R & D

by Lewis H Lapham

Harper’s Magazine (December 2004)

A country without its czar is like a village without an idiot.
-Russian proverb

The documentary play “Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom” serves as a dispatch from the Cuban internment camps in which the American government currently holds captive several hundred presumed terrorists of Arab nationality and descent, and very early in the performance I saw last October in New York it occurred to me that I had been extended the privilege of watching a Pentagon experiment with laboratory animals. On the strength of the play’s intelligence and from what I knew of its provenance (the script based on evidence gathered by British journalists and London civil-rights lawyers), I could assume that the association of ideas was deliberate and the irony intended. The principal actors appear as “detainees” dressed in orange prison uniforms and placed on a desolate stage furnished with a few tables and chairs, four narrow bunks, and four steel cages; for the most part silent and inert, they wait to be moved, like so many numbered mice, into another maze, tent, interrogation booth, or isolation cell. When permitted to speak about the circumstances of their arrest or the terms of their confinement, they use the words given in legal pleadings, press reports, and private letters from three British citizens, law-abiding but inopportunely Muslim, who found themselves among the herd of suspects rounded up by American military authorities searching the world for allies of Osama bin Laden during the months subsequent to the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The play doesn’t quarrel with a civilized society’s right to defend itself—if necessary, by whatever means come most expediently to hand—against enemies both real and imagined; neither does it doubt the possibility that at least some of the suspects brought to Guantanamo Bay provided information forestalling the destruction of a bridge in Maryland or the poisoning of a reservoir in Oklahoma. The play doesn’t address the realpolitik of the war on terror; it considers the moral consequences—not the grand strategy of what President Bush defines as the “monumental struggle of good versus evil” but the brutalization of the participants on both sides of the interrogation, both ends of the rope. The actors speak as detainees who happen to be innocent—not surprisingly, because, as was made clear with the publication of The 9/11 Commission Report, our American intelligence agencies find it hard to distinguish one Muslim from another, to tell the difference between a jihadist mullah, an Iraqi politician, an Afghan warlord, and a Syrian bicycle thief. Among the inmates held at Guantanamo Bay for nearly three years, only four have been formally charged with a crime, apparently no more than twelve or maybe twenty guilty of some sort of a connection to Al Qaeda. The Supreme Court last June granted the detainees the right to inquire about the reasons for their imprisonment, but the questions of procedure have yet to be resolved. In what legal jurisdiction do the hearings take place, with or without advice of counsel, under whose rules of engagement? The shuffling and reshuffling of paper could continue for another three years; in the meantime the voices on the stage try to account for their presence in a void.

Their joint and corroborating testimony gathers its force from the gradual accumulation of small and wretched fact. No grandiloquent statements about man’s inhumanity to man, no artful turns of phrase or plot, little else except plain narrative and the bearing of collective witness—one man arrested for no discernible cause while making, a religious pilgrimage to Pakistan, another man shipped across the Atlantic Ocean in a freight container with the cargo of his dead and dying companions. Slowly and against its will, the audience comes to learn what sort of prison it is that America, “honor bound to defend freedom”, has created in the image of its own fear on a distant Caribbean shore: a system of justice operating outside the bounds of national or international law, similar in its charter to one of the Enron Corporation’s special-purpose entities, accountable to no authority other than the word of the American president and the whim of the American military command, which acts as warden, prosecutor, defense counsel, jury, judge, and, if deemed appropriate, executioner.

Classified as enemy combatants and therefore ineligible for the rights accorded prisoners of war, denied access to a lawyer or a writ of habeas corpus, the detainees fall into the category of a subhuman species available to experiment—kept in cages; exposed to deafening noise, unmuzzled dogs, extreme temperatures of heat and cold; stripped naked and searched for contraband in their teeth and anal cavities; deprived of food, medicine, water, and sleep; seldom allowed to stand or move unless shackled with the weight of chains.

First staged in London at about the same time that the photographs from Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison were making the rounds of the print and broadcast media, the play attracted a good deal of notice in the periodical press, and before seeing the off-Broadway production I was well enough acquainted with the Bush Administration’s approach to suspected terrorists—in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as at Camps X-Ray, Romeo, and Delta, praised by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as safe, healthy, and humane environments in “beautiful, sunny” Cuba—to know that the dramatization was faithful to the facts. What I didn’t expect was the shift in perspective introduced by the notion of a Pentagon research project, and on leaving the theater I found myself wondering about the purpose of the experiments. What was it that our inspectors general were trying to find out, and why so many of them? Who was learning what from whom?

The large number of intelligence operatives (regular Army as well as CIA) sent to Cuba since the winter of 2002 to interrogate the same few hundred inmates suggests the need for a training facility where Christian officers and gentlemen might practice the art of extracting information from hardened infidels, improve their technique, overcome their feelings of revulsion and disgust. I can understand why it might be important to learn how to translate a scream in Arabic into a word in English, or useful to note the precise degrees of humiliation and degradation that a human being can be made to suffer without inducing insanity or attempted suicide, but how often must the experiments be repeated? Surely at some point the answers cease to be of interest. The research staff presumably looks for something other than fantastic guesses as to the whereabouts of Mullah Omar, and so I’m obliged to think that our apprentice Grand Inquisitors have more far-reaching questions in mind—not questions about the phobias of captive Muslims (how do they react to sexual insults, Big Mac cheeseburgers, and giant spiders?) but questions about the character and quality of free Americans.

If it is our intention to rule the world from the throne of military empire, how willing are the American people to tolerate or ignore, perhaps even to admire and applaud, the cruelties necessary to the maintenance of so great a glory? Is it possible to construct the moral equivalent of a toxic-waste dump in which to dispose of our sentimental squeamishness? If the government chooses to hang its prisoners by their testicles or thumbs, must the authorities in Washington anticipate objections from CBS News? From the Catholic and evangelical churches? From the Supreme Court? If so, how strong an objection, and can it be silenced with the antidote of fear? If a Marine colonel makes a mistake with an experiment involving two Syrian terrorists, a fishing boat, and a shark, will a feature editor at the Washington Post award the story seven paragraphs or one?

Different answers to the questions imply different versions of the American future, and as I considered the various possibilities in the light of the next day’s newspaper reports arriving from Israel, Afghanistan, Russia, and Iraq, I noticed that it was hard to find much deviation between the reasons given by American generals for the bombing of Iraqi civilians in Fallujah and those given by Israeli generals for bombing Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip; or to make a clear distinction between Vladimir Putin’s belief that too much freedom threatens the stability of the Russian state and the Bush Administration’s aversion to any and all forms of constitutional law. Given the money and effort that the United States has assigned over the last half-century to the shaping of Russian and Israeli politics, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that both countries now serve us as laboratories in which we might study various strains of anti-democratic government and cultivate socioeconomic organisms adaptable to the totalitarian climate of the new American imperium.

At present the most advanced research is being done in Iraq, much of it apparently directed toward a further and more complete understanding of the necessity for a state of perpetual war. George Orwell identified the importance of the topic in the novel 1984; Adolf Hitler conducted extensive field studies in both Eastern and Western Europe; America and the Soviet Union cooperated for forty years in a joint experiment with the waging of synthetic war, words substituted for deeds, prolonged artillery bombardment replaced with the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. The prior research need not be discounted or ignored, but in Baghdad at the moment we have access to a near limitless supply of laboratory specimens and a rare chance, literally God-given to President George W Bush, to add to our store of knowledge.

The senior managers of the Bush Administration can be counted upon to acknowledge the truth of Orwell’s dictum that “ignorance is strength”, but will the Iraqi people verify the corollary finding that “freedom is slavery”? For how many weeks or months, and with what degree of religious zeal, will a true believer in the promise of Islam persist in his or her refusal to pledge allegiance to the American flag? To accept the word of Christ? Can our own soldiers be relied upon to decimate the ranks of our enemies with the same reptilian calm that the historians ascribe to the legions of imperial Rome? How quickly, and with what modifications to its assembly lines, can a nominally free press be converted to the production of weapons-grade propaganda?

The scale of the federal program in Iraq should yield results well worth the cost of the undertaking, but it cannot answer all the questions, and in some areas of related interest we will continue to depend on the experiments being performed in Israel, Afghanistan, and Russia. The Afghans test the hypothesis that an economy sustained by drug trafficking and a social order governed by a savage interpretation of the Koran can be presented to the world in the costume of democracy. Ever since its 1967 conquest of the Palestinian territories in Gaza and the West Bank, more desperately since the rising of the second intifada in September 2000, the Israeli government has been searching for new and improved techniques guaranteed to control the pestilence of a subject population. In the process it has developed lines of anesthetic reasoning, among them the theory of preemptive strike and precautionary assassination, to protect its own citizens against the pains induced by an overly active conscience. Many of the same arguments we have adopted as palliatives for our own states of anxiety, but we have yet to learn the secret of removing from the American body politic large numbers of people deemed undesirable, dangerous, or impious. The Israelis are fortunate to find every antisocial trait of character in the same enemy, and so their experiment with a wall neatly separating the just from the unjust might not prove immediately applicable to the American circumstance. Our society is too multifaceted, infiltrated by too many people of different races, colors, creeds, and sexual orientations. The work in Israel, however, deserves serious consideration and careful study. An alarming number of our most eminent political theorists and financial advisers foresee a soon arriving end not only to American democracy but also to the country’s long-abiding economic prosperity. If their premonitions of heavy debt and chronic unemployment prove as well founded as their own offshore bank accounts, how then do our ruling and possessing classes redistribute the presence of the no longer working poor?

Some of the more impregnable gated communities in the country’s upscale suburbs already incorporate elements of medieval-fortress architecture, but they don’t come fully equipped with floodlights, razor wire, and readily available armored vehicles; fences along the Mexican border from California to Texas are, in places, adequate to their purpose but not suitable to the terrain along the Canadian border in Minnesota and Montana. It’s conceivable that we might wish to build model communities within the United States that combine the theory of the refugee camp at Khan Younis with the design of Camps X-Ray, Romeo, and Delta.

The lessons to be learned in the Russian laboratories have to do with the problems presented by a national economy fallen into the hands of thieves. During the long siege of the Cold War, Russia bankrupted itself in the attempt to compete with America’s weapons industry and thus to earn promotion to the rank of superpower and the name of hegemon. The collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 put an end to Communism, and within a matter of months a new class of arriviste oligarchs, schooled by American bankers in the science of high-end swindle, privatized what remained of the national wealth. Now comes the question as to whether they can keep the rewards of their entrepreneurial enterprise. The Putin government, increasingly authoritarian in character and method, seeks to repatriate the assets lost to the private sector. The fledgling system of representative government has been canceled by a return to czarism, the news media have been brought obediently to heel, and among the richest captains of Russian industry and finance quite a few have been forced to depart for London and the French Riviera. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, proprietor of the Yukos oil monopoly and a man believed to be worth $15 billion, currently occupies a jail cell in Moscow not much bigger than the ones reserved for the guests of the United States Navy in Cuba.

His situation is not without interest to our own fellowship of corporate oligarchs. How much is it possible to steal, and to what degrees of economic degradation and humiliation can the general population be exposed, before a virulent outbreak of a revolutionary virus obliges even the most venal and accommodating of governments to suppress the disease with the vaccine of despotism? Judging by the strong bipartisan support for the bill passed last October by both the Senate (69-17) and the House of Representatives (280-141) granting American business interests $137 billion in tax breaks, the day of reckoning is not yet come. Even so, prudence is a virtue, and it’s always wise to know when the morning plane leaves for Zurich or Dubai.

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