Torturer’s Theater

The torturers are stumbling on each other, and all over themselves. The champion of torture is running around Congress trying to salvage an exceptional permission slip for his CIA henchmen. His boss the Commander-in-Zilch is tripping all over his sentences trying to say why torture isn’t torture as long as he misunderestimates torture’s definition. The CIA is tripping all over its own secrecy to keep its torture-ridden “black sites” hooded. The ghosts of Abu Ghraib have turned Iraq into minefield of djinns exploding on every forked tongue. And now the torturers are literally running into each other, uncovering each other’s dens and pulling one of the greatest Captain Renault impressions in the history of hypocrisy: They’re shocked, shocked to know that torture is going on here.

Are you listening, Samuel Beckett?

The theater of the absurd was a French-Irish invention patented after Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus. It’s now an Iraqi-American specialty with literary roots of its own — in the Thousand and One Lies. Sheherazade has been replaced by a cabinet of concubines, the Cheneys and Rices and Rumsfelds and Cards taking turns weaving their imaginary tales for King George who, for lack of a nightly virgin to behead once he’s through with her (the tales of his current concubines being not nearly as convincing as Sheherazade’s to inspire indulgence), settles for the sacrifice of two or three nameless GIs under his command: Same principle, different harem.

The concubines take their show on the road, staging public versions of the King’s storytime most of the week on one friendly stage or another in preparation for the friendliest stage of all–the Sunday morning talk show circuit–where the concubines’ ghost-writers approvingly frame the official storyline in gentle qualifiers and “on the other hands” that should turn this Sunday’s matinees into a chiropractic clinic of back-bending: How will the concubines explain the Iraqi Interior Minister’s torture chambers only half-buried under their noses?

They don’t need to. They’re self-explanatory. Iraqi torturers were always ready for prime time. So far they’d only been overshadowed by their American patrons. The torture chambers uncovered this week are run by the Bard Organization, “a militia with close links to Iran,” as The New York Times, in its eternally deferential language of numbing and excusing qualifiers, put it today. The Badr organization in Iraq is run by Bayan Jabr. Jabr was chosen interior minister with American support. as I wrote in June, “Interior’s Bayan Jabr is a Shiite activist who joined the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iran during the Saddam years, then headed the council’s office in Syria. The council’s military branch is the Badr militia, which, as Knight Ridder reported, has gained enormous power since Iraq’s January elections and now is accused of conducting a terror campaign against Iraq’s Sunni Muslim minority that includes kidnappings, threats and murders.’ The Badr militia! is devoted to the destruction of Sunnis with the same blind fanaticism that Hamas is devoted to the destruction of Israel. Badr is supplied and trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, which also supplies and trains Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based militia classified as a terrorist organization by the State Department.”

In other words, the “discovery” that Jabr’s bandits have been torturing Sunnis in Baghdad suburbs (in the “banlieu,” as the French put it, a geographic way of making a problem seem more peripheral than it is) is a surprise only to those who’ve either not been keeping track of the obvious, and, going by Knight-Ridder, the already reported; or to those still enthralled by official pronouncements from the White House’s corps of concubines ahead of the facts on the grounds. It is virtually impossible that in a place like Baghdad, where secrets are the sugar and spice of every coffee shop, the coalition forces didn’t know what was going on in the Interior Ministry’s basements, at the hands of militias the coalition itself has been very happy to use as a proxy force to do its work. The policy of “rendering,” after all–the presidentially approved habit of American intelligence handing over suspects to other countries’ jailers for work-ups officially disallowed in American prison! s–is official American policy. Black sites are unofficial American policy. Anyone who thinks Iraq doesn’t have its own network of black sites, obscurely approved and encouraged by the American occupation, is still reading Sheherazade’s version of the Arabian Nights.

But who discovers what when is not as important as what keeps unraveling. When the “liberators” and the “liberated” are torturers, doing their work in the same places and (usually by proxy for the Americans) the same manners in which Saddam once did, there isn’t any skin left to peel off the face of the occupation’s purpose or credibility. There is no skeleton beneath. There is only the silent scream of condemnation no one wants to hear. In this theater of the absurd, even the tax-paying audience underwriting the show is deaf.

One last absurd irony: On December 15, we will have been in Iraq exactly one thousand days, crowning Christmas Day as more than a rhetorical Thousand and One Nights. What a present. The only number that matters on this side of the stage, of course, is that there are only 39 shopping days left till then.

PIERRE TRISTAM, an editorial writer and columnist at the Daytona Beach News-Journal, Fla., can be reached at ptristam@att.net.


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