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May 12, 2009 | by  | in Features |
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Dispatches from the Ministry of Love

What at first appears to be a relatively innocuous memo lifted from the pages of George Orwell’s 1984 is in fact an accurate account of the treatment by US forces of two detainees. Take a journey down into the depths of the Ministry of Truth’s Records Department and fact check history. Change the names of Julia and Winston to Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and Abu Zubaydah. Replace the names Ministry of Love to Joint Task Force Guantánamo, the Ministry of Peace with the Department of Defense and Emmanual Goldstein with Osama bin Laden. When life begins imitating literature in strange and dangerously coincidental ways, we must put the plagiarists on trial. 


The 20th Century gave rise to the most brutal of wars, the most efficient and banal bureaucratic war machine history had ever seen. Dark visions of hollowed out countryside littered with flesh and bone. This sight eventually seeped into the words of European authors—their minds grappling with these horrors, they created their own dark dystopias. Along with Orwell’s more traditional totalitarian state, Aldous Huxley and Franz Kafka offered their own bedtime horrors. Huxley’s Brave New World was just as organised as Orwell’s, but the methods were reversed—instead of punishing citizens into submission they materially rewarded good behaviour, instead of torturing thinkcriminals they drugged them into a hospital-grade opiate-like soma daze. The goal was to internalise the values of the state within the individual.

Yet Kafka was the cruelest of them all, withdrawing deep into the human psyche. The Trial stands testament to the golden age of bureaucratic irrationalism—impervious to all forms of communication, especially basic reason. As Josef K. awakes from uneasy dreams he finds himself transformed into a vaguely guilty criminal. He spends the waning days of his life stuck in an endless bureaucratic paper trail, wandering to and fro, from wooden offices of petty administrators through the bleak streets of an estranged hometown. Josef is reduced to nothing more than speck of dust in the bureaucratic machine, stuck in a legal black-hole with no hope of escape.

The Plagiarists

The Bush administration’s sad torturous tale of human rights abuse is no more than a cheap ripoff of books written long ago. If it weren’t for the pathetically human failures of these third-rate Nixonite personalities, the tale would be worthy of literary fame. Instead all we get are third-generation Republican hacks out of their element with fire in their eyes and hell to pay. These are the same people who sat guilty laughing at the impotence of Reaganite era Congressional Hearings. The people are who ran this corrupt brothel were so brazen in their attitudes, so full of hubris, so accustomed to the bubble of Washington power and removed from the reality of their policy—making decisions that perhaps Soviet-style showtrails is the only way to get through to these swineburglars.

Deep inside windowless corner offices the bureaucratic machinery of war courted esteemed academics and retired public figures. Citizens who could be reduced to cheap hackery for the price of a private driver and a blowjob. The administration quickly found a Yakuza to write an eloquent legal defence of expansive executive powers and ag-gressive inter-rogation tech-niques. Legal advice was sought, asses were covered and the Department of Ligatation Risk had a successful cocktail party. Even the Pentagon got in on the party; under the direction of Donald Rumsfeld, they schmoozed and charmed public figures. This year’s Pulitzer Prize winner documents the systematic domestic propaganda campaign run by the Pentagon—managing the public perception of the war through a public diplomacy of disinformation.

Eastasia: America’s Friend Enemy

When Ingsoc declared without a hint of irony that Eastasia was and always had been the bitter enemy, it took control of the official narrative of history. Orwell knew that controlling the narrative of history was an indispensable means of legitimising the state’s action. The same principle was at work when Defense Secretary Rumfeld began rattling his saber at Iraq. Forget that this was the same man who shamelessly shook the hand of Saddam Hussien. Forget that this was essentially the same administration that funded Osama bin Laden and the Mujahideen in their fight against communism. Forget that Iraq had no connection to Osama bin Laden and none of the Stepember 11 terrorists were from Afghanistan. A well orchestrated Public Relations campaign and a climate of fear are all that is needed to set the official narrative.

Immediately following the September 11 attacks, the administration was foaming at the mouth and bloodlust set deep in their eyes. Retribution against those responsible was sought and unfinished business in Iraq was back on the agenda. A new chapter in American warfare unlike any other was about to begin, the proverbial gloves would be taken off. This was a new form of warfare against a transnational shadowy enemy who ‘hates our freedoms’. Surely we cannot be expected to engage in lawful or decent combat? For any government, at least 
superficially acting under legislative constraints, legal defenses and opinions needed to be drafted justifying its actions, no matter how disingenuous they may be. And so Bush Administration lawyers went into overdrive, writing memos and legal opinions justifying the new ‘gloves off’ tactics that administration officials demanded. Lawyers at the Department of Defense and Department of Justice argued two essential points: terrorists cap-tured would be legal non-entities and agg-ressive interrogation techniques were within the legal limits set by domestic and international laws.

The War on Semantics

George W. Bush’s War on Grammar was comical enough for the rest of the world, yet behind those slightly dopey eyes a much more insidious war was being waged. The Bush Administration waged a War on Semantics, and the question of torture became an academic exercise. The Bush presidency gave us a lot; lower taxes, higher deficits, Hurricane Katrina, and comical moments at podium. But its greatest gift of all was bestowed upon the English language: two phrases worthy of official entry into Orwell’s 11th edition of Newspeak—Unlawful Enemy Combatants and Enhanced Interrogation Techniques. Great legal and policy minds set to work interpreting the definition of torture, attempting to open up a space in which the US forces could interrogate detainees in officially unprecedented ways. Including physical as well as psychological techniques. Physical techniques aren’t particularly useful, as sheer brute force isn’t greatly effective in breaking down a prisoner and often strengthens their resolve—plus it invariable leaves bruising as proof. No, what the US specialises in is pshycological interrogation, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, sexual humiliation, and the use of phobias against prisoners. The Justice Department wrote what is now the infamous ‘Torture Memo’, which argues that so long as each individual technique caused no lasting damage it was legal, and vaguely argues that the accumulative effect of these techniques would not cross the threshold of torture.

Orwell believed controlling the past was essential to controlling the present. He also knew that controlling language was just as important—language defines limits.

The substance of the term ‘Unlawful Enemy Combatants’ evolved from a Justice Department opinion submitted to the President in Jan. 2002. Under the Gevena Conventions, all prisoners of war are granted rights, including the right to a fair trail and a right to be treated humanely. All signatory states of the Gevena Conventions must abide by these rules of war. This included the treatment of prisoners bearing the uniform or insignia of another state (and if that state is not a signatory to the convention or the prisioner is not uniformed then the less stringent Common Article 3 will apply, although this still bans the use of torture). The Justice Department argued that al-Queda would not be covered by the Geneva Conventions because they are not soldiers of any particular country. The motley militias of the Taliban bore no insignia so only the minimum Common Article 3 applied. The Justice Department then argued that this proviso only applied to civil wars, concluding that the Gevena Convention did not apply. By exploiting the loopholes which existed in a treaty founded in a state-centric age, the Bush administration disingenuously interpreted their obligations under the law for their own ends. The US Supreme Court eventually brought the US into line with international obligations in its 2006 decision, ruling that detainees were guaranteed the minimum protection of Common Article 3.

The Bush administration also needed to insulate itself from its own domestic obligations. It needed to shield the detainees from the reach of US courts. The administration argued that because these detainees were stationed outside of US territory (i.e. on ‘leased’ terrority in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba), the courts had no jurisdiction. This argument is absurdly flimsy—consider the following: My flatmate kidnaps my milk in the middle of the night and transports it to his rented apartment on Cuba St. I still have a right to my flatwhite. The Supreme Court concurred in 2008, ruling that all detainees had access to the U.S. legal system and could not be held indefinitely without charges laid against them. Within the last two weeks a federal US judge ruled that detainees held in Afghanistan had the right to a trail in US courts.

Baghram Airbase in Afghanistan was the Bush administration’s first attempt at running a large-scale detention facility in a combat zone. Within the first years of its operation, four detainees were beaten to death and numerous more were subject to what human rights groups call ‘systematic abuse’. One of those deceased detainees is the subject of the documentary Taxi to the Dark Side. The worst excesses of Baghram Airbase evolved and ripened into the third-rate B-grade bondage film that was Abu Graib. Once the Iraq war was underway military and policy leaders made no attempt at changing offical policy in light of prisoner abuse at Baghram Airbase. This tacit approval, along with a strong insistence on breaking down prisoners, created what has been called a ‘forced drift’ of ever-worsening abuses, culminating in what is surely tantamont to torture. Yet policy-makers hoped that this plausible deniability of abuse, along with legal memos legitimising interrogation tactics, would be enough to cover themselves legally. Yet the administration’s official narrative of the Abu Graib scandal was that prisoner abuse was the product of a “few bad apples” and not administration policy. This view is simply not tenable and we must view the investigation for what it really was—a show trail for those at the bottom of the food chain, while those at the top scrambled to cover their asses.

Means to an End?

In a strictly ethical sense, the debate surrounding the use of these enhanced interrogation techniques can be divided into two distinct camps: the Utilitarian and the Kantian. Under Utilitarian ethics an action is permissible if it maximises the welfare of society, so killing may be a permissible means to the end. Granted, this is a relatively crude formulation of Utilitarian, it is usually qualified with some rules and conditions, such as actions are permissibly ethical if and only if they operate within some boundaries set by society. Recent polling data shows that anywhere between 60 and 70 percent of Americans believe the Enhanced Interrogation Techniques were torture and some 40 percent believe torture is never justifiied. Kantian ethics state first and foremost that all human beings must be treated as ends in themselves and not as a means toward a National Security end.

There are other reasons why we may think these interrogation methods are impermissible—from past historical precedents and ethical consistency, a question as to its effectiveness, and a simple belief in the constraint of executive power. The US has been involved in two major war tribunals, the Nuremberg Trials and the Toyko Trials. Immediately following the defeat of the Japan in 1945, the US tried Japanese soldiers, finding them guilty of torture—acts including waterboarding. Some of these soldiers were sentenced to death and others to hard labour. If we believe in ethical consistency, then as a society we should demand those who authorised the use of these techniques to be tried. The second argument, and one the media have almost wholly focused on, is the effectiveness of these interrogation techniques. It is argued that the information obtained could have been attained through other, less severe, methods. One also has to wonder the credibility of evidence obtained under harsh interrogation. Furth-ermore, the existence of these detention facilities and the revelation of prisoner abuse only serves as a recuitment tool for those aggrieved against the US. The third argument is that the Executive Branch must operate within the parameters set by Congress and international treaties. If these interrogation methods are deemed as either cruel and unusual or torture, then the administration would be operating outside the law.
Where the Bush administration failed in respecting the law and basic integrity, let us hope that Obama will appoint men and women of honour in the Justice and State Departments, the Pentagon and CIA. Otherwise tattered posters of hope will lie in the streets.

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