The puzzle is the size and flush capacity of the toilets in what Amnesty International calls “the gulag of our time,” or what our media refers to as the “facility” at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. As everybody knows, a gossip-column item in Newsweek magazine reported that a Koran had somehow been disposed of down the crapper in front of horrified Muslim eyes, inciting riots and demonstrations on the other side of the world.
The Right Honorable Scott McClellan, the voice of the White House, insisted that American concentration-camp loos are not used for book disposal. Going into his “people of faith” routine, the man told reporters that “our United States military personnel go out of their way to make sure that the Holy Koran is treated with care.” Since Reverend McClellan and his confreres have, as they say, no street cred left, it would’ve been more to the point if he’d skipped his carping about the magazine and addressed the big question-namely, how do military personnel get rid of big fat holy books via the dumper without clogging it? If you drop a whole book in and flush, a rather disgusting overflow will result. Do these Christian soldiers stand by the toilets, rip out a few pages and flush, rip out some more and flush, and then rip, flush, rip, flush, until they’ve gotten rid of every last holy word?
One other possibility comes to mind: chemical toilets. They don’t flush. A Christian can drop the whole damn Koran down into the mess and then kick back and listen to the Muslims who witnessed the act howl.
Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, says that Al Qaeda members have been ordered to lie about their treatment in American camps. Mr. Whitman, whom I would take to be about as believable on Iraqi topics as Vladimir Putin discussing Russian democracy, would serve his bosses better not to bring up the subject of prevarication. In mitigation of the Pentagon on the question of speaking other than the truth about Al Qaeda, etc., one cannot distinguish when they are deliberately telling untruths, when they are themselves misinformed, when they are ignorant, or when they are being stupid and confused.
Were it not that I am against book burning, book flushing and book shredding, I would urge that everybody’s holy books, starting with the New Testament, be dropped down the very self-same hole. But also arguing against such acts of destruction are men and women of intelligence and wisdom who teach us that these books are valuable if not used for ecclesiastic aggrandizement. In the practical world, given the millions of Korans probably in existence, the loss of one or two makes no difference, except for the part they play in the religious wars we’ve been dragged into. Anyhow, since the Korans-in-the-plumbing story hit the headlines, we have learned that American Christian soldiers have been mutilating Korans in front of Arab Muslims for years, or so Muslim prisoners and the F.B.I. say.
Koranic waste management is the least of it. Where there is religion, there is sex of the sickly variety. The Washington Post has it that F.B.I. “records also include numerous allegations that guards or interrogators at Guantanamo Bay used sexually suggestive techniques designed to humiliate Muslim men.” One said he was forced to stand naked in front of a female interrogator. Another said he was “touched sexually” by male guards.
There are people aplenty on the outside of government backing up the White House and the Pentagon; they disbelieve the nasty stuff. David Brooks, as loyal an administration fugleman as you will find, asks, “Would it be illegal for more people on the left to actually be happy that a story slurring Americans may turn out to be unproven? Could there be a few more liberals willing to admit that prisoners routinely lie about their treatment? … We’re in the middle of an ideological war against people who want to destroy us …. “
Sometimes prisoners lie and sometimes their jailers do, but Dr. Brooks and his fellow warriors for the Lord haven’t had much success in discerning which is which. Back when this endless conflict was starting, it was Saddam-not yet pictured in his undies-who had it right about the W.M.D. and David Brooks’ people who were the tellers of tall tales. Though exposed countless times, they’ve continued to deceive through what is becoming the weary years of this winless war. Their most recent sojourn into the land of lies concerns the accidental death by friendly gunfire of Cpl. Pat Tillman, the patriotic football player who enlisted in the war Mr. Brooks urges others to fight. For recruiting purposes, the Army concocted a story about Tillman’s heroic death at the hands of the enemy and awarded him a posthumous medal for an action that never took place.
Nonetheless, would that the tormentors of prisoners had stopped at fudging the truth and destroying a few books-which, however large their symbolic value, don’t have nervous systems and don’t feel pain. According to ACLU lawyer Amrit Singh, “The evidence that there was systemic and widespread abuse of detainees in U.S. custody continues to mount and the government continues to turn a blind eye to this evidence.” (Incidentally, I am an ACLU member and may soon join Amnesty International.)
The stories of cruelty and sadism committed by members of the Armed Services and other organs of the American government are now so numerous that keeping track of them has become a specialty. Here’s a whiff of two that made it into the paper in the last few days.
The first is under Tim Golden’s byline in The New York Times: “Even as the young Afghan man was dying before them, his American jailers continued to torment him. The prisoner, a slight, 22-year-old taxi driver known only as Dilawar, was hauled from his cell at the detention center in Bagram, Afghanistan, at around 2 a.m. to answer questions about a rocket attack on an American base. When he arrived in the interrogation room, an interpreter who was present said, his legs were bouncing uncontrollably in the plastic chair and his hands were numb. He had been chained by the wrists to the top of his cell for much of the previous four days.” Dilawar died.
The day after the Times story, The Washington Post had one by Craig Whitlock which carried a Stockholm dateline and began: “The CIA Gulfstream V jet touched down at a small airport west of here just before 9 p.m. on a subfreezing night in December 2001. A half-dozen agents wearing hoods that covered their faces stepped down from the aircraft and hurried across the tarmac to take custody of two prisoners, suspected Islamic radicals from Egypt.
“Inside an airport police station, Swedish officers watched as the CIA operatives pulled out scissors and rapidly sliced off the prisoners’ clothes, including their underwear, according to newly released Swedish government documents and eyewitness statements.”
That operation is called, in C.I.A.-speak, an “extraordinary rendition,” which, according to The Post, is “the forcible and highly secret transfer of terrorism suspects to their home countries or other nations where they can be interrogated with fewer legal protections.”
Ideological or religious, warriors of the Brooksian stripe deny these stories though buttressed by eyewitnesses, affidavits, photographs and confessions. Religion deals in faith, not facts. Never happened. Case closed.
Lefties, liberals and lib-labs-though not Democratic politicians-insist that torture is Bush administration policy, that the orders for the thumb screws come out of Don Rumsfeld’s office. Mr. Rumsfeld’s people fall back on the rotten-apple-in-the-barrel defense. It’s a plausible argument when sadistic acts are sometime events, but when they are brought to light week after week in bunches, the rotten-fruit theory does not hold up.
At some point, somebody must ask: How come so many rotten apples? Who is in charge of choosing the apples? Who picks them? Who puts the apples in the barrel, and whose job is it to see the rotten ones don’t spoil the good ones?
Having gone to war with too few troopers, Messrs. Bush, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, etc., had to get soldiers some way, somehow. They got some by straining the National Guard to the point of disintegration, and still there weren’t enough soldiers. More, the stories of troops ill equipped, poorly trained and incompetently generaled have had their effect on recruitment. Young people have been turning down fat enlistment bonuses, rich promises of college tuition and medical care. What’s left but to pick the rotten apples? The last expedient open to a manpower-hungry Pentagon has been to let down the standards, to wink at recruiters breaking the rules to snag people into the service who shouldn’t be in uniform. Apparently some are unsmart, some are unschooled, some are drug- or alcohol-dependent, and some may have a taste for inflicting pain and humiliation. How many such people may have been brought into the services is not known-or if it is, you may be sure the Pentagon isn’t going to say.
In times past, decent soldiers have been made of unpromising recruits. You can lower the standards and still get good soldiers with the right training and proper supervision. A man or a woman with sadistic desires will not get to act them out if the unit is in good order and under strong discipline. Thus, whether or not the torture, the kidnapping and the throwing of civilians into the concentration camps is policy or failure of command, the people at the top are still responsible. The vaunted Pentagon command and control, like so many of the doodads coming out of the five-star war house, is not living up to its press releases.
The top people will not be held responsible. Mr. Brooks isn’t the only one who turns a blind eye at practices that make others gag; there are a lot of shit kickers in America who approve of hanging Mohammedans up by the testicles until they die. I suspect, though, there are more of us who do not approve or would not approve if we noticed, but we are busy speculating in real estate, watching the basketball playoffs, bitching about the price of gasoline or planning summer vacations. We do not pay attention to what is done in our name.
And it’s quite a name we’re getting, the world’s No. 1 and only superpower, the Johnny Appleseed of democracy. Quite a name.