While working in Baghdad in June 2003, as the armed insurrection that would soon turn Iraq into a holocaust was quivering to life, I attended a U.S. military briefing inside the Green Zone. In response to the rise in guerrilla attacks on U.S. forces, reporters were told, the Pentagon was unleashing a counter-insurgency campaign designed to pre-empt the rebellion.
The operation was code-named Desert Scorpion and it was brutishly simple: U.S. troops would enter villages that, according to intelligence reports, were hosting insurgents and roll up hundreds of young men at a time. Later, I was told that then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld himself insisted on such a wide net as a means of snuffing out the resistance before it became an issue in the 2004 presidential elections back home. As it turned out, many of the young men detained as a result of Desert Scorpion--all but a fraction of whom had nothing to do with anti-U.S. violence--ended up in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, where they would be wantonly abused and tortured.
I thought of this as I coursed through reports of Wikileak’s latest dispatches from the frontiers of American empire and its excesses. A slurry of internal memos reveal what many of us have long suspected: that the rules under which alleged terrorists are incarcerated at the U.S.-run detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba are elastic, arbitrary, and in many cases criminally unjust. According to the documents, much of the evidence held against the 172 prisoners at Guantanamo is circumstantial and often obtained through torture. The coerced confession of Mohammed al-Qahtani, for example, a Saudi national suspected of complicity in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, was filed away as evidence against some 16 of his fellow inmates without any reference to the manner in which it was produced. In some cases, prisoners identified as highly dangerous were freed, apparently under diplomatic pressure from their mother countries that happened to be U.S. allies in the War on Terror. Meanwhile, Guantanamo inmates held for years on the most specious grounds ended up committing terrorist attacks against U.S. targets after their release. As its 10th anniversary looms, it can be safely said that the Bush administration’s ham-fisted response to the September 11 attacks has created as many terrorists has it has neutralized. [Vote now: Was the media right to publish the Wikileaks Guantanamo Bay files?]
Only a handful of the nearly 800 prisoners who have done time at Guantanamo have been charged with, let alone indicted for, committing a crime. Still, the Obama administration’s efforts to shut the camps down have been frustrated by conservatives in Congress and the media who insist the remaining souls in Washington’s post-habeas corpus ghetto represent an existential threat to America’s way of life. In fact, the real enemy is our national security state’s declining evidentiary standards for punitive action. Over the last decade, America has wielded its terrible swift sword in the face of a vaguely interpreted threats to hazily defined interests with growing promiscuity. From the invasion of Iraq for its concocted nuclear weapons program, to drone attacks waged against targets rendered as “high-value” by skimpy intelligence, to the harassment of young Muslim men at the nation’s ports of entry for suspect stamps in their passports, America has become a “shoot first” nation with little in the way of quantifiable results to show of it. [Read more about national security, terrorism, and the military.]
This is among the most pernicious costs of empire. A nation that presumes jurisdiction beyond its coasts and borders to include every strategic waterway, air corridor and land bridge, together with the military capacity with which to impose it, becomes judge, jury and executioner for a host of threats both real and imagined. Absolute authority removes doubt as a guiding principle in favor of an evangelical exceptionalism, a moral “get out of jail free” card despite the diminishing returns of unchecked power. Having worshipped at the vacant altar of pre-emption for the last decade, America should restore its faith in the notion of original sin. Having lashed about for a generation as an unrestrained hegemon accountable only to itself, a little Augustinian humility would do it well.