Sunday, December 05, 2004

Double-Thinking Democracy: America on the Spin Cycle

As a Muslim U.S. citizen who believes the Qur’anic injunction,“Be a witness against yourself,” should be applied both individually and collectively, I think It’s about time to resurrect a lyric from mathematician turned song writer, Tom Lehrer. The song is called, “Send the Marines,” and the part that’s been running through my mind lately refers to U.S. invasions:

For might makes right
Until they’ve seen the light
They’ve got to be protected, all their rights respected
Till somebody we like can be elected.

This seems to be what the U.S. is offering. We want to spread freedom and democracy, but if you’re not with us, you’re against us. Isn’t this a huge contradiction? The ‘freedom’ we’re spreading seems to be the freedom to agree with us. Under a thinly veiled threat of being considered enemies (and you know what we do to our enemies), nations must back our ‘war on terror’ whether or not they agree with all its goals and methods. As a side benefit for oppression, any government fighting a resistance movement (such as the Russians in Chechnya) can now invoke the war on terror to justify its every action—extraordinary and extra-judicial measures, martial law, anything goes. Our uncritical deification of “us” and demonization of “them” has fueled this tried and true technique of fascist governments: invoking war powers to tighten political control and silence opposition.

Other nations are also apparently required to adopt free market capitalism, which is considered indistinguishable from democracy, though I don’t know why. Every country is free to open their markets to us and buy our products, but not free to keep out products they don’t want, like the British with genetically modified food. And while no one else is supposed to have price supports and protectionism for particular industries, we still have them here. We like “the unseen hand of the market place” when it’s to our advantage; when it goes against us, we’re perfectly willing to invoke international agreements to protect our markets or to force our products down other people’s throats.

As far as democracy goes, I think it’s fabulous. One person, one vote, right? When I was a kid, people were still saying, “Anyone can grow up to be president,” and kids and some grown-ups even believe it. Now everybody over age five knows you have to be a multi-millionaire or mortgage your soul to multi-millionaires to have a shot at becoming a senator or congressman, never mind becoming president. Well, okay, it takes money to campaign and only rich people have money. So, do we at least get our pick of candidates from a broad spectrum of white, male millionaires? No, we get to choose between two white male graduates of the same university who are members of the same secret society. Would any reasonable person call this a democracy? (Or even a democratic republic?) While I don’t entirely subscribe to the Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee theory, this is nobody’s idea of diversity. Is this the fabulous freedom we’re trying to export around the world?

The November 30th New York Times declared, “Red Cross Finds Detainee Abuse in Guantanamo,” but closer inspection reveals that “abuse” is an understatement. What the International Red Cross actually said was that some of the psychological and physical interrogation methods were “tantamount to torture.” The article describes practices at Camp Delta, the main prison facility, saying

"One regular procedure was making uncooperative prisoners strip to their underwear, having them sit in a chair while shackled hand and foot to a bolt in the floor, and forcing them to endure strobe lights and loud rock and rap music played through two close loudspeakers, while the air-conditioning was turned up to maximum levels."

That’s not “tantamount to torture”, that’s torture. How about the following for a fine example of doublethink? (As I’ve said before, anybody who hasn’t yet read Orwell’s 1984, the source of this term, should run right out and get a copy.) According to the article, a memorandum from Bush’s legal team

"provides tightly constructed definitions of torture. For example, if an interrogator 'knows that severe pain will result from his actions, if causing such harm is not his objective, he lacks the requisite specific intent even though the defendant did not act in good faith,' it said. 'Instead, a defendant is guilty of torture only if he acts with the express purpose of inflicting severe pain or suffering on a person within his control.' "

Can’t you just see it? “Oh, woops, I wasn’t trying to hit your head with this board (even though I knew severe pain would result). My objective was just to toss it on the floor over there.” No wonder there’ve been so many suicide attempts at Guantanamo Bay.

Remember that most of these prisoners, who’ve been held for years now, have not been charged, given access to council, or come before any tribunal, let alone had anything like a fair trial. The most treasured rule of British and American common law is the rule of habeas corpus—literally, “produce the body”. People can’t be spirited away and held indefinitely in secret, but must be brought into the light and charged with whatever offenses they are accused of. This is supposed to be a hallmark of ‘civilized nations’. Remember, too, that many prisoners were turned in by people who may have had personal or political grudges against them and who gained financially through the bounties that were paid for each prisoner.

Many agree that we now have the most secretive U.S. administration in living memory, perhaps ever: unfriendly to the press, using federal security and local police to exclude non-supporters from public rallies, and working hard to curtail the Freedom of Information Act. This week, in a stunning display of either uncaring arrogance or historical and diplomatic amnesia, U.S. military leaders have named a new effort in Iraq “Operation Plymouth Rock”. They’ll certainly never convince Iraqis, U.S. citizens and allies, the Muslim world or the world in general that their goal isn’t conquest by naming an operation after the first beachhead of English colonizers.
Is this the freedom and justice we’ve been trying to export? Is this the liberty we’re trying to teach the world? Anyone who honestly seeks peace and justice must oppose oppression, double-dealing and mendacious ‘spin’ whether the culprits are seen as “them” or “us”—and whether they wear the mask of religion or the mask of democracy and freedom.

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