Truth, justice, and the way formerly known as American by mattsteinglass
July 22, 2008, 11:42 pm
Filed under: Human Rights and Torture, United States

My friend Jenny Schuessler has a beautifully bitter review of Jane Mayer’s “The Dark Side” in this week’s NYT Book Review.

The euphemistically named but often grisly particulars of the fight against Al Qaeda — the “extraordinary renditions” by hooded agents in unmarked planes, the secret “black site” prisons across the globe, the “enhanced” interrogation techniques, the “reverse rendition” of detainees lucky enough to be found innocent and dumped blindfolded at remote borders — are harrowingly recounted here, complete with fresh revelations. But in Ms. Mayer’s hands the story of bureaucratic jockeying in well-upholstered offices and in the fine print of legal documents makes for an equally absorbing and disturbing story. It’s a cage match between the Constitution and a cabal of ideological extremists, and the Constitution goes down.

Mayer’s is some of the best writing I’ve ever read on bureaucratic infighting, the maneuvering that goes on inside any organization, the dull hazy process of arguing over the wording of documents and placing allies in key posts or creating new “trafficking” systems to route approval through pliant offices rather than resistant ones. She actually manages to trace the impact of those ugly, fuzzy, nasty office politics right down the command chain to the boot going into someone’s leg at Bagram. It’s this that is, since the Holocaust and Vietnam, the moral issue of mass society: how to connect people to the pain inflicted at the far end of the seemingly innocuous systems of their lives, how to make them hear what is happening over the wire-topped wall, in the village the napalm hit, or inside the black site, and connect that to someone’s signature on a document or someone’s OK on an email. I hope to read Mayer’s book – she does this better than anyone I’ve read. It was her work that really led to the whole structure of “Taxi to the Dark Side”, which also leads up to a moment Jenny comes back to:

“What does that mean? ‘Outrages upon human dignity’?” President Bush said at a press conference in 2006, after the Supreme Court ruled that the Geneva Conventions applied even to “enemy combatants.” In “The Dark Side” Ms. Mayer provides a chilling answer, along with the most vivid and comprehensive account we have had so far of how a government founded on checks and balances and respect for individual rights could have been turned against those ideals.

It’s hard to get over that clip of President Bush wondering what “outrages upon human dignity” means. Like they say, character is destiny.

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