For your talking dog, the first such Fathers Day following the death of TD Dad last December falls into the realm of somewhere between confusing and surreal; I've spent the day at Stately Dog Manor with Mrs. TD and the Loquacious Pup, but of course, there's definitely something missing. There's no question that I grew up with my Dad, and now, an irreplaceable part of my life has moved on.
The last two Democratic Presidents have some issues with that sort of thing. Tragically, Bill Clinton's biological father died three months before the future president was born. And similarly, Barack Obama's father left the future president as an infant, and at least according to the President's book "Dreams from My Father," he only met him face to face after his infancy one time. Both Clinton and Obama had other male figures in their lives, as their respective mothers remarried, but nonetheless, it makes me wonder. A lot.
For his part, President George W. Bush, son of uber-politician George H.W. Bush, often did not see his father for lengthy periods when his father was on government or other business... well, in any event... Dubya had his own "Daddy issues."
I say this as I ponder what has happened to us as a nation, as our three Baby Boomer "commanders in chief" all seem to have had something other than the classic paternal relationship. No requirement that they do, and each of the three certainly has their supporters. I just wonder if, maybe... something... grown-up might be missing from the gestalt of this country, particularly as the last twenty-four years have, to all but those peddling fiction (Barack)... seen a rather precipitous decline in a great many areas... we can start with the mother of all economic statistics, the workforce participation rate if you like. BTW, I'm not blaming my college classmate Barack for what I view as structural problems largely caused by the policies of Bill Clinton and then exacerbated by Dubya-- although Barack didn't help much, and Obamacare has basically been a stake in the heart of full-time employment. Then again... I assume that the real people who run this country (that would be a consortium of agents for the fabulously rich-- not all of whom are even from this country, of course-- running their games via Wall Street and the Military Industrial Complex/Deep State) prefer to have man-children (or, if Hillary is elected, woman-children) as their front-persons, as, well, pliability is good.
There all too often doesn't seem to be a "grown-up" in the room, and the country is desperately craving one. Yes, the presumptive Democratic and Republican candidates are, respectively, going to be 69 and 70 on Election Day (Hillary sharing my birthday, albeit she was born 15 years before me). But neither is remotely a grown-up, and Mr. Trump does not seem to have advanced much beyond the narcissism often displayed by pre-schoolers, and wherever Hillary is, we're not sure it's "adulthood," so much as the cloying high school student body president you voted for... but didn't like. Of course, Bernie Sanders, btw, will be 75, and I suspect a huge part of his popularity such as it is derives from the perception of many that he seems to be the only adult in the room, not counting either Libertarian Gary Johnson or Green Dr. Jill Stein... and our old friend Bill Scher says "Just you wait Hillary" about Dr. Stein.
That said, I take a minor diversion into this N.Y. Post hit-piece suggesting that the reasonably attractive Monica Lewinsky freaked out when Bill Clinton was having an affair with the drop-dead gorgeous Eleanor [Walter's daughter] Mondale. Sure, it comes from supposedly leaked excerpts from former Secret Service agent Gary Byrne's upcoming tell-all book (among other things, he depicts Hillary as... quite violent... gun control advocates might wonder about Hillary's own propensity for firearms... just saying). I don't know why I'm so interested in the goings on of
Mephistopheles Caligula Bill Clinton, but hey... it's Fathers Day (and after all, Chelsea just gave Gomez and Morticia Hillary and Bill their second grandchild Aiden Clinton Mezvinsky.)
Mazel tov, Chelsea and Marc... I'm sure you're kvelling.
Where was I going? I don't know... it seems we have a whole series of predicaments coming up-- structural in nature. Environmental seems quite serious. The possibility of nuclear war with Russia because, among other things, Hillary's friends at the State Department think World War III is a good idea... seems serious. The overall economy seems to be treading water at best, and not exactly at a good level. And, regardless of whether we start WWIII, we are certainly military engaged all over the place at a calamitous cost. Europe is being overrun by migrants (some of whom are refugees from the places we are militarily engaged), and is in its own economic doldrums. China-- the supposed savior of the world economy-- is rife with corruption, environmental problems almost beyond comprehension, and its own under-reporting of bad economic news.
All that said... seems to be that a grown-up-- someone fitting the, dare I say it, role of the effective parent (I'll go gender neutral here)-- is what is called for as our notional leader. And of course, is exactly what we're not going to get.
Happy Fathers Day, such as it is.
Rebecca Gordon received her B.A. from Reed College and her M.Div. and Ph.D. in Ethics and Social Theory from Graduate Theological Union. She teaches in the Philosophy department at the University of San Francisco and for the university’s Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good. Previous publications include Letters From Nicaragua and Cruel and Usual: How Welfare “Reform” Punishes Poor People, the book Mainstreaming Torture, and her latest book is American Nuremberg: The Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post 9/11 War Crimes. On June 14, 2016, I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Gordon by email exchange.
The Talking Dog: Where were you on 11 Sept. 2001?
Rebecca Gordon: I was in San Francisco, getting ready to teach the first session of a course at Graduate Theological University called “The Communist Manifesto for Seminarians.” The clock radio woke us at 6:00 a.m., we heard the news of the first plane, and my partner and I did something we never do – turned on the television in the morning. We were just in time to see the second plane hit the tower. My father lived in New York, although he was out of the city that day. Friends I’ve come to know in the intervening years lost their son in the World Trade Center.
I’ve been teaching undergraduates since 2005. It’s strange to realize that this fall I’ll have students in my classes who were only two years old that day. September 11, 2001 does not have the salience for them that it did for my students a decade ago. They’ve never known a time when the U.S. was not at war against “terror,” and yet they have no memory of those attacks.
The Talking Dog: Your book "American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes," lays out a straightforward bill of indictment against a number of Bush Administration (and to a lesser extent Obama Administration) officials. Obviously, a good deal of this material has been out in the public domain for a significant amount of time now. Is there a particular reason why, now, at the end not of the Bush Administration, but near the end of the Obama Administration, that you believe the time is ripe for any form of "an American Nuremberg?" Related question-- given your veritable lifetime of human rights related activities, what is it about the excesses associated with "the war on terror" (by whatever nomenclature) that has impelled you to write on this particular subject now?
Rebecca Gordon: You’re right, of course, that much of this material has been in the public domain for some years now. That’s part of why I wrote the book – out of frustration that none of these revelations of criminal activity have led to any action to hold government officials accountable. Some of what we know has come to light relatively recently – for example, in the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture, which came out in December 2014. But some of it has hidden in plain sight for over a decade. As early as 2002, Dana Priest was writing in the Washington Post about the use of “stress and duress” tactics at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan.
But you ask, why now, at the end of the Obama administration? I did write an earlier book, Mainstreaming Torture, about how, especially under Bush, the people in this country were trained to accept torture as the necessary price of an illusory security. Sadly, however, the Obama administration has continued some of the practices of Bush & Company – specifically the use of remotely piloted drones to murder people half a world away. And President Obama made it very clear, the day after his first inauguration, that the country should “look forward as opposed to looking backwards,” when it comes to holding anyone responsible for the crimes of the “war on terror.”
The Talking Dog: As you might know, I was one city block north of the WTC on Sept. 11th, where I worked until that very morning (as my office building was in "the frozen zone," my law firm laid me off)... Shortly after 9-11, while I was working as a temp for another law firm, I was sitting in a courtroom in Brooklyn overhearing a conversation between another man and a young attorney who, it turned out, was an Air Force JAG reservist who was being placed on active duty so that he could help develop what would become the protocols for military commission trials of terrorism suspects, to wit, "the new Nuremberg". Notwithstanding that in a high school International Relations class project, in a mock Nuremberg trial, I was assigned as defense counsel and secured the acquittal of a Nazi propagandist who was hanged in real life, I was professionally jealous of that young man in getting to be part of "the new Nuremberg" paradigm. While I went about my quotidian business of practicing law in a city with the WTC site still smoldering less than a mile away from its busiest courts (the President, for his part, suggested that our best response as a people was to "go shopping"), others would get to "be the current greatest generation" and "bring justice" to the supposed "terrorists." Fast forward to 2016; our "new Nuremberg" has, of course, been a complete and utter disaster-- we seem no closer to trying the alleged 9-11 perpetrators, notwithstanding their apparent open confessions and desire to plead guilty, than we were years ago, while the question of their torture and various government malfeasance (such as listening to attorney client communications) is hush-hushed or tut-tutted. Indeed, only three remaining GTMO detainees have been "convicted" by military tribunals, and even those "convictions" are under judicial assault for various legal infirmities. Indeed, almost no one outside the American government itself (including two former military commissions prosecutors whom I have interviewed) believes that the military commissions afford any degree of fundamental fairness, and a tiny fraction of the men remaining at GTMO are even subject to the commissions in any event. And so, the military commissions thought by some to be "the New Nuremberg," what was once a key justification of maintaining a prison at Guantanamo (a prison that has been the site of many of at least the best known and best documented war crimes and other human rights violations in the war on terror, if only a comparatively small scale compared to hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere) has itself become little more than cover for an entirely different set of additional war crimes in the realm of torture often intended to generate "evidence" to be used against other GTMO detainees. While your book didn't discuss this, one set of the later Nuremberg cases-- after the initial "Big 22" of major Third Reich figures, was "the Judges' Trial" where members of the Third Reich's judiciary were put on trial for their own role in atrocities. Can you comment on the irony of the role of attempting to reconstitute Nuremberg style "war crimes" tribunals in the context of an overall detention policy regime that is itself (and I thoroughly agree with you that it is) ripe for war crimes prosecutions in its own right? Please include the term "victor's justice" in your response, if possible.
Rebecca Gordon: I shouldn’t be surprised that in the beginning the JAG attorneys thought of their work as participating in a new Nuremberg. I do think that some of these lawyers became true heroes when they began to recognize Bush’s military commissions were nothing like the Nuremberg tribunals, and refused to participate further. When they realized that defendants were not allowed to see the charges or evidence against them, and that some of that “evidence” was produced under torture, and that their supposedly confidential conversations with clients were being monitored, they said no.
When it became clear they were going to win the war, the Great Powers (France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States) met to consider how to deal with defeated Nazi officials. One option – originally proposed by Joseph Stalin – was simply to line them up and shoot them. In the end, though, it was Stalin who argued for trials. The question was, how to make these genuine legal proceedings, rather than a piece of theater that could be interpreted by the rest of the world as “victors’ justice.” In other words, these trials had to be legitimate, and not just an excuse for those who’d won the war to exact vengeance on a defeated enemy.
Imperfect as the Nuremberg tribunals may have been, I think they achieved something genuinely new in human history: a group of nations established the principle that international law is real law, and that violating international law can have real consequences.
The Talking Dog: As a follow-up to the "victor's justice" issue, Nuremberg (and its Far Eastern theater parallel "the Tokyo War Crimes Trials") did not become "institutionalized" as permanent bodies to prosecute crimes against humanity, war crimes, etc., and the Bush Administration pulled the U.S. out of the International Criminal Court (U.S. membership was never ratified by the Senate in any event), specific courts have been set up for Rwanda and Yugoslavia, although representing horrifying atrocities, neither of them remotely representing "world powers," and of course, the ICC itself has only been deployed against defendants originating in Africa. Obviously, as, following W.W. II the U.S. became arguably the most powerful empire in the history of humanity (and certainly no empire ever had as many foreign military bases in as many foreign countries), and clearly did not want its own hand checked by having its officials and operatives subject to the jurisdiction of some international judicial body not ultimately controlled by American politicians, but do you see that as the only reason for the post- WW II tribunals being a cul-de-sac or one-off, do you see any other reasons?
Rebecca Gordon: That’s a good question. In the years immediately following the war, many people expected that the tribunal established at Nuremberg would eventually turn its attention to the Allies’ war crimes as well. These included not only the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the less well-known use of incendiary weapons – fire bombing – both in Europe and against Japan. In fact, near the end of the war, the United States leveled sixty-seven Japanese cities with incendiary bombs that killed half a million residents outright and burned to ashes the homes of five million more. War crimes, all.
Sadly, I think that the United States has been consistent in its reluctance to be bound by international law or international legal bodies. For example, unlike the ICC, the United States is a member of the International Court of Justice (informally known as the World Court). This is the equivalent of a civil court, in which countries can sue each other for violations of treaties or for other harms. In 1986 Nicaragua sued the United States for mining its harbors, an act of war. The court ruled in Nicaragua’s favor and granted reparations – which the United States never paid. American exceptionalism seems to mean that this country, which as you point out is the most powerful the world has ever known, considers itself exempt from the rule of law. That’s why I think it’s so important that we call our war criminals to account.
The Talking Dog: I realize that judgments are subjective and that you have space and editorial constraints, but I note, for example, that Sec. of State Colin Powell did not make your "top 22" of most "trial-worthy" officials, notwithstanding his UN speech (btw, I don't disagree with your judgment not to include him), and Sec. of State Condoleezza Rice did make your "short-list" (she was also National Security Advisor, to be sure). Let me throw out another one-- not necessarily as implicated in the "war on terror", but possibly so, and unquestionably in the category of "crimes against peace," that being recent Sec. of State Hillary Clinton, who was, in simple terms, a very effective warmonger on Team Obama. In my view, she might well be a worthy presence in the dock in her own right (and admittedly, her "damned emails" might be helpful evidence in this regard). We can throw in Mr. Obama's Defense Secretaries (Gates, Panetta, Hagel and Carter) as well, in my view. Do you have any comment on these suggestions, and what was your criteria for inclusion of hypothetical defendants in the hypothetical dock?
Rebecca Gordon: I’d say that at least since the end of World War II, the two major parties in this country have largely shared the same foreign policy. They may have differed on matters of domestic concern, but they were united in waging the Cold War against the Soviet Union and the socialist and national liberation movements in which they saw nothing but Soviet puppets.
So it’s no surprise that Hilary Clinton continues that tradition. Maybe because of the time I spent in Central America in the 1980’s, I especially hold her responsible for supporting the 2009 coup against the elected president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya. Today, a brutal military is once again ascendant in that impoverished country. I hold her responsible for helping to create the conditions that allowed the murder of the environmental activist Berta Cáceres.
I would not be at all surprised to learn that Clinton was one of the most powerful hawkish influences in the Obama administration. Certainly her response to the horrific murders in Orlando suggests that she continues to look to military solutions for what I think of as terrible crimes rather than acts of war. I think the reason she barely appears in the book is that she’s not left behind the same kind of public records other Obama administration officials. In general one’s less likely to be obviously directing war crimes from the State Department than from various parts of the official national security apparatus.
The Talking Dog: Arguably related to the last question, from your own review, rather than pick a top "villain," do you have, say, "the medal winners" or perhaps a top five? If not names-- categories, perhaps? Lawyers (Addington, Yoo, Bybee, etc.), or politicians (Bush, Cheney, Obama perhaps), or CIA personnel (Rizzo, Tenet, Petraeus) or contractors (Jessen and Mitchell) or military (Rumsfeld, Gen. Geoffrey Miller)? Related question-- do you have a top one, three or five classification of "war on terror" conduct that warrants prosecution?
Rebecca Gordon: You’ve done a great job of listing the “medal winners.” I’d have to put Dick Cheney at the very top of the list, because although Bush bears ultimate responsibility for his administration’s actions, it’s pretty clear the Cheney was the brains of the outfit.
As to the conduct that warrants accountability: this is one of the questions I faced when trying to bring some kind of order to my story in the book. At Nuremberg, the Allies settled on three categories of crime: Crimes against Humanity, War Crimes, and Crimes against Peace. This last category caused real disagreement. The U.S. and Great Britain argued that, when they started an aggressive, unprovoked war, Nazi Germany committed the original crime, out of which all the other crimes, including the Holocaust, arose.
Similarly, I divide the crimes of the “war on terror” into three categories: Crimes against Peace, War Crimes, and Human Rights Crimes. I also label the crime against peace, in this case an aggressive, unprovoked war on Iraq, as the original crime. The torture and renditions – at Guantánamo and in CIA black sites, actually began because the Bush administration desperately wanted to get someone, anyone, to say that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. And if you torture people enough, they will say whatever you want them to say.
You may wonder why I use the category of Human Rights Crimes. Many of the things the United States has done under Bush and Obama are genuine war crimes – violations of the laws and customs of war. These laws govern the conduct of actual wars, which involve sustained hostilities between armies. Much of what the United States has called a “war” does not fit that description. But that doesn’t mean that the kidnappings, renditions, torture, and assassinations are not crimes; they just aren’t war crimes. They are instead violations of equally valid international human rights laws and treaties. The expression “human rights violation” doesn’t carry the same verbal cachet as “war crimes.” But it should.
The Talking Dog: As we find ourselves in 2016, the war on terror, or whatever it's called, notwithstanding, it seems clear to me anyway that the global American empire is fraying on all sides-- morally, economically, even militarily (the U.S. military has not had a decisive win against a foe larger than Panama or Grenada since 1945). While, as I noted, one candidate is arguably herself implicated in possible war crimes, humanitarian crimes, etc., and was certainly an integral part of the "look forward not backward" Obama Administration, another candidate vows "to make America great again," and, despite an impressively vacuous campaign overall big on personal insults and small on actual details, he has apparently secured a major party's nomination. As bizarre as it seems (particularly given the candidate's apparent embrace of war crimes), in an "Only Nixon Could Go to China" scenario, do you see it as possible that while Barack Obama might want to "look forward not backward," that, in a very real and legally binding sense (rather than in a rhetorical "citizen's tribunal") "Only Trump Could Give Us Nuremberg?" [in the sense of the tribunals rather than the evocative-of-Lani-Riefenstahl style of his campaign rallies]?
Rebecca Gordon: Wow. I understand what you’re suggesting, but I can’t see it, especially in the light of Trump’s posturing after the Orlando murders. I don’t think it would play with his audience, and I think his only guiding principle is to do whatever will continue to garner him the attention he seems to crave.
The Talking Dog: Your previous book, "Mainstreaming Torture," suggests, of course, a reckoning for those who "mainstreamed torture" into the American context, and, of course, this includes the horrific treatments meted out to "high value detainees," other detainees in CIA, military or other country custody and detention, and prisoners taken in Iraq and Afghanistan, that, despite fourteen and a half years of official euphemism, are "torture." You have carefully addressed each of the three "Nuremberg categories" of crimes in your book and bill of indictment (war crimes, crimes against humanity and "crimes against peace"), and admittedly, the lynch-pin does seem to be the "crimes against peace"-- decisions by politicians to commence wildly disproportionate military responses, both against Afghanistan (a war in which we forget that the Taliban were rather quickly routed by a force of largely proxies and a small American and NATO footprint, at least at the start) and, of course, against Iraq, which has resulted in a massive invasion, "shock and awe," illegal munitions and tactics, and, of course, hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties, millions of displacements, and the rise of a failed official state as well as "the Islamic State." I would also suggest the "planet as battlefield" is more real than we care to admit, with only places likely to respond with nuclear weapons [Russia, China, North Korea and their closest allies] seemingly off-limits to drone strikes, "special operations," "military advisers," or whatever applicable euphemism for American military action is in play. All that said, would you have been motivated to write about this subject absent the torture... in other words, in the horrific major American wars of the last century (the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the first Gulf War, not to mention the Cold War), it is almost indisputable that abuse of prisoners and others occurred (and certainly CIA activity in the Cold War often strayed into torture). And, of course, at least some of these (if not most) can be termed "aggressive wars." That said, would you agree that there is something qualitatively different-- as in hearkening to the Third Reich different-- about regimes such as the Bush Administration that go out of their way to pretend that torture (and summary execution via drone-strike as endorsed by our current "constitutional scholar President") is legal that seems, regardless of scale, to take us into another dimension of horror warranting perpetrators being brought to account in a way that mere "initiating aggressive war" might not be enough? In other words, does the pretense that some of the most outrageous actions are "legal" actually make them worse?
Rebecca Gordon: Absent the torture, I might have still been motivated to write a book about U.S. crimes against peace, but I’m not sure anyone would have asked to publish it!
I think you’re right that there is something especially horrifying about these attempts to pervert the meaning of law. For me, though, what’s most disturbing isn’t so much the claim that torture is legal, as the claim that it doesn’t matter whether or not it’s legal – if that is the necessary price of “security.” As you point out, the U.S. is still the world’s most powerful nation (and the fact that it’s faltering only makes it more vicious). I’d argue that the country’s utter contempt for the rule of law makes it more dangerous still.
About torture in particular, I’d also suggest that it’s not only the violation of U.S. laws and international treaties that shocks the conscience. It’s the breakdown of a moral consensus in this country that torture is wrong. It’s a shameful fact that the further away we get from the 9/11 attacks, the more people will tell pollsters that torture is sometimes or often acceptable.
The Talking Dog: As you note in your book, it seems inconceivable that accountability of any kind will be meted out by the American civilian or military justice system (although, perhaps, the occasional official may travel to the wrong foreign country, and face some level of accountability there). Rather than the self-interest of the powerful to enforce their "elite immunity," which is obviously in play, let me come at this from another direction: I've always believed that a huge portion of the American public (for reasons unique to it, i.e., our isolation in the world via our status as a remote continental power-- on a micro-scale, the phenomena might be observed in housewives in suburban and exurban America whose isolation seems to drive them into reactionary politics) have been duly conditioned to believe there is a terrorist lurking under every rock and behind every tree, and genuinely feel that anything and everything done to "make us safe" is fair game-- helped along by Twenty-Four and denizens of "controlled torture" and the ridiculous "ticking time bomb" scenario, ranging from Alan Dershowitz to the late Antonin Scalia (both evidently fans of the show). I note that it's be my anecdotal personal observation that people in closest physical proximity to the events of 9-11 tend not to feel this way. All that said, have people of goodwill in this country, who believe in norms of human decency (not to mention compliance with laws international and domestic) now actually become the outliers? On the optimistic side, I admit it may merely be simply "a large portion" of the populace (as well, as of course, a complete consensus among elites) that this is the case, but how hard do you think that nearly fifteen years of post 9-11 fear-mongering (and in the interim, the introduction of the total-surveillance and total-security state) will be toward establishing even a rhetorical "citizens" accountability tribunal? How would you address this factor?
Rebecca Gordon: That is the question, isn’t it. My working title for Mainstreaming Torture was A Nation of Cowards, but the publisher thought that was a little over the top. Unfortunately, I think you’re absolutely right that 15 years of fear-mongering, combined with the occasional actual attack, has convinced many people in this country that no price is too great to pay for “security.” The truth, of course, is that no amount of surveillance, no amount of torture, or assassination, or boots on the ground, can keep the promise of immortality that successive administrations seem to be making: “Let us do whatever we must, and in return we promise that you will always be secure.”
How do you make a cultural change? I don’t know, but what I will say is that we’ve seen a cultural shift in the last few years on two issues that Black communities have been talking about for decades: police violence and mass incarceration. I’ve had the privilege to play bit parts in many movements for justice. Why does a movement like Black Lives Matter catch fire? I’m still mystified about how it is that you can bang your head against a particular wall for years, and then one day, instead of a wall there’s a door. But you have to be ready when the door opens to rush through.
One thing that gives me hope is the students I’m teaching today. They’re over half young people of color; thirty percent are first generation college goers, and compared to their peers a decade ago, they are much more engaged with the political world, much more prepared to take up the mantle of citizenship in its largest sense.
The Talking Dog: Related to the previous question, given media complicity with the total security state, assuming, as you suggest, a blue-ribbon panel of thinkers, scholars, public officials and perhaps lawyers and judges could be assembled to run a modern "Russell-Sartre Tribunal," that anyone not physically present or in the immediate email and social media circle of the participants would even hear about it?
Rebecca Gordon: Fair question. Perhaps not. It would depend on the caliber of participation we were able to pull together, and whether we could get any buy-in from mainstream media. There are attorneys whose clients are still in Guantánamo who’ve expressed an interest. I’m in touch with people who think they might be able to get torture survivors to testify. If they can’t get their day in (even civil) court, maybe they can at least be heard and their stories acknowledged.
The Talking Dog: Is there anything else I should have asked you but didn't, or that my readers and the public should know about these critically important subjects?
Rebecca Gordon: Only that we must not surrender to despair. To use another metaphor, working for justice is sort of like surfing. You sit out in the ocean, watching and waiting and keeping hope strong for that wave. And when it comes, you have to be ready to catch it. And it will come.
The Talking Dog: I join all my readers in thanking Rebecca Gordon for that thought-provoking interview.
Readers interested in legal issues and related matters associated with the "war on terror" may also find talking dog blog interviews with former Guantanamo military commissions prosecutors Morris Davis and Darrel Vandeveld, with Guantanamo military commissions defense attorney Todd Pierce, with former Guantanamo combatant status review tribunal/"OARDEC" officer Stephen Abraham, with attorneys Nancy Hollander, Jon Eisenberg, David Marshall, Jan Kitchel, Eric Lewis, Cori Crider, Michael Mone, Matt O'Hara, Carlos Warner, Matthew Melewski, Stewart "Buz" Eisenberg, Patricia Bronte, Kristine Huskey, Ellen Lubell, Ramzi Kassem, George Clarke, Buz Eisenberg, Steven Wax, Wells Dixon, Rebecca Dick, Wesley Powell, Martha Rayner, Angela Campbell, Stephen Truitt and Charles Carpenter, Gaillard Hunt, Robert Rachlin, Tina Foster, Brent Mickum, Marc Falkoff H. Candace Gorman, Eric Freedman, Michael Ratner, Thomas Wilner, Jonathan Hafetz, Joshua Denbeaux, Rick Wilson,
Neal Katyal, Joshua Colangelo Bryan, Baher Azmy, and Joshua Dratel (representing Guantanamo detainees and others held in "the war on terror"), with attorneys Donna Newman and Andrew Patel (representing "unlawful combatant" Jose Padilila), with Dr. David Nicholl, who spearheaded an effort among international physicians protesting force-feeding of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, with physician and bioethicist Dr. Steven Miles on medical complicity in torture, with law professor and former Clinton Administration Ambassador-at-large for war crimes matters David Scheffer, with former Guantanamo detainees Moazzam Begg and Shafiq Rasul , with former Guantanamo Bay Chaplain James Yee, with former Guantanamo Army Arabic linguist Erik Saar, with former Guantanamo sergeant-of-the-guard Joseph Hickman, with former Guantanamo military guard Terry Holdbrooks, Jr., with former military interrogator Matthew Alexander, with law professor and former Army J.A.G. officer Jeffrey Addicott, with law professor and Coast Guard officer Glenn Sulmasy, with author and geographer Trevor Paglen and with author and journalist Stephen Grey on the subject of the CIA's extraordinary rendition program, with journalist and author David Rose on Guantanamo, with journalist Michael Otterman on the subject of American torture and related issues, with author and historian Andy Worthington detailing the capture and provenance of all of the Guantanamo detainees, with law professor Peter Honigsberg on various aspects of detention policy in the war on terror, with Joanne Mariner of Human Rights Watch, with Almerindo Ojeda of the Guantanamo Testimonials Project, with Karen Greenberg, author of The LeastWorst Place: Guantanamo's First 100 Days, with Charles Gittings of the Project to Enforce the Geneva Conventions, Laurel Fletcher, author of "The Guantanamo Effect" documenting the experience of Guantanamo detainees after their release, and with John Hickman, author of "Selling Guantanamo," critiquing the official narrative surrounding Guantanamo, to be of interest.
Wesley Kendall is a Law Lecturer at the University of the South Pacific. Dr. Kendall holds a J.D. from Texas Southern University, an M.A. in Political Science and Government from the University of Missouri Kansas City and a Ph.D. in Political Science and Government from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. He is author of The U.S. Death Penalty and Diplomacy and Language of Terror, and most recently, From Gulag to Guantanamo: Political, Social and Economic Evolutions of Mass Incarceration. On June 9, 2016, I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Kendall by email exchange.
The Talking Dog: Where were you on 9-11?
Wesley Kendall: It’s an interesting and portentous question to lead with Seth (having previewed the next few questions already). For most Americans the question of what we were doing on 911 resonates along a historical wavelength that runs parallel to other national traumas such as the JFK assassination or the bombing of Pearl Harbor. These were defining events for an entire generation of Americans, indelibly seared into their minds and foreclosing any opportunity for the respite of forgetfulness. But the reverberations of 911, due to the immediacy of internet technology and America’s position as the world’s last remaining superpower, created a shock wave that would ripple across an entire globalized society, inflicting a worldwide trauma (as would the American response). As an American living abroad for over five years, I’ve occasionally asked this same question of non-Americans, and can report no person under thirty years old, from Australia to Vietnam, doesn’t remember where they were on that fateful day.
On 911 I was working as a reference attorney for LexisNexis in Dayton, Ohio. I saw the second plane strike the WTC South Tower on TV while walking into the foyer of the company’s headquarters, which were closed shortly thereafter. I drove to a friend’s house, where we watched the towers collapse on CNN. I had been following Al Qaeda and Bin Laden for years, and the report the day before regarding Shah Massoud’s assassination in the north of Afghanistan by two suicide bombers posed as journalists (a common AQ tactic), had given me some presentiment that the Taliban and AQ were moving together to consolidate power away from the Northern Alliance. Not long after the towers fell, I started to understand how the two events were connected. Piecing these connections together and unraveling the tangled roots of American policies in the Middle East became been one of my many interests over the following years.
The Talking Dog: I note that your two prior books- "The Death Penalty and U.S. Diplomacy" and "Language of Terror", coupled with your current book "From Gulag to Guantanamo: Political, Social and Economic Evolutions of Mass Incarceration," appear thematically related to many of my favorite "talking dog" themes, notably crime and punishment (rarely in that order), particularly in the context of the United States of America's rather aggressive position of "Policeman (or some would argue "Dirty Cop") to the World". Can you thematically tie your mass incarceration examination (your case studies span the globe from an Australian detention center on a remote New Guinea island to Russian and Chinese prisons, to American prisons used for juveniles, undocumented immigrants, and millions of prisoners) ultimately to Guantanamo Bay, with the subjects of your earlier works? In particular, I am wondering if you can work in the "language" part-- that is, how the "cover" of public relations and propaganda angles of detention policy, particularly from the American standpoint) serves to enable the entire venture?
Wesley Kendall: Thank you for noting my earlier work, and for asking such an insightful question. The short answer is yes, I absolutely see a thematic convergence between my previous books. Now the long answer. I’m a proponent of the Aristotelian notion of philosophical poetics, which holds that all fields of intellectual inquiry are harmoniously bound together, and should be understood as interconnected avenues of academic pursuit. All of my books are independently multidisciplinary but share certain foundational features, which involve tying together social sciences such as criminal justice, political science and economics to craft a more holistic lens through which we can view societal problems. However, I further examine the hard science that underpins the social science theories, which new medical technologies have made possible only recently. The empirical connections between mind and body have long been a subject of unproven scientific speculation, leaving social systems of belief (e.g. political or religious affiliation) and individual behavior (personal preferences) as uncharted territory. The gulf of ignorance that separates unsupported speculation with scientific certitude is narrowing, and our understanding of exactly how DNA shapes our political identity (and thereby informs policies on crime and terror) is coming into fuller view. In the not so distant past, divergent sexual identities were considered a psychological infirmity caused environmental factors (a “condition” which continues to be criminalized in less enlightened enclaves of the world), before it was understood to be largely the result of a genetic predisposition. In the not so distant future political preferences and religious beliefs may also eventually be understood as a partial product of genetic origin.
Returning to your question regarding the connections I discuss in my second book between our genetically encoded impulses and the way we perceive the use of language in the war on terror, it most certainly can reveal the ways in which we respond to the use of certain charged words across different narratives (e.g. a discussion on the death penalty, the war on terror, or crime and punishment), and illustrates how the three books are interrelated. The scientific literature that supports “biopolitics”, or the contention that genetic predispositions can shape political ideology is robust and compelling, and meticulously detailed in my book on the subject. However, here I will only outline a few studies that illustrate the general state of the extant body of knowledge ( I should at this point acknowledge my co-author, Dr. Kevin Noguchi, associate professor of neuroscience at Washington University School of Medicine) .
In a seminal study by Oxley in the esteemed journal of Science, it was discovered that subjects in the study who exhibited “protective political attitudes” (expressed approval for policies such as military spending, the death penalty, school prayer, patriotism, obedience, biblical truth, etc.), where more easily aroused emotionally when exposed to sudden noises and threatening images. Oxley’s study suggests that subjects, who self identify as being aligned with traditional conservative values, display an automated reflexive response to external stimuli that triggers arousal of the limbic system, which regulates the processing of emotions, most notably fear. An individual who is predisposed to emotional arousal is more inclined to politically reactionary responses to threats, rather than a cautious deliberative approach. Kahan suggested that these cognitive political biases could also interfere with an individual’s ability to think logically. Subjects in Kahan’s study were given mathematical tables and then asked to perform basic computations. Those who self identified as conservatives were able to successfully perform calculations regarding the treatment of rashes using skim cream, but displayed a decline in ability when asked to perform similar calculations regarding gun control statistics. Interestingly, those subjects who possessed advanced mathematical skills exhibited a higher likelihood of political views intruding upon their logical ability to perform simple mathematical calculations. Nyhan conducted several studies concerning political confirmation bias, including a study where conservative subject’s belief that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq was only further strengthened after being presented with unequivocal evidence of the opposite. The emotional circumventing of logical cognitive processes was the subject of an fMRI study by Weston, wherein he found that subjects who preferred one political candidate were less critical of verbal gaffes their candidate made, and overly critical of gaffes made by candidates they didn’t approve of. The brains of the subjects in Weston’s study were neuroimaged using fMRI scans, and fascinatingly displayed a remarkable inactivity of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (associated with logical thought) and heightened activity in the orbital frontal cortex (which processes emotion). My book concludes, after an exhaustive review and examination of the literature and its qualitative application to several cases, that those who are more closely aligned with a conservative ideological system of values (defined as possessing characteristics such as a protective nature, adherence to tradition, respect for authority) are genetically predisposed to emotional, reactionary responses to language which presents as threatening, whereas those subjects who are aligned to more progressive ideologies (defined by characteristics such as tolerance, inclusion and openness to new experience) are more nuanced in their responses to threats, and tend to be less reactionary and more contemplative. As concerns the subject of my second book, language and the war on terror, certain words have been used to great effect to incite fear for political purposes, but have also been distinctly compelling to certain audiences genetically predisposed to respond to fearful rhetoric.
A theme throughout this book is one of cognitive dissonance; the ability to hold in one’s mind two competing and possibly conflicting ideas simultaneously. I contend in my research that conservatives, as reactionaries impelled to act first and think later, are genetically predisposed to suspend rationality and instinctively trust emotion, and are largely incapable of cognitive dissonance, whereas progressives engage in a more detached, dispassionate evaluation of the context and meaning of language. I often use one particular proposition to illustrate this point. “This man is a terrorist, and this man is your friend.” A conservative, according to my hypothesis, would be unable to reconcile this ostensibly conflicting proposition. A man can only be one or the other. If he is a terrorist, kill him, but if he’s a friend, than he can’t possibly be a terrorist. To paraphrase Bush, you’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists. This polarized approach of good verus evil is largely rejected by progressives, who may take a more nuanced approach to this proposition, and instead of reacting viscerally may assume a more deliberative attitude and ask “How are we defining ‘terrorist’? By “friend” could you mean a political ally who may share common strategic interests? Would we define Pakistan or Saudi Arabia or Israel as a friend?” My ultimate contention is that our divergent approaches to these questions are a product of heredity.
The cautious parsing and thoughtful logical dissection of a progressive which represents a stark departure from a conservatives emotionally reactionary response, illustrates the concept of cognitive dissonance. Those unable to tolerate nuance or uncertainty, who seek the security of authority, and reject the threat of the unknown other, are unable to comfortably entertain conflicting ideas. They can easily become the target of political propaganda, enlisted emotionally to support wars against other countries such Iraq (using coded language to dehumanize the feared other, as when Rumsfeld talked of “smoking them out of their holes”), or operationalized in domestic wars against drugs and crime (Dululio’s use of “superpredator” which became a codeword for young violent black males). These words operate like psychic skeleton keys, unlocking emotions that drive an impulse to impassioned action. Unfortunately, as my book demonstrates, the actions committed are often unfounded, ill-conceived and frequently wrong. Thoughtless and emotional support for complicated policymaking has not only been devastating to American policy, it’s also a huge money making machine. Allow me to conflate two great American quotes, “a fool is born every minute”, and “a fool is easily separated from his money,” the first from PT Barnum, the second from Ben Franklin. Genetic science tells us some fools are in fact born, and some policymakers have recognized those fools, and as carnival barkers for low political theater they cynically use inflammatory language designed to stoke emotion and dim logical thought to separate taxpayers from their money by inciting wars and imprisoning citizens. Counting the money made by the military and prison industrial complexes, supported by the banking industry and the Washington political and media classes, it becomes quickly apparent that the business of enraging foolish Americans is indeed a very profitable one.
The Talking Dog: You lay out a pretty dystopian vision of American (and more and more, other nation's) detention practices, as a wider and wider net is cast to ensure a profitable penal servitude (be it from exploiting labor at minimal if any compensation, or from development of private prisons to per diem fees for privatized prisons themselves), taking the reader through "a primer on the evolution of the penitentiary," a discussion of the institution of American slavery as an antecedent to modern mass incarceration, immigration detention, youth detention and a culmination in a discussion of "the gulag to Guantanamo" and torture for profit... did any particular example or case study jump out at you as "the most egregious," and if waved around, maybe even the usually apathetic American public might care about it? (For me, notwithstanding my longstanding Guantanamo interest, it was the Luzerne County, Pennsylvania case of judges inventing draconian sentences for children in order to fill up private prisons for their own profit... although I was, admittedly, already familiar with the case...)
Wesley Kendall: Yes, the Luzerne County example you cite may possibly be the most glaring instance illustrating the venality of a judicial system captured by corporate interests and exploiting and destroying the lives of children for profit. And while it was an unconscionable episode in American judicial history, the fleeting outrage expressed at those involved in Luzerne towers above the general disregard most people feel for others (others most often being primarily poor and black, but increasingly rural whites) also ensnared in a capitalist justice system that operates as a source of economic oppression for far too many Americans. In my book I also talk about the countless masses who are targeted by ostensibly legitimate but overtly exploitative privatization schemes, launched by cash strapped states and local municipalities like Ferguson Missouri, that have transformed regressive law and order policies into revenue streams. The privatization of state services such as probation, mandatory drug testing and treatment and surveillance services such as mandatory home monitoring, has created a shadow economy where lobbyists promote tougher laws to move markets, profits are made a priority over people, and creating an environment where punishments are not determined not by governments, but private companies who conflate criminal justice policies with the profit motive. The prison industrial complex is actually shifting away from prison incarceration policies, which are becoming more politically indefensible and less cost effective than house arrest. In the future state of mass incarceration, American’s will languish in their own private prisons, unable to work, under constant surveillance, subjected to routine drug screens, and paying exorbitant costs for all of the fees associated with perpetual home detention. The psychological impact of the inmate’s family under house detention is incalculable. One striking story in my book talks of a young boy, who had begun to wear a small plastic watch around his ankle, saying that he wanted to be like his father, who was required to wear and ankle monitor 24 hours a day. To answer your question, what stands out to me are the routine unspoken tragedies unfolding every day that never make it into a case study, that I hear from those I’ve interviewed or worked with before.
The Talking Dog: I believe it was George Santayana who suggested that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it, or something like that; of course, we live in the "post-modernist" world where the shock of the new is demanded on a daily basis, particularly in academia (your bailiwick), where history is constantly being rewritten to reflect current sensibility (and, of course fashion-sense), and to avoid discussion of the actual "past," lest it teach us something. That said, you note the religious antecedents of the American penitentiary, to wit, a toggling between "punishment" (the Calvinists holding sway) or "reform" (along with silent contemplation) (the Quakers and their influence), with the ultimate irony, being that one particular Quaker, President Richard Nixon, pretty much set in motion modern mass incarceration as we know it (he being a law and order Republican, except when it came to himself following the law or being punished for breaking it), with his "Southern strategy" and appeal to the baser instincts of our southerly White populace by stepping up "the war on drugs" and attendant punishment that even, at the time, were regarded as a thinly veiled war against Black people (though, eventually, Latinos and poor Whites by the millions were sucked into the criminal justice system for dubious "crimes"). Of course, currently, the "tough on crime" crowd seems to have bipartisan support, particular if we have a national security implication, although at the same time, there is a trend to liberalization of marijuana laws (and seemingly, only marijuana laws). That said, my question is, at a time when 7 per thousand Americans are already in jail (at whatever social and financial cost that entails), how do you get the public to understand that this is not only not normal, it is unprecedented, and that mass incarceration is not only not the American norm (as late as the 60's and 70's there was talk about reducing prison populations to virtually zero), but that even as recently as the middle of the Reagan Administration, we had far fewer prisoners-- indeed, I think the figure is a seven-fold increase in the last 30 years [falling heavily on Blacks and Latinos, of course]? What are your thoughts on that?
Wesley Kendall: Well, the question you ask could be the subject of a PhD dissertation. But allow me to try to fashion a quick answer, which I think may cut to the core of your question. The rightward shift on incarceration policies really begun in earnest under Bill Clinton, who successfully outflanked Republicans in his 1992 presidential campaign. Afraid of being labeled (as many Democrats had been previously) as “soft on crime” Clinton was able to win the White House by essentially co-opting the Republican strategy of using fearful rhetoric to peel of conservative white independent voters while simultaneously appealing to minorities. Clinton was the first Democratic candidate to embrace retributive policies on criminal justice, including mass incarceration, the death penalty, drugs, as well as promote welfare reform and social safety net cuts. After signing the Violent Crime and Control act in 1994, as I note on page 27 of my book, Democrats made “tough on crime” a central plank of their party platform. Politically, the move to the right was a product of effective political campaign posturing that lifted Clinton to two terms in the White House. Socially and economically, it was an American disaster that cost over $30 billion dollars, and gave as our current state of mass incarceration.
The Talking Dog: I join my readers in thanking Dr. Kendall for that thought-provoking interview, and look forward to the second part of the interview shortly.
Interested readers should check out From Gulag to Guantanamo: Political, Social and Economic Evolutions of Mass Incarceration.
Muhammad Ali has died at 74.
Don't have to say anymore than that.
The Grey Lady's Adam Liptak treats us to his exegesis as to why Donald "the Donald"
Drumpf Trump (whom his likely opponent Hillary Clinton now calls "Dangerous Donald"... good one, eh Hillary?)... will be constitutionally dangerous. It's not thematically all that different from what fellow Establishment-writer-named Adam Gopnick, says here in the New Yorker. [Shorter Times/New Yorker: "Trump = Hitler".] Seriously?
What actually makes Trump so popular in certain American circles-- his willingness just to say wtf he feels like, which often includes criticism of the rest of government or arguably sacrosanct institutions (such as the judiciary)... is what also makes him potentially "dangerous" in a "constitutional sense." Because he's clearly not interested in "making America great again"... whatever that even means... so much as in maximizing his own power... and while the American system has checks and balances (indeed, an almost infinite number of veto-points) against doing anything remotely good or beneficial for the people, as "the war on terror" has shown us, it is now virtually turbo-charged for power grabs by the ruthless and ambitious (especially when they are feckless). OTOH, Mr. Trump has proposed shrinking NATO, negotiating with Putin over everything, jettisoning middle-class-destroying trade agreements... in quite a few places, positions to the left not merely of Clinton, but of Bernie Sanders... What will we get with a President Trump? That's just it... there's no real telling...
So let me make this easy: Trump's Nuremberg-rally-style thuggeries-- which now seem to be matched tit for tat by
agents provocateurs his opponents (such as a recent melee in San Jose, Calif.) hearken back to a certain other demagogue's campaign... in 1933. And honestly, this is as fair a criticism as you can make of the man, as he apparently has no substance... so we can-- and have to-- look at his style, and his style is that of early brown shirts. He is an aggressive bully, he is thin-skinned and obnoxious, and he has encouraged thuggery, particularly against the press and non-whites, his very political success is based on the ongoing bashing of non-Whites, be they Mexican, Muslim, or just plain not White and not male.
The very fact that the Democratic Establishment would rather run Hillary Clinton and risk handing the Presidency to this inexperienced, unstable individual... whose style, at least, if not necessarily his "governing philosophy" (because no one including him knows what that is) hearkens to a certain Austrian man with a funny moustache... tells you everything you need to know about the Establishment. Everything. In short, the Democratic Establishment is more comfortable with Trump than it would be with Sanders. And maybe Trump will "work out" (in a way Clinton will not, unless you think the trajectory we are now on is absolutely perfect). But then again...who knows?
Mr. Trump... Dangerous? Really? It was so nice of the media to legitimize Mr. Trump with billions in free coverage, gratuitous appearances on Saturday Night Live (as the host no less), guest spots on the late night talk shows... while crowding out not just Sanders, but even Hillary... and of course, all of the other Republican candidates, and indeed, providing a coverage that basically helped mock legitimate politicians out of the race.
And now he's here. And if Hillary Clinton, ostensibly with the moral stature of Richard Nixon after Watergate, is, as she and the Establishment demands, the shoo-in Democratic nominee, then Mr. Trump will, almost certainly, be elected President of the United States. And then I guess, we will all learn just exactly what "Make
Germany America Great Again" actually means.
And happy birthday to TD mother-in-law, now 85 years young.
Your talking dog is pleased to have made it through the worst part of an appendectomy (that being... the appendectomy) and looks forward to... recovering.
And another day, another month even, and more of same in American politics...
The Grey Lady's Tom Friedman tries to give equal "untruth" values to statements of Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Have to admire the Establishment's pluck in its unwavering support of Hillary, even as (sadly, behind paywall), one-time Bill Clinton pollster Doug Schoen observes that a Bernie win in California and he might well be the nominee, given the rest of Hillary's... baggage.
Meanwhile, court documents released in California show that some of its own workers regarded the now defunct Trump University as a "lie" and "scheme." I'm betting that Mr. Trump will manage to avoid having his eponymous "university" cause him too much political damage; the one way he can be derailed however, is suggested by actual billionaire Mark Cuban, that is, Trump isn't even really a billionaire (and indeed, has far less money than he pretends). Americans will forgive a liar, a blowhard, a racist, or just an all-around asshole... but we will not forgive someone who isn't actually rich.