Sunday, April 29, 2007

Proof CIA still using secret prisons

Photo by Trevor Paglen

Last September, the Bush administration made noise announcing that no more secret prison facilities would be used by the CIA to hold prisoners seized in the "war on terror." Since then, sporadic reports have questioned the truth of this assertion.

Now, with the handover of Al-Qaeda suspect Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi to Guantanamo, it becomes clear he was held in detention in a secret place for months prior.

Why are secret prisons necessary, especially when they have been declared closed by the President? Why must this Administration constitently flaunt the rule of law? And who will hold them accountable?

According to the New York Times:
The Pentagon announced the transfer, giving few details about his arrest or confinement.

Mr. Iraqi’s case suggests that the C.I.A. may have adopted a new model for handling prisoners held secretly — a practice that Mr. Bush said could resume and that Congress permitted when it passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006.

Unlike past C.I.A. detainees, including the Sept. 11 plotter Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was held by the agency for several years after being seized in Pakistan in 2003, Mr. Iraqi was turned over to the Pentagon after a few months of interrogation. He appears to have been taken into C.I.A. custody just weeks after Mr. Bush declared C.I.A. jails empty.[...]

Intelligence officials said that under questioning Mr. Iraqi had provided valuable intelligence about Qaeda hierarchy and operations. It appears he gave up this information after being subjected to standard interrogation methods approved for the Defense Department — not harsher methods that the C.I.A. is awaiting approval to use.

A debate in the administration has delayed approval of the proposed C.I.A. methods.

Military and intelligence officials said the prisoner was captured last fall on his way to Iraq, where he may have been sent by top Qaeda leaders in Pakistan to take a senior position in Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. That group has claimed responsibility for some of the deadliest attacks in Iraq, including the bombing last year of the Golden Mosque in Samarra.

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Saturday, April 28, 2007

Dilawar, RIP

Thanks to the attention that "Taxi to the Dark Side" is garnering in the mainstream media (Post, WSJ, Salon), for a while at least, innocent Afghan Dilawar is remembered as a victim of American military institutionalized brutality.

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Friday, April 27, 2007

Tenet Denies CIA Torture

"Journalist" allowing the Administration to manhandle him.

"Listen to me."

"I want you to listen to me!"

Tenet sounds like a stupid Hollywood character, not the head of the Central Intelligence Agency.

"There was so much we did not know!"

This kind of bluster is typical of the Bush Administration, which combats solid questions with bullying. They refuse to prove any of their own supposed accomplishments or disprove charges of torture on the grounds that this proof would "threaten our security" ("I can't talk about techniques").

To see the full interview, and see if CBS' journalist actually challenges this nonsense (don't hold your breath) tune into 60 Minutes on Sunday April 29.

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Ex-commander at Camp Cropper accused

Lt Col. William Steele, ex prison commander at Camp Cropper, the US' second largest detention facility, is being charged on multiple misconduct charges. The Army says he "mishandled" information, keeping classified information in his personal quarters, and accuses him of inappropriate relations with his interpreter, and of "fraternizing" with the daughter of a detainee. He also allegedly allowed certain detainees to have unmonitored cell phone conversations. He was also accused of possessing pornography. (How many servicemen are innocent of this "crime"?)

Steele will face an "Article 32" hearing to determine whether he will face court-martial.

According to the LA Times
Steele, whose age was not released, was the commander of the 451st Military Police Detachment. In that role, he was one of a handful of senior officers who reported to the commander of Camp Cropper, Aberle said.

In October, Steele moved to Camp Victory in Baghdad to work with the 89th Military Police Brigade, the Associated Press reported. Some of the charges stem from that period. Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the maximum sentence for aiding the enemy is death. U.S. military officials did not say when or where the Article 32 hearing would take place.

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Saturday, April 21, 2007

Iraqis "do the dirty work" (torture)

The New York Times revealed again in detail, as it has often over the past years, the ways in which the US military allows Iraqi security forces to torture and abuse detainees to gather information. In West Baghdad, Alissa Rubin quotes Iraq security forces bragging about how they whipped a detainee before his two colleagues, and after this the detainee led American forces to their safe house and IED supplies.

What is amazing in this article is the use of loaded words like "culture," "civilization," and "conscience" by both sides. To the US military abuses in Abu Ghraib were a terrible aberration and the whipping of detainees is merely "part of their culture." According to them, it's not "civilization." But then according to the Iraqi Captain, he was simply acting according to his "conscience."
The Iraqi officers beamed. What the Americans did not know and what the Iraqis had not told them was that before handing over the detainees to the Americans, the Iraqi soldiers had beaten one of them in front of the other two. The stripes on the detainee’s back, which appeared to be the product of whipping with electrical cables, were later shown briefly to a photographer, who was not allowed to take a picture.

To the Iraqi soldiers, the treatment was normal and necessary. They were proud of their technique and proud to have helped the Americans.

"I prepared him for the Americans and let them take his confession,” Capt. Bassim Hassan said through an interpreter. "We know how to make them talk. We know their back streets. We beat them. I don’t beat them that much, but enough so he feels the pain and it makes him desperate." [...]

The Iraqi soldiers were ecstatic. They had delivered. They snapped photos of each other in front of the cache with the blasting cords in their mouths, grinning. The Americans were nervous. "One spark will blow this place up," said First Lt. Michael Obal as an Iraqi soldier flicked a lit cigarette butt within inches of one cache of explosives. "It’s highly unstable TNT."

Later, the Americans plotted into their computers the location of each of the Al Qaeda safe houses that [detainee] Mr. Jassam had pointed out. “He was singing like a songbird,” said First Lt. Sean Henley, 24.

After the prisoner was returned to the Iraqis, Captain Fowler was asked whether the Americans realized that the information was given only after the Iraqi Army had beaten Mr. Jassam. "They are not supposed to do that," Captain Fowler said. "What I don’t see, I don’t know, and I can’t stop. The detainees are deathly afraid of being sent to the Iraqi justice system, because this is the kind of thing they do. But this is their culture."

Lieutenant Obal, the captain’s deputy, was distraught at the thought that the detainee had been beaten. "I don’t think that’s right," he said. "We have intelligence teams, they have techniques for getting information, they don’t do things like that. It’s not civilization."

About 30 yards away, on the other side of the wall, the Iraqi soldiers suggested that the Americans were being naïve. The insurgents are playing for keeps, they say, and force must be answered with force.

"If the Americans used this way, the way we use, nobody would shoot the Americans at all," Captain Hassan said. "But they are easy with them, and they have made it easy for the terrorists."

"I didn’t beat them all, I beat Mustafa in front of the others. We tell him we’re going to string him up." He demonstrated his arms spread wide. "And, I made the others see him," he said.

Captain Hassan and his colleagues said they knew the Iraqi Army has rules against beatings, but "they tell us to do what we have to do," he said.

"For me it’s a matter of conscience, not rules," he said.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

'Taxi to the Dark Side'

Finally a "big" documentary about the Bagram homicides. Abu Ghraib has elicited a huge reaction especially in the past two years, by artists, writers and documentarists. But the sad fate of those tortured to death in Afghanistan has been largely forgotten. Recall that of the original 27 men recommended to prosecutors by Army investigators the killing of innocents Dilawar and Habibullah, only 6 were convicted or pled guilty. The stiffest punishment handed down has been 5 months in a military prison.

Involved among others as executive producer was journalist Sid Blumenthal. The film by Alex Gibney "Taxi to the Dark Side" portrays the arrest of taxi driver Dilawar and to his killing at Bagram Air Base. It premiers at the Tribeca Film Festival next week.

Tom Tomorrow shares his thoughts after seeing a preview.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Priests on trial for Arizona torture protest

Two California priests, Fransiscan Father Louis Vitale and Jesuit Father Steve Kelly, related to the Catholic Worker movement, were arrested in November 2006 for trespassing at Ft. Huachuca military base in Southern Arizona. They knelt in front of the entry gates to the base to pray, with 120 other protesters, and asked to deliver a letter to the former Chief of Military Intelligence in Iraq. Both have served time for Fort Benning "School of the Americas" protests. They were arraigned April 3 and are awaiting trial in June. From the group Pace e Bene and Redwood City Catholic Worker House respectively, the two are seasoned advocates of non-violence. According to the California Catholic Daily:
Vitale and Kelly were among 120 protesters at Ft. Huachuca. They claim U.S. military intelligence teaches torture interrogation techniques at Ft. Huachuca -- the same techniques used at Abu Ghraib and, allegedly, at Guantanamo.

It was at Ft. Huachuca that Vietnam-era manuals advocating torture techniques were translated into Spanish for use at the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, Georgia -- a center that, critics have long said, has trained police and military officers who tortured and killed political enemies of repressive Latin American governments.

In November, Vitale and Kelly were arrested for kneeling to pray on the road leading to Ft. Huachuca’s gate. They face federal and state charges for refusing to follow police orders and for trespass. The priests attempted to speak to enlisted soldiers and to deliver a letter to Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast. “Nothing justifies the inhumane treatment of our fellow brothers and sisters,” said the priests’ letter. “Torture is a useless and unreliable tool that leads to an accepted practice of terrorization and the rationalization of wrongdoing.”

Fast had been chief of intelligence in Iraq, responsible for overseeing Abu Ghraib at the time of the tortures there. Exonerated of wrongdoing by military investigators, she was given command of the military intelligence center, located at Ft. Huachuca, in 2005.

Both Vitale and Kelly have been imprisoned before for anti-war and anti-torture civil disobedience. Vitale served time in 2002 and 2006 for protests at Ft. Benning and, in 2003, for obstructing traffic in San Francisco and blocking the entrance to the British Consulate there in protest of the Iraq War. Kelly has served time for attempting to disarm nuclear weapons delivery systems.

“I believe it is a way to raise consciousness,” Vitale told the San Francisco Faith in 2003. “I’m a strong a believer in something Martin Luther King called the ‘theology of stepping off the curb,’ as when he went to Selma and places like that. It’s putting your body there in a non-violent way.”

If convicted in June, Vitale and Kelly could be sentenced to up to ten months in prison.
It is a small victory that the priests will remain free during the pre-trial period. Here is the text of the letter they attempted to deliver to Major General Barbara Fast:
To: Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast -
We are here today as concerned U.S. people, veterans and clergy, to speak with enlisted personnel about the illegality and immorality of torture according to international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions.

We condemn torture as a dehumanization of both prisoners and interrogators, resulting in humiliation, disability and even death. In addition to the hundreds of detainees who have died, we are also concerned about U.S. military personnel. Alyssa Peterson committed suicide after participating in the torture of Iraqi prisoners. Lynndie England and others have been imprisoned for their illegal activities.

We are here today at Ft. Huachuca in solidarity with tens of thousands of people at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation at Ft. Benning, Georgia (formerly known as the School of the Americas) to say that the training of torturers must immediately stop. Nothing justifies the inhumane treatment of our fellow brothers and sisters. Torture by U.S. military personnel has reached alarming proportions and has horrified people around the world.

We are convinced that the Military Commissions Act of 2006 is unconstitutional. We totally reject its conclusions. Torture is a useless and unreliable tool that leads to an accepted practice of terrorization and the rationalization of wrongdoing.

We are here today to repent and clearly state that because of our sense of moral and human decency we condemn torture. NOT IN OUR NAME.

Signed this 19th day of November, 2006 -

Louis Vitale,OFM
Steve Kelly, SJ

Biographical data on Vitale and Kelly:
Fr. Louie Vitale is a member of Pace e Bene, whose mission is "to develop the spirituality and practice of active nonviolence as a way of living and being and as a process for cultural transformation." Fr. Vitale is also a co-founder of the Nevada Desert Experience, a faith-based organization that has opposed nuclear weapons testing for a quarter of a century. Fr. Vitale recently served six months in jail following his arrest at the Ft. Benning vigil in November, 2005, and was ejected from congressional hearings in September after speaking out against the Military Commissions Act.

Fr. Steve Kelly is a member of the Redwood City Catholic Worker community and has served time in federal prison for the nonviolent direct disarmament of nuclear weapon delivery systems. In December, 2005, Kelly served as chaplain for Witness to Torture, a delegation of over two dozen U.S. anti-torture activists who defied the U.S. embargo of Cuba with a peaceful march through that nation to the gates of the Guantanamo Bay navel base and prison camp.

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

Hypocrisy: shock and awe on the body

One of the biggest madams operating an "escort service" for Washington DC professionals is being tried for tax evasion and running an illegal prostitution business. Before federal judges could gag order on Deborah Jeane Palfrey, she pulled the biggest name from her "46 pounds" of paper phone records. Regular customer: ultra conservative Harlan K. Ullman, who coined the term "shock and awe" in 1996 and saw his dream come true in 2003 with the invasion of Iraq. Ullman is at the think-tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Besides the obvious irony of the inventor of this theory of "domination" regularly needed to pay for sex, it behooves us to remind of the connection between the shock and theory, torture and sexual domination. William Plaff wrote in the International Herald Tribune, back in 2004:
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Bush administration is not torturing prisoners because it is useful but because of its symbolism. It originally was intended to be a form of what later, in the attack on Iraq, came to be called "shock and awe." It was meant as intimidation. We will do these terrible things to demonstrate that nothing will stop us from conquering our enemies. We are indifferent to world opinion. We will stop at nothing. [...]Destroying cities and torturing prisoners are things you do when you are losing the real war, the war your enemies are fighting. They are signals of moral bankruptcy. They destroy the confidence and respect of your friends, and reinforce the credibility of the enemy.
Diane Christian reminds us of Rumsfeld and Bush's supposed inability to look at the Abu Ghraib photos, and the US media's puritanical need to censor the images:
But the Abu Ghraib images are not easily repackaged. They're pornographic not just obscene and while our warwagers are excellent at evading and repackaging violence they're stopped cold by sex. The scenes we've seen so far are full of Iraqi genitals and hooded faces and grinning American soldiers.

President Bush finds them sickening and unAmerican; Rumsfeld labels them disgusting and can not imagine that any officer could order such a thing. The six indicted are characterized as bad apples and degenerate and not real American soldiers. But the pictures seem deliberately and even proudly posed.

Interestingly, as these pictures are broadcast in the US they are usually blurred so that we don't see genitals. This is in the interest of our sensibilities for our general culture doesn't look publically at genitals except in works of art. Most of Muslim culture doesn't even allow naked genitals in art. Islamic miniatures of Adam and Eve (Christian artists' favorites for requiring nudes) usually show them modestly covered. Commentators on the prison images speak of how shamed a Muslim man is to be made naked. A boyish US female soldier in one picture grins and points to the genital of a bound captive; in another she holds a naked prisoner on a leash. In other pictures the prisoners are forced into real and simulated sexual acts. There are more and worse terrible pictures and video as yet unpublished.

'Sadistic' Rumsfeld said shaking his head with disbelief and contempt. He doesn't learn from the pictures, much as the President never has doubts. 'They are not us, they are evil, they are unAmerican,' they say. But the problem is not sadism-getting sexual pleasure from inflicting pain. The problem is inhumanity-torturing, murdering, raping human beings. The problem is not sex titillation but violence. Torture is a legitimate child of war-if I am willing to kill you, why should I stop at mutilating, humiliating and torturing you, the enemy, the evil one? Why can I not bend you to my will, make you talk, take away your manhood or rape your womb? I can. But I must be sober steadfast chaste in style lest I betray enjoying your pain.
What I believe about the morality of sexwork/prostitution/escorts is essentially irrelevant. Based on their own standards alone, recently we have enough proof that the neoconservative movement is hypocritical to its core.

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Friday, April 13, 2007

AP Photographer still in prison 1 year later

Bilal Hussein, an AP photographer who was detained last April by American forces in Ramadi is still in American custody at Camp Cropper one year later. US spokesmen claim Hussein is "still a security threat."

The US military has provided no credible evidence to this effect, claim Hussein's lawyers. Quoting the AP:
Dozens of journalists - mostly Iraqis - have been detained by U.S. troops or Iraqi security forces during the war, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Most were released without a trial after short periods, and Hussein is the only one currently being held on such a long-term basis, according to CPJ executive director Joel Simon.

"It's unfathomable to me why, after an entire year, there has been no progress in terms of the legal process moving ahead," Simon said. "If the U.S. government is affirming that they need time to develop evidence ... a year is plenty of time."

Hussein, 35, is allowed one-hour visits from family members once a month. His attorney and AP colleagues also are allowed to see him.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman, in a written response Tuesday to AP inquiries, said the case against Hussein has been reviewed four times - most recently in November - by three separate entities in Iraq, among them a review board that includes representatives of the Iraqi government and the U.S.-led coalition.

"Each of these independent, objective, fact-finding reviews considered all available evidence and determined Hussein represented an imperative threat to security and recommended continued detention," Whitman said.

Gardephe dismissed the idea that such hearings constitute due process. He pointed out that Hussein was not present and had no legal representative at those reviews, and had no chance to confront any witnesses against him or call witnesses on his own behalf.

AP executives went public with news about Hussein's detention in September after months of behind-the-scenes negotiations. They said the news cooperative's review of Hussein's work for the AP found no inappropriate contact with insurgents.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Afghanistan to release US "vigilante"

The Afghan government has granted amnesty to Jack Idema, the last "mysterious" ex-special forces caught on a vigilante mission in Afghanistan. Idema, if readers will recall, was detained after having been charged with kidnapping and running a private prison. He claimed at the time he was working for the Pentagon, which the Defense Department vigorously denied. They later admitted having "taken" a man that Idema handed over to them.

According to BBC, NATO was even fooled by Idema and his friends Edward Caraballo and Brent Bennett, who had uniforms and allegedly special passports and visas.

Idema claimed the FBI was out to get him, and sued the US government in 2005 to secure his release. His case was moving through the court system in the US when word came from Kabul earlier this month that he would be released.

Captured in 2004, Idema claims he was tortured by US and Afghan captors, and it is known that he lived through a rebellion in Policharki prison, a notorious facility in Kabul. According to AP:
Idema's lawyer, John E. Tiffany, said the U.S. government coordinated Idema's amnesty to avoid having to respond to the allegations of torture and government misconduct.

"The Aghan government doesn't do anything unless the United States government tells them to do it," Tiffany said. "They got caught with their pants down. Finally, a federal judge with courage and intellect said, 'Hey, wait a minute. Let's look at this."

"They would like nothing more than never having to respond," Tiffany said. "If they have to respond to a laundry list of areas that the judge very clearly laid out, you put yourself of great risk of taking positions that will be exposed as lies."

Government attorneys said that's not the case. The State Department learned that Idema's amnesty was final on March 15, nearly a week before Sullivan's order, according to court documents.

Idema was captured in 2004 along with fellow Americans Brent Bennett and Edward Caraballo. Idema and Bennett a former U.S. soldiers. Caraballo was an investigative journalist. Bennett and Caraballo have since been released.

Tiffany said Tuesday he did not know whether Idema has been freed. An Afghan official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information, said Idema remains in Policharki, the main prison in Kabul.

The Justice Department said in court documents that Idema was holding up his own release by refusing to leave Afghanistan without Bennett's dog.
More material here.

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Sunday, April 08, 2007

Cropper as insurgent recruitment center

The LA Times reports that islamic militants are recruiting and operating within Camp Cropper, one of two large US prison camps in Iraq. Camp Cropper's population has swelled to 18,000 with the "surge" operations of 2006-7. The Iraqi government's Human Rights Liaison to the US prisons claims he has warned the US of these growing problems for over a year now. Militants have attempted to control life in the camps, stoked tensions between Sunni and Shite detainees, and have brutally killed suspected informers in the Camp. The Times story quotes a handful of ex-prisoners, and the Iraqi government's Human Rights Liaison. From the Times' Ned Parker:
Extremists conducted regular indoctrination lectures, and in some cases destroyed televisions supplied by the Americans for use with educational videos, banned listening to music on radios, forbade smoking and stoked tensions between Sunni and Shiite detainees, they said.

Iraqis swept up in security operations and held indefinitely while the Americans try to determine whether they have any links to the insurgency are susceptible to the extremists' message, former detainees said.

Their accounts of life in Camp Cropper, the main U.S. detention center at the Baghdad airport, indicate that three years after the abuse scandal at the Abu Ghraib prison, the U.S. is still struggling to find a balance in the way it runs its detention system.

Prisons have long served as an incubator for radicals, and mass roundups by the U.S. military after the 2003 invasion are now blamed for antagonizing Iraq's Sunni Arab population and feeding the insurgency.


U.S. military officials acknowledge that they are battling militants for the hearts and minds of detainees, but deny accusations that they have lost control inside the prisons, or that detainees are treated harshly. They say they have instituted counterinsurgency and educational programs, and are gearing up to launch a more direct effort to confront extremists next month.

Iraqi officials also struggle with a crowded system where prisoners can languish as long as two years before getting a trial. But they say the Americans have allowed militants to flourish in their facilities.

"It looks like a terrorist academy now," said Saad Sultan, the Iraqi Human Rights Ministry's liaison to U.S. and Iraqi prisons. "There's a huge number of these students. They study how they can kill in their camps. And we protect them, feed them, give them medical care.

"The Americans have no solution to this problem," he said. "This has been going on for a year or two, we have been telling them."

A former detainee at Camp Cropper, where Hussein and other high-profile prisoners have been held, said he once watched Sunni militants attack a former police officer they suspected of being an informer. He said six men, their faces hidden by towels, gathered around the victim in a dormitory at 2 a.m.

Two kept a lookout for U.S. soldiers while one man swung a sock stuffed with rocks at the inmate's head, he said. The man tried to get up, but another pressed him down with a foot to the chest. The attackers pummeled his head, spattering themselves with his blood, until he lost consciousness.

Other prisoners then dragged the victim to the front of the hall, where the U.S. guards would find him.


Abu Tiba said he felt caught between the militants and the Americans.

"It was a psychological war from both the Americans and the religious extremists," he said. "It was terrifying." He said he worried about the U.S. soldiers who shouted at him, and the militants who stowed razor wire to use in fights.

The most powerful figure was a young imam known as Abu Hamza, who they said had pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden. The Americans had allowed a dangerous cleric to stay in a barracks with ordinary Sunnis, they said.

"He used to give lectures in the morning and night," Abu Usama said. "Anyone who didn't attend the lectures would have a mark against him."

In his lectures, the young radical denounced the Iraqi government, U.S. soldiers, and the entire political process, he said. He also banned smoking in the hall.

"The problem was the Americans didn't know what was going on. They allowed him to preach because they believed in religious freedom," said Abu Usama, 43. The preacher's core supporters were young men who had been radicalized in the ferment after Hussein's ouster.

"Abu Hamza's followers tried to win people over by offering them money and cars when they got out of camp," he said, adding that he had used the prestige his age gives him to rebuff a recruitment effort from a younger member of his tribe, the powerful Dulaimi clan.

The radicals preyed on men who were being held indefinitely, without knowing whether they would be charged. "You'd spend three months not charged with anything and you were innocent — they could get you," Abu Usama said.

Adnan Nabi, a 42-year-old cleric loyal to radical Muqtada Sadr, presided over the Shiite side of the camp, said another of the ex-detainees, who identified himself as Abu Mustafa. He said Nabi banned listening to music on radios and forbade Shiites from talking to Sunnis.

At prayer services, he said, the cleric urged detainees to join Sadr's Al Mahdi militia, which has fought U.S. forces on several occasions. When the Americans transferred Nabi to Camp Bucca, a riot broke out and U.S. guards had to use rubber bullets and tear gas, he said.

Abu Mustafa said he and the other Shiites slept in shifts to guard each other after word spread that they had worked for a secular political party. They were forced to swear on a copy of the Koran that they had only been gardeners on the grounds of the party headquarters, he said.

"Prison is the best place to organize an army to destroy the country," Abu Usama said. "Even someone who is innocent … they will brainwash him to do whatever they want, including becoming a suicide bomber."

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Saturday, April 07, 2007

British TV pulls Iraq abuse drama

Using the unfolding "Iran situation" of the captive British sailors as an excuse, British TV Channel 4 canceled its April 5 airing of the powerful drama "Mark of Cain" about the abuse of prisoners in Iraq by British soldiers. "The Mark of Cain" is a complex portrait of the British military presence in southern Iraq. The story involves three soldiers accused of abusing detainees after suffering losses in an ambush. The soldiers are found out when an angry ex-girlfriend denounces them after seeing trophy photos of the abuse. The soldiers are then put on trial. According to the film's press release:
THE MARK OF CAIN is inspired by real life events Iraq. The now notorious pictures and footage that emerged from the prisons of Iraq, showed British soldiers abusing and humiliating prisoners of war. The revelations rocked the army, an institution that prides itself on ‘fair play.’ It placed the role of the British army in Iraq in danger; appearing as the occupiers they had long sought not to be. It left the position of the British army exposed, leaving them vulnerable to further reprisals. Why did the soldiers behave in this way?

Teamed with the reported lack of essential supplies, it led people to question whether the British army was emotionally and physically equipped for such military action, or is this the way soldiers will be led to behave under such extreme pressure?

So controversial is THE MARK OF CAIN, that the release was postponed until the current trial of the British soldiers is concluded.
The film won the Movies that Matter at the Rotterdam International Film Festival. According to the Festival's site:
“It’s a fictional story, but it was triggered off by a small newspaper story [screen writer] Marchant saw about a young soldier who’d taken his camera to develop at a high street store in 2003,” director Marc Munden says. “The guy processing the film immediately phoned the police because the photos were of prisoners being humiliated. The soldier was totally naïve; he didn’t think he’d done anything wrong. So Tony started interviewing returning soldiers and their families. It’s completely fictional, but all the elements that occur in the film have taken place in real life.”

The result is a fierce, angry film that probes the events leading up to the British soldiers’ torture of their terrorist ‘suspects’ (arrested on the flimsiest of evidence following an ambush on the squad that leaves two British soldiers dead), and exposes the way senior officers turned a blind eye to the abuse. “He’s a very committed, political writer – there’s not that many like that any more,” Munden says of Marchant. Asked what he looks for in a screenwriter, Munden says: “You’ve got to be completely in love with what they’re trying to say. But it’s really important that I can stamp some kind of authorship on the film.”
Channel Four claims that the airing of the film depicting abuse of Iraqi prisoners by British soldiers could have put the British prisoners in Iran at risk. The Channel has rescheduled the film's airing for May 17.

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Sunday, April 01, 2007

Flannery O'Connor and Abu Ghraib

One of a couple of books receiving attention this year about the deeper meanings of the scandal of Abu Ghraib, and the reaction of Americans to it, is "A Good War is Hard to Find," by David Griffith. He was inspired by some of the themes contained in the American fiction writer Flannery O'Connor, who brutally represented some of the deepest hypocrisies and contradictions, or 'discrepancies,' in the American soul. The New York Times reviews the book, and provides the first chapter. Quoting from it:
CATHOLIC WRITER FLANNERY O'CONNOR would have considered the images of the prison scandal grotesque, but not in what she called "the pejorative sense"-of just plain images of ugliness and ignorance. For O'Connor-whose characters are some of the most memorable grotesqueries in American literature-the grotesque makes visible hidden "discrepancies" between character and belief. Such images "connect or combine or embody two points; one is a point in the concrete and the other is a point not visible to the naked eye."

Take Cpl. Graner, for example. His pick-up truck still parked in the driveway of his Uniontown, Pennsylvania home at the time the pictures broke into the news, bears a license plate with the word Jesus and a picture of a cross. There is also a smooth stone in, appropriately enough, a "weed-choked" flower bed in front of his house, painted with a verse from the book of Hosea: "Sow for yourselves righteousness, reap the fruit of unfailing love and break up your unplowed ground; for it is time to see the Lord, until he comes and showers righteousness on you." [Hoses 10:12 NIV]

This stone is mentioned in most of the early news coverage of the scandal, treated as a bit of profound irony, the kind of coincidence newspaper reporters salivate over. How could a man with this bit of scripture displayed in his "postage-stamp" of a front yard, as one Pittsburgh news weekly described it, commit such atrocious acts? It's an irony the media isn't equipped to engage at any depth.

Such ironies were the stuff of O'Connor's stories. Her characters think of themselves as Christians or otherwise "good people," but their actions or attitudes reveal otherwise. Their pride blinds them to their own flaws, and only violence-usually from an unlikely source-opens their eyes, and offers them a chance at redemption.

Griffiths continues this same passage in an earlier article at Godspy magazine, and I find his viewpoint provocative and different, and I also love O'Connor, so:
For O'Connor, her native American South was the perfect landscape against which to paint her grotesque figures. But to Catholics in the 1950's O'Connor's fascination with bizarre characters from the nation's most Protestant region was unsettling. She addressed their "certain impatience" with her work in 1963 at a speaking engagement at Georgetown University, in a speech titled "The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South":

The American Catholic trusts the fictional imagination about as little as he trusts anything. Before it's well on its feet, he's busy looking for heresy in it. The Catholic press is constantly broken out in a rash of articles on the failure of the Catholic novelist. The Catholic novelist is failing to reflect the virtue of hope, failing to show the Church's interest in social justice, failing to show life as positive good, failing to portray our beliefs in a light that will make them desirable to others.

O'Connor accounts for this by accusing the Catholic reader of being "more Manichaean than the Church permits... by separating nature from grace."

"Manichaeism"—or Dualism—was a third-century religion inspired by a Persian, Mani. It claimed the universe was governed by two eternal, separate—and equal—forces: Good and Evil. Dualism has a certain attraction for Christians. In fact, in his Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis said, "I personally think that next to Christianity, Dualism is the manliest and most sensible creed on the market." But, Lewis continued, "It has a catch to it." Lewis, drawing from St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, does his usual brilliant job of refuting Dualism, and showing why Christianity is not dualistic—that the one eternal principle in Christianity, God, is good, that everything God made is good, and that evil is merely a perversion of the good:

"And do you now begin to see why Christianity has always said that the devil is a fallen angel? That is not a mere story for children. It is a real recognition of the fact that evil is a parasite, not an original thing. The powers that enable evil to carry on are power given to it by goodness. All the things which enable a man to be effectively bad are in themselves good things—resolution, cleverness, good looks, existence itself. That is why dualism, in a strict sense, will not work."

How to account for evil, then? Lewis continues: "God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go either wrong or right." Evil is the pursuit of good things—pleasure, money, power, etc., "by the wrong method."

That's O'Connor territory. Her stories reveal the hidden evil residing in the human heart, the pursuit of good that masks a secret pride.

Some have questioned her preoccupation with the sins of upright, decent people. But there's a significant precedent—in the Gospels. Consider the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector:

"Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.

The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, 'O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector.

I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.'

But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, 'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.'

"I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted." [Luke 18:10-14]

The parable seems overly harsh on the Pharisee. But that's only because we've forgotten what pride is. Lewis reminds us: Pride is "the essential vice, the utmost evil... it is the complete anti-God state of mind." Then there's St. Thomas Aquinas: "Pride extinguishes all the virtues and destroys all the powers of the soul, since its rule extends to them all."

Pride sets us against each other, and, most important, against God. To cure us of it, God allows us to sin. Again, St. Thomas: "the gravity of sins of pride is shown by the fact that God allows man to fall into other sins in order to heal him from pride."

For O'Connor, God's providence was realized not despite our sins, but through them. Removing sin from life—or fiction—meant essentially cutting yourself off from the possibility of grace. Life—or literature, becomes either sentimental or obscene, and while "preferring the former, and being more of an authority on the latter," the Catholic reader fails to see their similarity. "He forgets," she continues, that:

sentimentality is an excess, a distortion of sentiment usually in the direction of an overemphasis on innocence and that innocence whenever it is overemphasized in the ordinary human condition, tends by some natural law to become its opposite... Sentimentality is a skipping of this process in its concrete reality and an early arrival at a mock state of innocence, which strongly suggests its opposite.

The opposite of innocence? Abu Ghraib, maybe? When we consider the United States, was there ever a country more naively, optimistically moral? But by separating sin from nature, we forever see ourselves as innocent and exceptional—a chosen people ordained by God to rid the earth of evil. Was there ever a greater occasion for pride? Is this the real meaning of the Abu Ghraib photographs? Are these images evidence of the subterranean flaw beneath our benevolent, Christian surface?

For Flannery O'Connor, such contradictions explained Southern literature's tendency toward the violent and grotesque.

The South is struggling mightily to retain her identity against great odds and without knowing always, I believe, quite in what her identity lies. An identity is not made from what passes, from slavery to segregation, but from those qualities that endure because they are related to truth. It is not made from the mean average or the typical but often from the hidden and most extreme.

According to O'Connor, the South was not so much "Christ-Centered" as "Christ-Haunted." She believed that the most challenging images of Christ were pushed aside in the South in favor of more palatable ones, ones that would allow for the continued separation and inequality between the races. However, these sublimated images eventually return as "fierce and instructive" ghosts, to cast menacing shadows across the landscape. These menacing shadows are the raw material of much Southern literature, from the well-mannered, sober Eudora Welty to the drunken tortured genius of Faulkner. And as Susan Sontag pointed out in her New York Times Magazine essay about Abu Ghraib, "The Pictures Are Us," those same ghosts can be seen in the lynching photos of the late 19th and early 20th century.

And so we see America, 2004, also as "Christ-Haunted." Tom Junod's article "Jesus 2004," which appeared in the May issue of Esquire, reports that 80% of Americans believe in Jesus Christ and consider themselves Christian. What differs wildly, however, is exactly who these 80% think they're believing in. Junod's piece reveals there is no consensus, but in general Christ is a good guy, he's there for us when we need him, he's personable, even handsome. Ultimately, Junod's piece suggests the personalization of Jesus, the recasting of Jesus in our own (inevitably disordered) human image. This is a phenomenon O'Connor was witnessing even in the early sixties. Our concept of Christ has, O'Connor wrote, "gone underneath and come out in distorted forms."

Griffith's blog is a good read too.

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