Monday, August 31, 2009

Nick Turse, From My Lai to Lockerbie


On this one-way planet of ours, it's hard sometimes to imagine things any other way, but for a moment let's try. Imagine, for instance, that in recent years the director of Iranian intelligence oversaw a program of "extraordinary rendition" aimed at those who were believed to be prepared to commit acts of terror against that country's fundamentalist regime. Practically speaking, what this often meant was kidnapping suspects -- some quite innocent of such aims -- off the streets of Middle Eastern or South Asian cities and transporting them secretly to Iran, to "black sites" set up abroad, or to allied regimes known for their torture practices.
Imagine that these suspects, once in the hands of his agents -- the Geneva Conventions having been declared not applicable to them -- were then tortured, abused, and sometimes murdered. Imagine that, for this, the director, in a public ceremony with great hoopla, was awarded the Ayatollah Khomeini Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the land, and on retiring honorably wrote a bestselling memoir about his years in office. Imagine as well that, to help Iranian interrogators, lawyers close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had rewritten the law so that acts which the world had long agreed to be torture were now redefined as not so, and on that basis, they were instructed to do such things as waterboarding suspects, even as the fundamentalist regime regularly announced that, on the basis of its own definitions, it did not condone torture.
If such a scenario had occurred, we know what we would think of such people. We know what our media would say about such people. We know what we would demand as a fate for such people -- that they be brought to justice. The present regime in Iran has proven itself quite capable of committing its own set of horrors and tortures. The above description, however, could not be mistaken for the recent history of any agency but the CIA and associated outfits under the purview of the top officials and lawyers of the Bush administration. Indeed, George Tenet, CIA director from 1997-2004, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian honor possible, by George W. Bush in December 2004, when much of the above was already on the public record (and the president certainly knew far more). Tenet did then write At the Center of the Storm, a bestselling memoir, and so on.
Now, a new administration is in power and it has decided to investigate CIA interrogations -- but only those acts by Agency operatives (and its private contractors) that went beyond the bounds of Bush administration extremity, beyond the bounds, that is, of that administration's pretzled definitions of what was not torture. The rest gets a pass.
On the day that decision made headlines, another report, "U.S. Says Rendition to Continue, but With More Oversight" by David Johnston in the New York Times, barely got noticed, even though it indicated that a now-notorious program of the Bush years would be continued in the Obama era. In other words, the U.S. will go right on turning terror suspects over to third countries for incarceration and interrogation (something criticized by Barack Obama in his presidential campaign), only with undoubtedly meaningless "diplomatic assurances" of no-torture policies. (Johnston did not even mention the kidnapping part of the process.) I'm still waiting for someone to ask the question: Why turn suspects over to seedy regimes if you don't expect them to act seedily?
Had China announced that it was going to turn rebel Uighurs captured outside the country over to Uzbekistan, or Myanmar made it clear that it was planning to send dissidents kidnapped in Thailand to Syria, we would denounce such policies to the skies. But it's us, and as Nick Turse, TomDispatch associate editor and author of the remarkable book on American militarism, The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, points out, we are the great exception. If we do it, it essentially doesn't count -- and perhaps more remarkably, it never dents our urge to stand on the highest moral ground around and accuse others of heinous acts. Of course, when you still want to think of yourself as the planet's sole superpower, you naturally feel you have license to do such things, and leave yourself out of the equation. It's evidently the global equivalent of James Bond's license to kill, or Monopoly's get-out-of-jail-free card. Tom

Apologies, Anger, and Apathy

My Lai and Lockerbie Reconsidered
by Nick Turse
A week ago, two convicted mass murderers leaped back into public consciousness as news coverage of their stories briefly intersected. One was freed from prison, continuing to proclaim his innocence, and his release was vehemently denounced in the United States as were the well-wishers who welcomed him home. The other expressed his contrition, after almost 35 years living in his country in a state of freedom, and few commented.

When Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the Libyan sentenced in 2001 to 27 years in prison for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, was released from incarceration by the Scottish government on "compassionate grounds," a furor erupted. On August 22nd, ABC World News with Charles Gibson featured a segment on outrage over the Libyan's release. It was aired shortly before a report on an apology offered by William Calley, who, in 1971 as a young lieutenant, was sentenced to life in prison for the massacre of civilians in the Vietnamese village of My Lai.

After al-Megrahi, who served eight years in prison, arrived home to a hero's welcome in Libya, officials in Washington expressed their dismay. To White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, it was "outrageous and disgusting"; to President Barack Obama, "highly objectionable." Calley, who admitted at trial to killing Vietnamese civilians personally, but served only three years of house arrest following an intervention by President Richard Nixon, received a standing ovation from the Kiwanis Club of Greater Columbus, Georgia, the city where he lived for years following the war. (He now resides in Atlanta.) For him, there was no such uproar, and no one, apparently, thought to ask either Gibbs or the president for comment, despite the eerie confluence of the two men and their fates.

Part of the difference in treatment was certainly the passage of time and Calley's contrition, however many decades delayed, regarding the infamous massacre of more than 500 civilians. "There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai," the Vietnam veteran told his audience. "I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry." For his part, al-Megrahi, now dying of cancer, accepted that relatives of the 270 victims of the Lockerbie bombing "have hatred for me. It's natural to behave like this... They believe I'm guilty, which in reality I'm not. One day the truth won't be hiding as it is now. We have an Arab saying: 'The truth never dies.'"

American Exceptionalism
Calley was charged in the deaths of more than 100 civilians and convicted in the murder of 22 in one village, while al-Megrahi was convicted of the murder of 270 civilians aboard one airplane. Almost everyone, it seems, found it perverse, outrageous, or "gross and callous" that the Scottish government allowed a convicted mass murderer to return to a homeland where he was greeted with open arms. No one seemingly thought it odd that another mass murderer had lived freely in his home country for so long. The families of the Lockerbie victims were widely interviewed. As the Calley story broke, no American reporter apparently thought it worth the bother to look for the families of the My Lai victims, let alone ask them what they thought of the apology of the long-free officer who had presided over, and personally taken part in the killing of, their loved ones.

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