What Do the American People Know and When Did They Know It?
A profound sense of disappointment with the American people greeted me here in Istanbul where the final session of the World Tribunal on Iraq, investigating and documenting war crimes in Iraq, modeled on the Bertrand Russell Vietnam War Tribunal of 1967, is convening. The mood is the opposite of what I encountered here and elsewhere after the anti-war demonstrations of 2002 and 2003. Back then, enormous sympathy for victims of 9/11, and respect for a people who took to the streets to try to stop their government from committing acts of aggression before the invasion had even begun, had generated admiration and warmth toward Americans, if not their government. After all, people said, Bush stole the 2000 election. And, look, they would point out, Americans are trying to stop him. Americans are good people with a bad government — just like everywhere else — they would declare, and curse Bin Laden and Bush in one swift, contemptuous breath.
Now, however, I get confused looks, pained questions, and heads shaking quietly in disbelief and disappointment. Don’t the American people know, I am asked, again and again. Explain please, they persist, how, after the publication of pictures from Abu Ghraib, Bush got re-elected? Don’t the American people watch the news from Iraq? Where did the protests, the outrage, the uproar go?
This is not just a sad turn of events; it is a profoundly dangerous situation for the American people. Mass murder of civilians is rarely the work of lonesome nuts operating totally outside of societal norms and beliefs. On the contrary, scratch the surface of most of the horrors of the twentieth century, and you will find a cold, cruel belief that the victims brought it upon themselves. Everyone shakes their head and loudly condemns the atrocity once the bodies are cold and deep under the earth; however, a close examination of the events as they occurred often reveals that there was an implicit and explicit turning of hearts and faces away from the people who ended up slaughtered. The perception of indifference and complicity of the American people to the crimes committed by their government is obviously not a good development.
Let me try to be even more blunt: if there had been another attack on American soil around or after the February 15, 2003 protests, I believe that Islamist terrorism would take a nosedive in legitimacy in the Middle East. Let alone being able to recruit would-be militants willing to kill civilians, such groups would find it difficult to try to defend themselves from the people of the region who would want to tear them from limb to limb. But now, I fear, many people would shrug, with sadness for sure, if America were to be attacked again. Of course, most people do not wish such catastrophe upon the American people, but there seems to be a growing level of indifference and dislike towards Americans because they are perceived to have turned away from the crimes of their government. And this is a made-in-heaven environment for recruitment for terrorist groups. Just as our recruiters find it harder and harder to find volunteers for the U.S. military, their recruiters, I sense, are finding it easier and easier. It is, after all, a connected situation, a see-saw of legitimacy.
At first I tried explain my questioners about the corporate control of media and the lack of grassroots organizations, but, honestly, it all rings a bit hollow. In the shops, on the buses and the ferries, and among the participants of the Tribunal, everywhere, people persist: don’t they have Internet; don’t they have alternative media; is nothing reported about Iraq at all? What on earth is up? I also tried to tell people about the stubborn remains of the anti-war movement, of the many people who oppose the war and find it hard to find a way to register their opposition, of the disregard for public opinion this administration has shown, the attempts at alternative media, organizing, congressional hearings… It was clear from the way my comments were received that it all sounded like I was making excuses for a people who have indeed, at least for the moment, seem to have shut out the systematic torture and the brutal occupation out of their minds and hearts.
I realized I needed to do something else. I needed to talk about things apart from the general positive things you can say about most any country — that there are people who remain committed to justice and peace, even during the hardest of times. I needed to explain that are almost-singularly and deeply American challenges to the shameful acts of this administration. That what we are witnessing is also a struggle between different American values, and the results are far from certain.
I started telling people about Navy Lt. Commander Charles Swift.
Lieutenant Commander Swift, a military lawyer, you see, was assigned to defend Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Yemeni who served as a driver for Osama bin Ladin. Hamdan was charged before the kangaroo military commissions set up by the Pentagon to try to provide a sense of legitimacy to the detentions in Guantanamo and elsewhere. People like Mr. Hamdan were charged first with the hopes that, finding it impossible to mount a plausible defense, they would plead guilty, in return for reduced time. Their participation, it was hoped, would make the process appear somewhat acceptable, if not perfect.
Commander Swift and other military lawyers, however, put a stop to that charade. They launched a vigorous defense, going all the way up to the Supreme Court — even filing lawsuits in civilian courts in their own names on behalf of their clients who have no such access. They challenged every aspect of the process, from the judges, to the rules of evidence, to the tribunals themselves. They maintained that their clients had the right to presumption of innocence, just like everyone else, and that the charges against them would have to proven, not assumed. (In fact, Mr. Hamdan maintains he was just a driver for hire trying to make a living.)
Cmdr. Swift and others persisted, and remarkably, they have torn apart the whole sham — very deservedly so. Hamdan v. Rumsfeld produced a stunning loss to the administration as Judge James Robertson of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that President Bush “had both overstepped his constitutional bounds and improperly brushed aside the Geneva Conventions in establishing military commissions to try detainees at the United States naval base here as war criminals.” Cmdr. Swift and other military lawyers have been traveling at home and abroad, openly and loudly denouncing the military commission system as illegitimate, unfair and unacceptable.
People gasp with disbelief as they ponder these American career military lawyers, randomly assigned to defend people their government has designated as terrorists and locked up without charges, during a process clearly designed to provide not justice but a fig-leaf show-trial, taking on the executive branch so boldly and openly. How many countries, I ask, produce men of such integrity in their armed forces who would actually defend Osama Bin Ladin’s driver as a client innocent until proven guilty? Would you, I ask? Yes, there is a very ugly, cruel side to U.S. foreign policy and imperialism, but there is also this.
I also remind people about the Taguba report, produced by Filipino-American Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, son of Sgt. Tomas Taguba, who had escaped from Japanese custody in the Bataan Death March during World War II, but was retired from the U.S. army without recognition — receiving a Bronze star and a Prisoner of War medal only at the age of eighty. I tell people that it seemed as if this son had remembered the racism, cruelty and discrimination his father had encountered in his military career –and from the Japanese forces during the war– when writing that bold expose of the wrongs in Abu Ghraip. And this man, I remind people, is a general in the U.S. army. He chose not to produce a cover-up that would surely please some of his superiors, and brush the moral wrongs he discovered back under the carpet. This too is America, I say.
Lastly, I remind people of the many Americans who have traveled to this Tribunal to join the world in holding their government accountable. From lawyers here from Center for Constitutional Rights and groups, to women of CodePink who showed up in hot pink skirts and t-shirts with anti-war slogans, to folks from Deep Dish TV who have arrived here with their equipment in order to provide a global broadcast, to renowned academics like Richard Falk who gave a deeply moving opening speech, to the many alternative media journalists struggling to carry these voices back home, Americans are a well-represented contingent. This too is a face of America, I say. I hope that face perseveres, people respond. I do too, I say, I do too.
I also hope we can do more than hope.