The Politics of the Witch Hunt

A little after two on the afternoon of Sept. 26, 2002, Maher Arar, a Canadian businessman of Syrian descent, on his way home to Ottawa after a family vacation, deplaned at New York’s JFK Airport — and walked into a nightmarish history.

Arar also found himself in an all-too-contemporary wasteland of fear, ignorance, racist xenophobia and careerist atavism otherwise known as U.S. foreign policy. It is the service of these two important books to link that gruesome past and present of his emblematic ordeal, a plight in a wider sense we all share.

Canadians will be more familiar with the Arar case, which only two months ago brought a belated public apology from Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a $10.5-million compensation, torture-chamber money that spoke more eloquently than any ministerial words to the shame of the Canadian government. Wrongly accused of ties to al-Qaeda based on plainly bogus information and guilt by the merest association, Arar, his Canadian passport discarded like used tissue, was arrested and interrogated by U.S. agents for five days without seeing a lawyer, and more than a week before the Canadian consul finally showed up — only to lie to him by saying that the United States would not deport him to Syria as they were threatening.

Days later, he was being beaten and tortured in a Syrian dungeon, where the young McGill University graduate would suffer for more than year, until his wife’s tireless campaign and his own desperate false confession brought his release.

In an aftermath of mounting public outrage, Judge Dennis O’Connor’s September, 2006, inquiry found categorically that there was no evidence of a terrorist connection, that the RCMP had knowingly passed false information to U.S. authorities, and that Arar — as Ottawa and Washington both well knew, and some surely intended — was brutally tortured after being illegally deported to Syria. But Harper’s mincing if cash-laden regret for “any role Canadian officials may have played in what happened to Mr. Arar” still ceded the decision to “render” Arar to Syria to the Bush administration, which typically claims it was all quite legal and justified, and in any event secret, a matter of “national security.” Judge O’Connor and $10.5-million notwithstanding, south of the border, Maher Arar remains on the terrorist watch-list.

Readers may be less familiar with how much this sordid tale echoes a bleak history of persecution and injustice amid political cravenness and public hysteria, figurative and literal burnings at the stake in which U.S. civil liberties and Canadian legal rights are only the latest of ashes. Robert Rapley’s Witch Hunts: From Salem to Guantanamo is a masterful, chillingly clinical yet grippingly readable tour of the horrid heritage from 16th- and 17th-century witch hunts, through the Dreyfus case in fin-de-siècle France, to the infamous railroading of the Scottsboro Boys in 1930s Alabama, to the Guildford and Maguire terrorist prosecution miscarriages in Britain in the 1970s. What deplorable ancestry we can claim with the Arar case and the countless other renderings and outsourced torture known and unknown, and the U.S. dungeons at Abu Ghraib, Bagram and Guantanamo, the latter the first prisons created for “witches” since Salem.

Rapley reminds us that the fears and ignorance and issues may change, but the characteristics of the witch hunt make its identity — and wanton barbarism –unmistakable. Whether the victim is a too-lively French parish priest, a willful Puritan wife, an African-American teenager, a Canadian specialist in telecommunications or an Afghan or Iraqi duly or randomly caught in the web, the marks are all the same: The accused is guilty before evidence is sought; beatings and torture are justifiable means to confessions and accusations against others; any incriminating evidence, however dubious or vague, is in, any proof to the contrary is out; false evidence may be created and used as necessary to convict; defenders of the victim, including legal counsel, are suspected accessories; the accused is by definition so dangerous as to have no normal rights; secret accusations are routine; since the “witch” is never alone, the hunt must always expand to accomplices. And, not least, the crowning glory of all witch hunts: Everything, from the most petty to the most magisterial abuse, is justified, buried, beyond revelation, appeal or accountability by virtue of the protection of society, the good of the state, national security.

A retired civil servant in Ottawa, Rapley delivers the inescapable diagnosis of how much this madness still lodges in our bones. One is tempted to find some redemption in the conclusion that witch hunts are made, not born. But Rapley’s withering sequence shakes even that small comfort. He repeats the unforgettable indictment he made in his earlier masterpiece, A Case of Witchcraft: The Trial of Urbain Grandier, that however we may blame these outrages on leaders of the moment (and the leaders are inevitably weak or execrable or both), there is always a willing legion of minor Eichmanns to staff these mini-holocausts: the agents at JFK, the RCMP clerks who supplied them, the ever-agreeable military warders, the waning but enduring claque around the rotting Bush regime, rationalizing the loss of civilization as glibly as the United States’ loss of a war and its international standing. Like their predecessors, like their necessary accomplices in the once-screaming or cowed and silent crowd, almost all of them will go on with utter impunity when the burnings are finally done.

Yale professor Ian Shapiro brings Containment: Rebuilding a Strategy Against Global Terror to assure us that it can be over, if only the United States heeds another heritage. His cure comes in the form of a paean to the late U.S. diplomat and scholar George Kennan, whose famous “Long Telegram” of 1947 is legendary as authoring the postwar U.S. policy of “containing” the Soviet Union.

Shapiro recognizes what the archival record increasingly shows: that Washington was relentlessly aggressive and probing with the Russians, while unctuously declaring its policies purely defensive, often given to “rollback” and “liberation” as well as drawing the old cordon sanitaire from which Kennan derived his notion. But he credits the principle of “containment,” even honoured in the breach, for deterring and ultimately overcoming the Soviet threat without a major war or ruinous damage to U.S. prestige and democracy, costs he sees inflicted by the rampant unilateralism of Bush’s “war on terror.”

Putting aside this rather sweeping, simplistic and problematic verdict on the lethal ambiguities of the Cold War, whose ghosts haunt us still, Shapiro makes the unexceptionable case that everyone would be relatively better off if Washington only regained some its old anti-communist senses. By the proper mix of multilateralism, diplomatic sticks and carrots (foreign policy analysts’ favourite inducements), economic means and military deterrence (with war only “a last resort’), the United States could “contain” any states prone to harbouring terrorists. And without a refuge of some sort, the terrorist threat would be reduced to a still serious, yet comparatively lesser, danger than the mad-hatter Bush crusade has made it.

Along the way in this small book — visibly pieced together from earlier lectures and the requisite corps of student researchers — Shapiro paints a hopeful picture of how such a policy worked with once-outlaw Libya, how much U.S. allies would welcome the change, and how much the current disaster owes to the Democrats’ craven surrender on the Iraq war as well as White House or neo-conservative delusion.

Yet in the end, this is one more of those bland recipes an intellectually bankrupt establishment can smile on simply because it begs so many questions, threatens so little of the root problem in U.S. foreign policy. As Rapley understands, this is at heart a profoundly cultural crisis — America’s angry, sullen, self-justifying clash with the world and a more pluralistic modernity. There is no real answer in going back to men and policies which, in their dark hearts, were as much precursors as counterpoints of this sad, ominous moment.

To dispel the darkness Rapley chronicles so starkly — the prospect of Patriot Act II, which with another glaring terrorist attack puts any of us on the threshold of a Bagram or a Guantanamo — will require nothing less than a political and moral honesty, an authentic regeneration that no mere policy framework can begin to touch.

ROGER MORRIS, who served in the State Department and on the Senior Staff of the National Security Council under Presidents Johnson and Nixon, resigned in protest at the invasion of Cambodia. He then worked as a legislative advisor in the U.S. Senate and a director of policy studies at the Carnegie Endowment, and writes this Rumsfeldian history from intimate firsthand knowledge as well as extensive research. A Visiting Honors professor at the University of Washington and Research Fellow of the Green Institute, where his work originally appears. He is an award-winning historian and investigative journalist, including a National Book Award Silver Medal winner, and the author of books on Nixon, Kissinger, Haig, and the Clintons. More recently, he co-authored with Sally Denton The Money and the Power, a history of Las Vegas as the paradigm of national corruption. His latest work, Shadows of the Eagle, a history of U.S. covert interventions and policy in the Middle East and South Asia over the past half-century, will be published in early 2008 by Knopf.


More articles by:
Weekend Edition
January 17, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: No Woman, No Cry
Kathleen Wallace
Hijacking the Struggles of Others, Elizabeth Warren Style
Robert Hunziker
The Rumbling Methane Enigma
Frank Joyce
Will the Constitution Fail Again?
Pete Dolack
Claims that the ‘NAFTA 2’ Agreement is Better are a Macabre Joke
Andrew Levine
Biden Daze
Vijay Prashad
Not an Inch: Indian Students Stand Against the Far Right
Ramzy Baroud
Sealed Off and Forgotten: What You Should Know about Israel’s ‘Firing Zones’ in the West Bank
Norman Solomon
Not Bernie, Us. Not Warren, Us. Their Clash Underscores the Need for Grassroots Wisdom
Ted Rall
America’s Long History of Meddling in Russia
David Rosen
The Irregulators vs. FCC: the Trial Begins
Jennifer Matsui
The Krown
Joseph Natoli
Resolutions and Obstacles/2020
Sarah Anderson
War Profiteering is Real
James McFadden
The Business Party Syndicate
Ajamu Baraka
Trump Prosecutors Make Move to Ensure that Embassy Protectors are Convicted
David Swanson
CNN is Trash
Rev. William Alberts
Finally a Christian Call for Trump’s Removal
Dave Lindorff
The ERA Just Got Ratified by Virginia, the Needed 38th State!
W. T. Whitney
Mexico Takes Action on Coup in Bolivia and on CELAC
Steve Early
How General Strike Rhetoric Became a Reality in Seattle 
Jessicah Pierre
Learning From King’s Last Campaign
Mark Dickman
Saint Greta and the Dragon
Jared Bernstein - Dean Baker
Reducing the Health Care Tax
Clark T. Scott
Uniting “Progressives” Instead of Democrats
Nilofar Suhrawardy
Trump & Johnson: What a Contrast, Image-wise!
Ron Jacobs
Abusing America’s Children—Free Market Policy
George Wuerthner
Mills Are Being Closed by National Economic Trends, Not Environmental Regulations
Basav Sen
Nearly All Americans Want Off of Fossil Fuels
Mark Ashwill
Playing Geopolitical Whack-a-Mole: The Viet Nam Flag Issue Revisited
Jesse Jackson
New Hope for One of America’s Poorest Communities
Binoy Kampmark
Harry and Meghan Exit: The Royal Family Propaganda Machine
Ralph Nader
Trump: Making America Dread Again!
Rob Okun
A Call to Men to join Women’s March
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
We All Need to Be Tree Huggers Now
Tom Stephens
The New York Times’ Delusions of Empire
Julian Rose
Fake-Green Zero Carbon Fraud
Louis Proyect
The Best Films of 2019
Matthew Stevenson
Across the Balkans: Into Kosovo
Colin Todhunter
Gone Fishing? No Fish but Plenty of Pesticides and a Public Health Crisis
Julian Vigo
Can New Tech Replace In-Class Learning?
Gaither Stewart
The Bench: the Life of Things
Nicky Reid
Trannies with Guns: Because Enough is Enough!
James Haught
Baby Dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark
David Yearsley
Brecht in Berlin