Sunday, March 18, 2012

The shining city on a hill, shrouded in darkness

I think I first realized that I was repulsed by my nation's foreign policy when we invaded Iraq the first time, back in early 1991. I did an oral report on antiwar movements that year in one of my political science classes, and when I criticized our involvement in Iraq, I remember one angry, burly kid shooting up out of his chair, pointing a finger at me, and saying in a loud, authoritative voice, "If you don't like this country, leave."

I finished my report by playing Country Joe McDonald's Woodstock performance of the "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag," which includes these salient lines:

And it's 1-2-3, what are we fightin' for?
Don't ask me, I don't give a damn,
The next stop is Vietnam.

 What are we fighting for? Don't ask me, I don't give a damn. That pretty much summed up the American attitude at the time of the Gulf War. "Support Our Troops" became a national mantra. Everywhere you looked, the slogan popped up on bumper stickers, billboards, ball caps, and T-shirts. Yellow ribbons popped up everywhere. Saddam Hussein, naturally, was cast as the convenient villain, even though our own government had been directly supporting him for years.

Donald Rumsfeld, then a special envoy to Ronald Reagan, shaking hands with U.S. ally Saddam Hussein, 1983.

And now Saddam had to be stopped because … why? Don't ask me, I don't give a damn.

Oh, that's right, because Iraq invaded Kuwait. And this was of significance to us because … why? Don't ask me, I don't give a damn.

Well, obviously, it was because being in Kuwait put Iraq too close to the Saudi oil fields. It's always about money -- and if it's the Middle East, it's always about oil. Yet if you so much as suggested that we shouldn't shed blood for oil, you were reviled as an America-hater. You didn't dare question your nation's motives. Here, watch the flag-waving spectacle at the Super Bowl and start chanting "USA! USA!" -- as if invading a nation and killing people is akin to some kind of sporting event. Now be a good, obedient citizen and stop asking questions.

A few years later, before he left office, Bush the Elder took on an anti-Gulf War protestor by shouting at him -- and I'm paraphrasing because I can't find a clip of it anywhere -- "If we wouldn't have invaded, you'd be paying 20 bucks a gallon for gas!" It was a quick clip on one of the nightly news programs, and I don't remember anyone making a big deal about it at the time, but to me it was mind-blowing. After being told over and over that the war was about protecting Kuwait's sovereignty and stopping big, bad Saddam Hussein, here was an off-handed admission that it was indeed about oil after all -- just as the critics had said all along.

Things like that make you wonder just how honorable our intentions have been in most of the wars we've been involved in. Let's face it: Most of them have had nothing to do with national self-defense or aiding our allies. And a lot of them were built on lies, from the non-attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that led to Vietnam, to the fake concern for Kuwaitis in the Gulf War, to the complete fabrications about WMDs in Iraq that led to the post-9/11 invasion.

But even worse, how do we act, how do we comport ourselves as representatives of America -- that beacon of democracy and freedom, Reagan's "shining city on a hill" -- once we've invaded and hostilities have begun?

Well, we could go back as far as the many atrocities visited upon the American Indians, but let's start with the recent past, because that gives us plenty to talk about all by itself. In Vietnam, more than 300 civilians were massacred at My Lai, with at least one girl raped before she was murdered. Marines killed two dozen unarmed men, women, and children in Haditha, Iraq, in 2005. And who can forget the repugnant images from Abu Ghraib, where prisoners were tortured, beaten, and sexually humiliated by our fine men and women in uniform?

The subject is fresh in my mind following this past week's news that an American soldier went nuts and killed 16 people in Afghanistan. The soldier was whisked out of the country before he could face local justice for his part in the murder spree -- which, according to one witness, may have involved more than just one soldier and resulted in the death of a 2-month-old baby, among other innocent children. The same witness said the people killed in one home had their bodies piled together and set on fire.

This, of course, follows the January video showing American soldiers relieving themselves on dead Afghan bodies, and the February news of Koran burnings at a U.S. base in Afghanistan.

Stay classy, U.S. military.

Much more happens like this in places where cameras aren't rolling to document it. The CIA runs a number of off-the-grid detention centers around the world, and a series of U.N. investigations revealed that torture is common in these places:
American interrogators force their captives to take off their clothes and remain naked for indefinite periods. They also gag detainees and shut their eyes while hanging them from the cell ceiling for long hours.
And if anyone thought Peace Prize winner Obama -- drone-bomber extraordinare, assassin of U.S. citizens, and destroyer of American citizens' right to trial -- was any better than his predecessor when it comes to human rights, the same report, from 2011, notes that the number of detainees at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan has "tripled since the end of the Bush administration" and that they're held "without any charge or due legal process."

Among the horrors reported by those held at Bagram:
Former inmates report incidents of sleep deprivation, beatings and various forms of sexual humiliation. In some cases, an interrogator would place his penis along the face of the detainee while he was being questioned. Other inmates were raped with sticks or threatened with anal sex.
Omar Khadr, a Canadian inmate who was 15 at the time, says military personal used him as a living mop. "Military police poured pine oil on the floor and on me. And then, with me lying on my stomach with my hands and feet cuffed together behind me, the military police dragged me back and forth through the mixture of urine and pine oil on the floor."
Back in 2009, Obama sought to suppress further photos from Abu Ghraib that showed, among other things:
… an American soldier apparently raping a female prisoner while another is said to show a male translator raping a male detainee.
Further photographs are said to depict sexual assaults on prisoners with objects including a truncheon, wire and a phosphorescent tube.
Around the same time, reports said that abuses at the Guantanamo prison -- the same prison Obama pledged to close but never did -- were at an all-time high under Obama:
Abuses began to pick up in December after Obama was elected, human rights lawyer Ahmed Ghappour told Reuters. He cited beatings, the dislocation of limbs, spraying of pepper spray into closed cells, applying pepper spray to toilet paper and over-forcefeeding detainees who are on hunger strike.
WikiLeaks later reported that abuses continued at Abu Ghraib after the scandal there broke, with hundreds of allegations against U.S. soldiers, including electrocutions and rape.

Perhaps most damning of all is a lengthy and very detailed report from the Center for Constitutional Rights, which chronicles the systemic abuse at Guantanamo. Here's just a small sample of the stories the center collected:
"Once they stomped my back," Al-Laithi wrote [in an affidavit filed recently with the district court]. "An MP threw me on the floor, and they lifted me up and slammed me back down. A doctor said I have two broken vertebrae and I risk being paralyzed if the spinal cord is injured more."

Al-Laithi said his neck is also permanently damaged because IRF teams repeatedly forced him to bend over toward his knees. While many prisoners have had their anuses probed during strip searches, Mr. Al-Laithi also alleges that the military forced a large object into his anus on the pretext of doing a medical exam.

"I am in constant pain," he continued. "I would prefer to be buried alive than continue to receive the treatment I receive. At least I would suffer less and die."
[A]n MP named Smith burst into the cage and jumped on Mr. Al Dossari’s back wearing full riot gear. According to other detainees who viewed this incident, Smith weighed approximately 240 pounds. At least two other men held Mr. Al Dossari by the legs. MP Smith began to choke him with his hands, while another repeatedly hit his head on the floor. While being beaten, Mr. Al Dossari lost consciousness.

… When the cage was hosed down later, the water ran red with blood. Mr. Al Dossari later asked Smith why Smith had beaten him. Smith replied, "because I'm Christian."
The ICE personnel [redacted] removed her overblouse behind the individual and proceeded stroking his hair and neck while uttering sexual overtones and making comments about his religious affiliation. The session progressed to where she was seated on his lap making sexual affiliated movements with her chest and pelvis while again speaking sexual [sic] oriented sentences. This then progressed to the individual being placed on the floor with her straddling him, etc. Needless to say many inappropriate comments were made during this time concerning the session and the area had the atmosphere of a party.
Mr. Ait Idir was in intense pain. He feared he would be crippled and lay down in a fetal position. The IRF enforcers jumped on him. The first team member landed on his back while he was face down; the second did the same. … While the two enforcers pinned him down -- after he had stopped resisting and his hands were tied, and after he was fully in their control, one of the guards slowly bent his fingers back until one of them broke. The pain was excruciating, but he was afraid that if he screamed the IRF would react by injuring him further. He was not given medical treatment for his fingers despite many requests and the clear deformity of his hand.

… Mr. Ait Idir's resistance during the episode of religious-physical abuse described above led to a further, unprovoked attack, which ultimately resulted in partial facial paralysis and a life-long disability. … He sat on the floor as instructed. Despite his full cooperation, he was sprayed in the face with chemical irritant, and put into restraints. Guards then slammed him head first into the cell floor, lowered him, face-first into the toilet and flushed the toilet -- submerging his head.

He was then carried outside and thrown onto the crushed stones that surround the cells. While he was down on the ground, his assailants stuffed a hose in his mouth and forced water down his throat. Then a soldier jumped on the left side of his head with full weight, forcing stones to cut into Mr. Ait Idir’s face near his eye. The guards twisted his middle finger and thumb on his right hand back almost to the point of breaking them. The knuckles were dislocated. As a result of this incident, the left side of Mr. Ait Idir's face became paralyzed for several months.
U.S. government officials immobilized the hunger strikers' heads by strapping them in the restraint chair, restrained their hands, inserted feeding tubes in their noses, and force fed them large bags of liquid nutrients. The account further describe hunger strikers bleeding and vomiting from these actions, and urinating and defecating on themselves because Respondents had denied them access to a bathroom.
[P]risoners were frequently shaved as punishment. Lakhdar Boumedien said that growing a beard is a form of Muslim religious expression but "the U.S. thinks it marks a terrorist." Fahmi Abdullah Ahmed Al Towlaqi has had his head shaved three times by Military Personnel; one time he was shaved so that he was left with a cross-shaped patch of hair. Other prisoners have stated that some guards mock the call to prayer by barking like dogs or donkeys.
And these are the people we're supposed to stand and applaud for their supposed efforts in "keeping us free" and "serving our country." It's fascinating to think back to how reviled our soldiers were when they came home from Vietnam. Yet those soldiers were drafted into the service, while serving in today's military is completely voluntary. So if anything, the atrocities our soldiers commit today should be met with even more revulsion. But they aren't. Instead, we turn these people into heroes -- people we practically worship.

I don't care how hell-bent anyone is on revenge for what happened on 9/11: A nation that claims to set an example for the rest of the world, that purports to follow the rule of law, and that is supposed to abide by international treaties for the treatment of prisoners does not stoop to this level. These are the actions of barbaric animals, not human beings. Furthermore, you can't expect to stop terrorism when you act like this. If anything, our actions will make terrorist recruitment efforts all the easier. Blowback is real.

Not that anyone deserved to die on 9/11, and not that we have no right to defend ourselves, but you can't act like the schoolyard bully and not expect to suffer repercussions for it. The tragedy of 9/11 may never have happened if we hadn't been meddling in other nations' affairs in the first place. Ron Paul illustrated the problem by imagining how we'd react if another country set up military bases on U.S. soil and committed acts of aggression against our own citizens.

 This is why Dr. Paul said we need a Golden Rule when it comes to our foreign policy. Of course, the good Christians who were in the audience when he made that suggestion roundly booed him. Clearly, in the minds of many Americans, "do unto others" now means "do unto others before they do unto you.

The United States has a military presence in 150 countries. We act like the world's cop, insisting that everyone else play by our rules. We have no right to do that, and we would never stand for it if anyone else tried to do it to us. If this nation ever learned to mind its own business and live in peace with the rest of the planet, the world would be a much more pleasant place.

But since it doesn't look like that's going to happen any time soon, I suppose that big, burly "love or it leave it" bully who verbally accosted me back in 1991 will eventually get his way. I do love this country -- at least the principles it was founded on -- but it increasingly seems as if there's no room in America for those who don't view the rest of the world through the scope of a rifle.

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