President Obama aren’t news anymore. The man who famously said, “It’s my new heart, not someone else’s old heart,” about the donor to his taxpayer-funded heart transplant should have lost the power to shock us by now. Unless he has a sudden attack of conscience, and apologizes for his career, he has nothing to say worth hearing.

Except on the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report. There’s been some anger on the left that Cheney took his seat yet again on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, but I think he belonged there, one last time. Let the American people hear from the man who claims that interrogation methods we prosecuted after World War II, as well as others even more depraved, aren’t actually torture.

Cheney is such a monster that he couldn’t even keep himself from defending “rectal feeding.” While he acknowledged that it “was not one of the techniques that was approved,” he sanctioned it nonetheless. “I believe it was done for medical reasons. … It wasn’t torture in terms of it wasn’t part of the program.”

That would seem to imply that anything that was “part of the program” was torture, which of course Cheney denies.

Ironically, earlier on Fox News Cheney said, “I don’t know anything about” rectal feeding or rectal rehydration (he may well have been lying). But by the time he got to “MTP,” he wasn’t willing to let any torture method go undefended. And even host Chuck Todd noting that “the medical community has said there is no medical reason to do this” didn’t shame him.

Todd asked Cheney some tough questions about U.S. prosecution of Japanese officials who waterboarded Americans, about the fact that at least a quarter of the detainees were innocent and, of course, about rectal feeding. Unfortunately, Cheney either dodged or lied.

Their exchange about innocent detainees showed Cheney at his most sociopathic:

TODD: Twenty-five percent of the detainees, though, twenty-five percent turned out to be innocent. They were released.

CHENEY: Where are you going to draw the line, Chuck? How are –

TODD: Well, I’m asking you.

CHENEY: — you going to know?

(CROSSTALK)

TODD: Is that too high? You’re okay with that margin for error?

CHENEY: I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective. And our objective is to get the guys who did 9/11 and it is to avoid another attack against the United States. I was prepared and we did. We got the authorization from the president and authorization from the Justice Department to go forward with the program. It worked. It worked now for 13 years.

“I have no problem” if 25 percent of the people we detained and potentially tortured were innocent. Take that in. It’s the same mentality that leads to police shooting unarmed black men in the name of public safety. But it squares with Cheney’s famous “one percent doctrine” that governed the aftermath to 9/11: If there’s even 1 percent chance that terrorists might have a weapon of mass destruction, the U.S. should act as if it’s a certainty, and do whatever it takes to stop them.

It also squares with Cheney telling Larry King, about his lifesaving heart donor, “I don’t spend time wondering who had it, what they’d done, what kind of person.”

America’s torture architect got a new heart, but he can never get a soul. Americans needed to see that display of authoritarian arrogance on Sunday. But now let’s hope he goes away.

 

By: Joan Walsh, Editor at Large, Salon, December 15, 2014

December 16, 2014 Posted by | Dick Cheney, National Security, Torture | , , , , , | 2 Comments

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