That a civilization should decline is no surprise. All empires do. But somehow from the inside each step comes as a jolt.
When our representatives in Congress allow a kangaroo court to hang its shingle on a Caribbean island where we have no business being, and when that tribunal, its six military members shrouded in anonymity, uses flimsy evidence to convict a man on a trumped-up charge, then we have thudded down another step.
Salim Hamdan was a driver for Osama bin Laden. He was not charged with killing anyone or ordering anyone killed. Of the 800 prisoners at Guantanamo that Donald Rumsfeld declared the “worst of the worst,” Hamdan is one of the 20 to be charged with a crime, which makes him one of the worst of the worst of the worst.
The hue and cry on the left after Hamdan’s conviction this week seemed to die down the next day after he was sentenced to only five and a half years. Suddenly it seemed that even a military court might be clear-eyed.
To give this peon thirty years would have put the hop in the kangaroo-court charge. Instead, the court shows its powers of discernment before moving on to let the bigger fish hang in the breeze of moral legitimacy.
“If anything, Hamdan’s sentence again validates the fairness and due-process safeguards embedded in the system,” The Wall Street Journal editorializes. “The jury was independent and conscientious in its deliberations….”
It is a stratagem that can be seen as a microcosm of the American myth: we may do what we want, but we are good people. We invade and occupy for peace and freedom. Our secret military tribunal is fair-minded after all.
The rest of us did not get to see Hamdan’s interrogation videos that Human Rights Watch observer Julia Hall called “sickening,” but the fair-minded jury did. The court adjourned for a screening of “The Dark Knight,” at which Navy Capt. Keith Allred, the military judge presiding over the trial, told Hall, “It’s very important that you’re here.”
It’s important that you’re here to see how we could have taken this guy life, but instead we’ll send him on his merry way in five months, since we’re counting the past five years as time served. Or perhaps one of George Bush’s final acts in office can be to remind the world that this man is in fact an enemy combatant and must be held until the conclusion of the war on terror.
Military attorneys on both sides of the Hamdan case summoned the ghosts of Nuremberg, since this was the first “war crimes” trial since then. But while Nuremberg was not perfect – contemporaries noted that it smacked of victor’s justice – it was a far cry from Guantanamo. The Nuremberg judges were civilian, we knew who they were, the proceedings were transparent, and actual war crimes were on the line.
The Nuremberg Principles laid out what constituted a war crime, in the hope that they would serve as a guide post for a more peaceful future. These, they said, are war crimes:
(a) Crimes against peace:
(i) Planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances;
(ii) Participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the acts mentioned under (i).
(b) War Crimes: Violations of the laws or customs of war which include, but are not limited to, murder, ill-treatment or deportation of slave labor or for any other purpose of the civilian population of or in occupied territory; murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war or persons on the seas, killing of hostages, plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity.
(c) Crimes against humanity: Murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation and other inhumane acts done against any civilian population, or persecutions on political, racial, or religious grounds, when such acts are done or such persecutions are carried on in execution of or in connection with any crime against peace or any war crime.
Try keeping your mind on Salim Hamdan while reading through that list.
If your mind stays on him without switching to the Bush Administration, then you are suffering from cognitive dissonance. Most of us still want to believe that we’re good people, and that we live in a country that does good things. That’s why we have such a hard time looking in the mirror.
And that’s why when we get to the biggest fish we have, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, whom defense attorneys would have a hard time getting off the hook in a civil court, we’ll be worked into such a lather of retribution that we’ll forget that he has confessed to orchestrating the murder of approximately one three-hundredth of the number of people killed by Bush.
The great U.S. sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein wrote in Foreign Policy in 2002, even before the occupation of Iraq, “Over the last 200 years, the United States acquired a considerable amount of ideological credit. But these days, the United States is running through this credit even faster than it ran through its gold surplus in the 1960s.”
In addition to its last-pony military might and its former economic hegemony, the U.S. empire has always depended on the myth of its benevolence. While the audience for that myth is vanishing around the world, most people at home still seem to believe it. They need to. But one can only wonder how long that cognitive dissonance can last in the face of cases such as Hamdan.
There’s always the chance that Hamdan becomes a precedent in international law, and the drivers of war criminals are in fact thought to be guilty of something called “the material support of terrorism.” In that case, whoever’s driving Bush’s limo had better start running.
BRENDAN COONEY is an anthropologist living in New York City. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org