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Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Moral Mockeries and Lamentable Legacies

by Clinton Fein

Woe are we.

Although it appears to still have legs in spite of the demented media spectacle following the death, finally, of Ronald Reagan, the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib will also eventually fade into the ether of American Attention Deficit Disorder along with diva wardrobe malfunctions and mysterious, conspiracy-plagued beheadings. The uncertainty about America’s future and the idiots leading her will, however, remain as the Presidential election draws closer.

Click to Send PostcardThe Department of Justice’s exporting -- either calculated or grossly negligent -- of thugs with atrocious abuse records to manage interrogations in Iraq, and their carefully constructed memos and analyses that espoused and legitimized a doctrine of “Torture Now, No Consequences Later” demonstrate that Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, had an equally culpable accomplice by the name of John Ashcroft. The inability of the current administration to accept an iota of responsibility for its ever-mounting mistakes by almost every cabinet member will ensure that they are repeated. History has taught us little other than this unfortunate fact. Indeed, many senators and representatives have expressed that the Administration’s flagrant disregard for the Geneva conventions signaled a clear sign down the chain of command as to how – or rather how not – to treat people in this War on Terror, perhaps better described as War of Terror.

When Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee last month that the majority of those serving in the Armed Services were decent human beings and that the perpetrators of the abuse at Abu Ghraib (and the ever-widening perimeter of detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan) were merely “bad apples,” he may have been correct, although he failed to look into the mirror to identify the source of the systemic rot.

In an April 20th, 2003 editorial written in response to Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld’s, decision the year before to disband the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS), the only entity that provided a modicum of oversight to the rampant sexual harassment in the military, I suggested that “Iraqi women better hope that the U.N. can add chastity belts to the food packages they’ll be dropping as part of their ‘central role’ in the rebuilding. If U.S. servicemembers are raping and harassing their comrades, the natives had better watch out.” I should have cautioned Iraqi men as well.

A bunch of photographs depicting violent and sadistic physical abuse and torture at Saddam Hussein’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison emerge, and suddenly America and the rest of the cowardly allied world and equally vile Middle East are horrified. The frighteningly detailed and vividly graphic Taguba Report, authored by the son of a survivor of a Japanese prison camp, Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, which revealed the abuse in an investigation of the 800th military Police Brigade, was not enough to get the top brass at the Pentagon interested enough to notify Congress or the President.

It was the pictures.

And now the pictures have turned into symbols and the symbols will soon become icons which in turn will represent legacies. But fear not. Legacies are easily distorted.

In the weeks following the media frenzy related to Abu Ghraib, President Bush, unlike Reagan the actor, was unable to suppress his shit-eating arrogance as he feigned regret for the behavior of the men and women representing America in Iraq (with about as much contrition as Martha Stewart offering an apology to Doug Faneil for speaking rudely to him on the phone). His half-heartedly and condescendingly vague sort-of-apology was sincere enough to enrage the one remaining Iraqi who wasn’t already outraged. With almost farcical stage setting in the Rose Garden, with none other than Jordan’s King Abdullah at his side nodding sagely in agreement.

Of course King Abdullah was horrified by images of a woman holding an Iraqi man on a leash or laughing at him while he was forced to masturbate. After all, in Jordan, it’s usually women who are imprisoned by hoods. Literally and figuratively. Before they are stoned to death. And that’s even gracious. According to BBC reports, on September 10th, 2003, three brothers hacked their two sisters to death in an "honour killing", one day after Jordan’s parliament rejected tougher sentences for such crime, where approximately every two weeks a woman is killed by a male relative because of the shame she has brought upon her family by alleged sexual transgression - like being raped. And those found guilty of such killings are punished with sentences as harsh as a year in prison. If not a few months. Apologizing to King Abdullah of Jordan for human rights transgressions is like apologizing to O.J Simpson for Charles Manson.

Judging from a February 23, 2004 Newsweek article, “War Stories” President Bush is no stranger to downplaying torture rites. Whilst a student at Yale, he “attracted the attention of the school paper, the Yale Daily News, only once, when the paper ran an expose on ‘branding’ initiates at Deke. DISGRACE ON THE ROW was the headline.” The perpetually defensive Bush insisted that “initiates were not really branded but just sustained small cigarette burns.” If he was smart enough, curious enough or sober enough back then, the unlikely President might have argued that the branding of symbols on human flesh with hot iron rods (and who didn’t puff on iron rods back then?) was an act of “conservative compassion,” allowing an outcast to fit in and become part of an elitist, alcoholic binge club.

A more recent story in the Washington Post recounted how journalists in an interview said President Bush "teared up as he recounted a meeting he held in November with female Iraqi leaders. " "The door opened to the Oval Office and the first woman that walked in looked at me and she burst out in tears, and said, 'You are my liberator,' " Bush said. "It touched my heart.." Perhaps it touched Laura’s heart too. The last contribution she made to women, anyone remembers, was to send sewing kits to the newly “liberated” Afghani women to create uniforms for the men who savagely subjugated them under the Taliban. Laura’s gone now, but the Taliban are back.

That the media and the government, or anyone really, is surprised by the abuse scandal is mind boggling. When you send women and men off to kill people you obviously have to desensitize them by reducing the enemy to a sub-human level. To expect anyone to be able to sophisticatedly switch compassion on the basis of inadequate training and conflicting, shifting and shifty, Geneva-Convention-dodging interpretations designed to avoid culpability and responsibility at every turn -- Love thy Prisoner of War like thou love thine Enemy Combatant -- is fundamentally impossible for almost any human. Even Gods. Even Ronald Reagan.

But let’s not kid ourselves either. We were well trained to deal with status-dependent symbolism long before the latest war in Iraq. During the early morning hours of July 5th, 1999 at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, 21 year old Soldier of the Month nominee PFC Barry Winchell was bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat by one or more fellow soldiers in his barracks because they thought he was gay. According to testimony, Pvt. Calvin Glover, 19, swung the bat at least five or six times with such force that parts of Winchell's brain extruded through his left ear. Blood covered the walls and ceilings, splashing 15 feet down the hall.

Major General (MG) Robert T. Clark was commander of Fort Campbell, Kentucky at the time. Under Clark’s watch many reports of anti-gay harassment surfaced in addition to Winchell’s murder, including anti-gay graffiti. Other troubling reports about Clarke’s tenure, (including low morale, a spike in domestic abuse, leader-condoned under-age and excessive drinking in the barracks, and inadequate delivery of basic healthcare to servicemembers and their spouses) surfaced when he was up for promotion to Lieutenant General. Neither Winchell’s parents (despite concerted efforts) nor members of congress could sidetrack the promotion. This is the type of man President Bush wanted leading his troops. This is who he promoted in spite of the widely publicized misgivings, and this is who he got. Most of the abuse-surviving enemy combatants were better off in Abu Ghraib than the Soldier of the Month nominee was in Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Or Allen Schindler.

On October 27, 1992, Terry Helvey brutally murdered Seaman Allen R. Schindler, Jr., his shipmate because Schindler was gay. Helvey's attack was so violent that he destroyed every organ in Schindler's body. Allen Schindler's mother, Mrs. Dorothy Hajdys, could identify her son only by the remains of the tattoo on his arm. The medical examiner compared Schindler's injuries to those sustained by victims of fatal airplane crashes. Many blamed President Clinton’s newly implemented, fundamentally flawed policy compromise “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The treatment of gay servicemembers under Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. Bush reduced to red blood on white tiles in a Japanese restroom.

In March, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network released their annual report documenting abuses under the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy (the widely discredited military policy that acknowledges the presence of gay servicemembers in the military but compels them to lie about it to protect straight servicemembers from knowing the truth.) Despite a drop in gay related discharges attributable to the military’s Stop-Loss policy which suspends the discharge of servicemembers during times of war -- presumably when the alleged threat to unit cohesion used to justify the policy would be the most critical – the report found the Bush Administration and its Pentagon leaders ignored a “growing epidemic of anti-gay harassment within the armed forces” and “continue to turn a blind eye to dangerous harassment within the ranks.”

The much touted Taguba Report, at the heart of the current investigations into the abuses at Abu Ghraib, includes the following notation: “Mr. Adel L. Nakhla, a US civilian contract translator was questioned about several detainees accused of rape. He observed (sic): ‘They (detainees) were all naked, a bunch of people from MI, the MP were there that night and the inmates were ordered by SGT Granier and SGT Frederick ordered the guys while questioning them to admit what they did. They made them do strange exercises by sliding on their stomach, jump up and down, throw water on them and made them some wet, called them all kinds of names such as "gays" do they like to make love to guys, then they handcuffed their hands together and their legs with shackles and started to stack them on top of each other by insuring that the bottom guys penis will touch the guy on tops butt.’

Not quite as bad as baseball-batting their heads to a pulp, or kicking them to death beyond recognition, but the picture that emerges is that in an environment that permits anti-gay harassment and sexual harassment, as evidenced by the strangely vanishing scandal involving the Air Force’s treatment of women, it’s not difficult to understand why humiliation involving gender and sexual orientation tops the list of abusive interrogation techniques.

Despite much spouting that the humiliation of Iraqi detainees was designed to attack the basic tenets of Islamic -- their -- religious beliefs, the reality is that those same beliefs are widely held by the United States military, as evidenced by the SLDN report, and the most recent sexual abuse scandal in the Air Force. For all her notoriety, PFC. Lynndie England had two lose-lose choices in Abu Ghraib. To follow orders and do what she was told to do like a real soldier, which, it appears, is what she did. The unfortunate dichotomy for a woman in that position in the United States military is that exhibiting the traits of a good soldier – strong, tough, independent and fearless -- are likely to raise suspicions of her being a dyke, the consequence of which, for her sacrifice, is a dishonorable discharge (upon returning from her Stop-Loss extend tour of duty). There’s only one way to counter such allegations, although under the Uniform Code of Military Justice her adultery with a superior officer -- a double infraction -- would net the same result. Pfc. Lynndie England is, incidentally, pregnant.

It’s “just a few,” we keep hearing. The “bad apples.” “Those acts ought not be allowed to define us,” Rumsfeld told a bunch of midshipmen, cadets and other friendly faces in a town hall meeting in Baghdad. “Remember we are seeing the excesses of human nature.” “There’s not a single human being who works harder than Secretary Rumsfeld,” said General Peter Pace, thanking him for his “leadership”. Despite outrage the world over, it was great to see The Pentagon singing their own praises. Leadership certainly abounds, doesn’t it?

“The free and vigilant press” that we’re supposed to be grateful for, have not only ignored the larger issues for years in their over-patriotic glee, but are presenting the issue with a sensationalist tinge. “The military, not the media, discovered these abuses. The military reported these abuses, not the media,” said Rumsfeld almost gleefully, telling the servicemembers how much happier he was to be in Iraq as opposed to being grilled by congress back in Washington. Perhaps if his “tour of duty” was involuntarily extended under the “Stop-Loss” policy, he might have been a little less elated. On April 15, he approved a request from military commanders for a three month long extension, breaking a previous commitment to limit the tours of U.S. troops in Iraq to no more than a year.

The media confusion as it becomes increasingly mired in its own self-serving hypocrisy will show repeated vignettes of Janet Jackson’s exposed breast and vivid images of the abuse pictures coming out of Abu Ghraib, blurring the sexual organs as if somehow amidst the horrific and systemic violence coming out of Iraq, an exposed sexual organ or excretory orifice is what’s offensive.

Sinclair Broadcast Group, in a brazen and blatant political action, instructed its stations to preempt a broadcast of ABC’s “Nightline” on which Ted Koppel read aloud the names of U.S. servicemen and women killed in action in Iraq, claiming “we do not believe such political statements should be disguised as news content”. Senator John McCain, a Vietnam veteran responded: “Your decision to deny your viewers an opportunity to be reminded of war's terrible costs, in all their heartbreaking detail, is a gross disservice to the public, and to the men and women of the United States Armed Forces. It is, in short, sir, unpatriotic. I hope it meets with the public opprobrium it most certainly deserves.”

They are forbidden from distributing images of Americans in flag-draped coffins unless they’re former Presidents, but voluntarily refuse to show images of countless Iraqi civilians killed and maimed by misguided guided missiles. They’ll show JonBenet Ramesy specials, but refuse to show the horrific beheading of Nick Berg. The wave of media irresponsibility, their nauseating, agenda-driven claim to exclusivity when it comes to this sort of horror, their censoring of body parts and the government’s grip on what we should or shouldn’t see is more damaging to America and American interests than Osama bin Laden. When it comes to mainstream American media, the most tragic thing about 2001 was that the anthrax didn’t work.

The latest media vomit fest, the never-ending funeral of Ronald Reagan (that might require a tax increase to pay for it all), managed to bump George W. Bush’s D-day speech in Normandy and the G8 Summit in Georgia into total oblivion. At the same time every worm, liar, thief and hypocrite, from Peggy Noonan’s hot flushing recollections to the fey Gary Bauer came crawling out of the woodwork to fabricate his legacy. From Iran Contra to Constructive Engagement and AIDS, his murderous, elitist, homophobic, racist City on the Hill was fondly remembered, no doubt, by the starving “Welfare Queens,” survivors of lovers, sons, father, mothers, sisters and brothers lost to AIDS thanks to his “compassionate conservatism”. (Like Hitler’s euphemizing his mass executions in the gas chambers as “compassionate conservation”). And then, of course, the countless people killed in South Africa under his constructive engagement policy that armed the Apartheid regime to the hilt, refused to impose sanctions on the White minority, and deemed Nelson Mandela a “terrorist” who deserved to rot in jail.

Even in a corporate controlled, free-market, capitalist democracy (does such a thing actually exist?), the Office of the President holds a certain amount of standing – enough to effect policy and to get corporations to do certain things to curry favor, if nothing else. Ronald Regan’s despicable equation of AIDS and morality resulted in not only the stigmatization and demonization of groups of people, but coupled with the Reverends of the Day (Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Lou Sheldon et al.) who communicated that AIDS was God’s punishment for “immoral behavior” (Yes, the same ones who blamed liberals, gays, and pro-choice women for September 11th) resulted in years and years of inaction that could have made an enormous difference and saved countless lives. As it turns out, (and contrary to the geocentric extrapolations of Reagan apologists that totally ignore the demographics of AIDS globally), the virus (yep, that’s what it is HIV, simply a virus) does not discriminate, and the disproportionate amount of women and children in Africa, for instance, that are victims of AIDS is severe enough and dangerous enough and threatening enough right now to have a devastating effect on all of us.

Strange how it started with the gays and drug users and managed to make its way to the poor ethnic minorities in the US and the poor ethnic majorities in Africa and, surprise, China. I wonder what moral shortcomings those little AIDS orphans in Africa harbored to warrant such a cruel and unforgiving punishment. Perhaps the savage rapes of some of their mothers by HIV positive men mired in poverty, fear and ignorance were visited on them. God is, apparently, funny that way.

It’s all quite simple really. When, as a species, we are confronted with a virus or a bacteria that has the potential to kill us, the intelligent thing to do is to take our self-righteous, elitist morality and shove it far enough up our asses to allow the best brains we have to figure out a way to beat it. Whether it first impacts women, children, gays, men, transgendered persons, minorities, the marginalized or whoever and whatever other forms we take as we plod around this earth, is totally irrelevant. A more compassionate, intelligent President, not Reagan's astrological incompetence, not the self-described Kinder, Gentler idiot that followed and spawned the Crueler, Rougher moron we have now, and not even the too-little-too-late Blow Buddy from Arkansas, but a real President, would not have approached AIDS as another failed War policy (ala Drugs and Terror), but rather a ‘Quest for a Cure’. Should we just ignore SARS now because it’s really just a little yellow people problem, or have we evolved a little since 1980?

The Cold War that Reagan won “without firing a shot” only created in Afghanistan the most radical Islamic jihadists against the occupying Soviets, ultimately resulting in the formation of that little group we know as al Qaeda. Remember, the ones we were supposed to be fighting before George W. Bush and Company decided, in a Southpark movie moment, to to blame Iraq?

Now, as we approach the deadline – a Reality TV joke of handing over sovereignty – full sovereignty – (except for military control and legislative power and oil fields) to the winner of the United States’ blend of American Idol and Survivor, the Interim Iraqi Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, who won the first part just in time to let the world know who we were “transferring” power to, has yet to survive the Survivor part as his brand new cabinet is appointed and assassinated almost simultaneously. Kamal al-Jarah, the second-highest-ranking official in the Education Ministry, was killed June 13, 2004 outside his Baghdad home a day after deputy foreign minister Bassam Salih Kubba was killed. General Hussein Mustapha, the chief of the Iraqi Border Guard forces, narrowly escaped death when his convoy was ambushed and sprayed with bullets.

Condoleezza Rice, still adrift somewhere between Wonderland and Neverland, told CNN's Late Edition that insurgents are simply trying to "shake the will" of the new government before the “transfer”. "They're not going to succeed," she said. She also didn’t think terrorists would use planes to fly into towers, despite being told as much, but why hold that against her?

As America argues over whether to name the Pentagon after Ronald Reagan, bump Alexander Hamilton off the ten dollar bill to grace it with Reagan's mug, re-carve Mount Rushmore to add his clown painted face to it and attempt to glorify his shameful legacy, the mockery of our pseudo-morality, exported directly to Iraq, and ever captured by the images of electric wired, hooded prisoners from Abu Ghraib that now exist as icons of American hypocrisy on murals, posters and bumper stickers, a more inspiring image rises above the fray.

It was not what appeared to be the lone black woman among a sea of white faces at the 1984 Republican Convention as Ray Charles sang “America,” and whose death the same week was overshadowed by Reaganmania. It was the holding of the Olympic torch, passing through South Africa for the first time ever, by Nelson Mandela on Robben Island where he spent 18 years of his 27-year prison term. On June 12, 2004, in a courtyard outside his former cell, the beloved 85-year-old anti-apartheid icon was “happy and honored” that the torch was passing through such a symbolic place. With no thanks to Ronald Reagan.

For Abu Ghraib to transform the way Robben Island did, the world needs a few more Nelson Mandelas. Not Ronald Reagans. Mandela’s is truly a legacy to remember.


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