The Soul Suckers of Endless Compromise

Every four years this happens to me again.  My phone stops ringing, my emails aren’t returned, my liberal friends avert their gaze if we chance upon the same aisle at Safeway.

Was it something I said?  Did I hog the mushroom dip and the Cote du Rhone at their last soire?  Have I not been flossing?  But then it hits me: they know I will not be supporting the Democratic nominee for President again.

Now, I am no Republican, and certainly not a centrist “Independent,” a euphemism for “I have no opinions—I am just here to shop.”  No, I am, in a quite literal sense, a born Democrat.  My parents actually met at the 1956 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and my birth announcement featured a little Donkey cartoon and said, “It’s a Democrat!”  In the last three decades, though, I have voted for the Democratic nominee only once, and that, I here confess, was Obama in 2008.  I have never voted for the Republicans, of course.  Even this year, I sit eagerly eyeing the weather forecast, hoping that Tropical Storm Isaac will build to a Category 5 Hurricane, zero in on the Republican convention like some hapless trailer park, and confirm for me at last the existence of God.

But I have no patience for my liberal friends’ insistence on robotic support for Obama, or even for my progressive friends’ qualms about whether to remove their Obama bumper stickers.   You could pick a topic absolutely at random to demonstrate Obama’s betrayal of his supposed “base,” but let’s look for now at just one, his record in the area of “National Security.”

Start with torture, kind of an important subject, at least in days past.  Billions will be strewn along this interminable “campaign trail” without either candidate ever once stepping in that unmentionable topic, a practice candidate Obama denounced four years ago.  Notwithstanding his order to close the CIA’s “black sites,” this President has nothing to crow about in the human rights department.  As Prof. Alfred McCoy has written, Obama’s legacy here is two-fold: impunity at home and rendition abroad.

Meet the New Boss.  Same as the Old Boss

At home, the “Justice” Department (evidently named by a staff comedy writer) has pursued a strict policy of blocking prosecutions of Bush-era torturers or architects of torture, and denying victims a chance for a day in court.  This was no mean task, by the way.  The Bush people had run their “enemy combatants” operation like Mafia dons muscling in on Vegas, with a network of CIA “black sites”  on multiple continents, as well as an extensive “outsourcing” program to client torture states (those neoliberals, always sending American jobs abroad).

As the U.S. is a signatory to the 1994 Convention Against Torture, Obama was required by law to prosecute all acts of torture. And with him being a Constitutional law professor, I’m betting he knew that.  He not only declined to do so (something about wanting to Look Forward Not Backward, which I have been unable to locate in the text of aforementioned Convention), but he even stopped other countries from trying to do anything.

As we know from Wikileaks, Obama secretly collaborated with Congressional Republicans to block the Spanish judiciary from indicting six former Bush officials for torture. (Spain had a “universal jurisdiction” law governing crimes against humanity, under which they prosecuted Chilean dictator Pinochet, for example.) Now, Obama couldn’t have been blamed for Spain trying to do something that he himself was unwilling to do.  We wouldn’t have expected him to order Spain around like a servant, Spain being its own country and all.   (He is manifestly unable to order Israel around, and they’re on the federal payroll). So this was purely gratis.

Not even private contractors had to worry.  When a conscience-stricken whistleblower revealed that a Boeing subsidiary, Jeppesen Dataplan, arranged the CIA’s international “torture flights” ferrying “extraordinary rendition” prisoners to their foreign appointments, Jeppesen became the target of a lawsuit by some of the victims.  Obama succeeded in crushing this effort in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.  As Jane Mayer (one of the best journalists writing on this issue) wrote in The New Yorker,

An eleven-judge panel sided, 6-5, with lawyers working for Obama’s Justice Department, which essentially claimed that protecting state secrets is more important than protecting human rights. Amazingly, the Justice Department argued successfully that the entire subject of “extraordinary rendition”—dispatching torture (sic) suspects to other countries to be interrogated harshly—was so sensitive that it had to be hidden from the American public, to the point of barring its victims from seeking redress in court.

Let Them Eat Maple Syrup

No Obama supporter should be allowed near a voting booth before passing a written test on the case of Maher Arar.  He was a Syrian-born Canadian citizen, the father of young children, who happened to be changing planes at JFK (not trying to enter the U.S.).  By some typically shabby intelligence work, he was arrested by Bush’s agents, accused of having ties to Al Qaeda, and bundled off to Syria (yes, that Syria) for a year of torture in a cramped underground “coffin.”  When his shattered psyche and body were released, he was returned to Canada.  The Canadians acknowledged his innocence, apologized, and awarded him a multi-million dollar settlement in what was still an obviously inadequate compensation.

As for the Americans who did the dirty work?  “We’re sorry. Your case raises too many sensitive security concerns.  The Land of the Free is closed today.  Please try your call again later.”

Obama weighed in on Arar’s case in 2010, arguing successfully against a Supreme Court hearing, and ensuring that Arar will never have his day in a U.S. courtroom.  As the Center for Constitutional Rights wrote

The Obama administration could have settled the case, recognizing the wrongs done to Mr. Arar – as Canada itself has done. Yet it chose to come to the defense of Bush administration officials, arguing that even if they conspired to send Maher Arar to torture, they should not be held accountable by the judiciary.

They All Look Alike

Then there was the case of Khaled el Masri, a German citizen trying to go on holiday in Macedonia in 2003.  But he had the twin problems of 1. Being a Muslim and 2. Having one of those funny names that sounded kind of like another guy we were looking for. So, instead of seeing Galichnik National Park, Khaled got a surprise tourist package courtesy of the CIA.  First, he was interrogated for 23 days in a Macedonia hotel. By this time, they suspected they had the wrong guy, but under orders from CIA headquarters, as The New Yorker  reported, “he was handcuffed, blindfolded, driven to an airport, severely beaten, stripped, anally probed, dressed in a diaper and tracksuit, placed on a plane, drugged, and flown to Afghanistan, where he was imprisoned for more than four months.” Your standard “Rendition” fare.   As Jane Mayer wrote, “Masri says that he was chained in a freezing cell with no bed, and given water so putrid that he could smell it across the room. He was threatened and stripped, and could hear other detainees crying all around him.”  After going on a hunger strike, and losing sixty pounds, he was finally released after being flown, handcuffed and blindfolded, to Albania.

Obama continues to maintain that the very existence of the Renditions program is a state secret, blocking Khaled el-Masri’s access to an American courtroom.  The CIA officer involved in the case has twice been promoted. According to Mayer, “no criminal charges have ever been brought against any C.I.A. officer involved in the torture program, despite the fact that at least three prisoners interrogated by agency personnel died as the result of mistreatment.” Last year, as Alfred McCoy writes,

Attorney General Eric Holder announced an end to any investigation of harsh CIA interrogations and to the possibility of bringing any of the CIA torturers to court. (Consider it striking, then, that the only “torture” case brought to court by the administration involved a former CIA agent, John Kiriakou, who had leaked the names of some torturers.)

That would be in keeping with Obama’s policy of going after not the criminals, but only the whistleblowers, like Bradley Manning, Wikileaks, Thomas Drake (look him up), etc.

Meanwhile, in places like Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq, the Obama administration continues to avail itself of the services of its allies, who it knows are committing systematic torture.  McCoy again:

As the CIA expanded covert operations inside Somalia under Obama, its renditions of terror suspects from neighboring East African nations continued just as they had under Bush. In July 2009, for example, Kenyan police snatched an al-Qaeda suspect, Ahmed Abdullahi Hassan, from a Nairobi slum and delivered him to that city’s airport for a CIA flight to Mogadishu. There he joined dozens of prisoners grabbed off the streets of Kenya inside “The Hole” — a filthy underground prison buried in the windowless basement of Somalia’s National Security Agency. While Somali guards (paid for with U.S. funds) ran the prison, CIA operatives, reported the Nation’s Jeremy Scahill, have open access for extended interrogation.

“The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.”

                                                                        George Orwell, “Notes on Nationalism”

In a society as coarsened as ours, saturated in violent media spectacle, it was only a matter of time before Jack Bauer torturing the stuffing out of some sorry-assed terrorist would need some jazzing-up.  Which is why the Good Lord gave us Predator drones!   Now, instead of having to capture all those suspects, and go to the trouble and expense of flying them around for torture sessions, we just call in the Predators, or the even nastier Reaper drones, and bring on the Hellfire missiles.  (Is there a secret committee of deranged televangelists that thinks up these names?  I am just curious.)   Under this new program, which grew dramatically under Obama, now we just kill people.  The funny thing is, Americans don’t seem very interested in the new spectator sport yet. What’s up here?

John Pilger brings up an interesting fact, writing that “in the week Barack Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, he ordered bombing attacks on Yemen, killing a reported 63 people, 28 of them children.”

Did anyone else miss this besides me?  I am sorry, but I think that if Martin Luther King had killed 28 children the same week he won the Nobel Peace Prize, it would have made the papers.

There is something very creepy about how little people seem to know or care about this new techno video game form of warfare.  Jane Mayer, writing in 2009, noted that

…the embrace of the Predator program has occurred with remarkably little public discussion, given that it represents a radically new and geographically unbounded use of state-sanctioned lethal force. And, because of the C.I.A. program’s secrecy, there is no visible system of accountability in place, despite the fact that the agency has killed many civilians inside a politically fragile, nuclear-armed country with which the U.S. is not at war.

From fewer than fifty drones in 2000, the Pentagon now has more than 7,500.  This is clearly what they intend to be the new way of doing business.  And we don’t even know what the price tag is.  As Medea Benjamin notes in her recent book Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control, “At the height of government deficit-reducing cuts in 2012, the US taxpayer was shelling out $3.9 billion for the procurement of unmanned aircraft, not counting the separate drone budgets for the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security.”

“Sentence First, Verdict Later!”

(The Queen of Hearts, Alice in Wonderland)                  

But Obama, mustering ever more “audacity,” has extended the drone war to target the very Constitution itself.   Last year he authorized–and carried out—the execution of three U.S. citizens, without charge or trial.  The three were Anwar Al-Awlaki, Samir Khan, and Anwar’s sixteen year-old son Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki (there are those funny names again).  All were put on a government “kill list” and assassinated in drone strikes in Yemen. Other bystanders, including another teenager, were also killed in the attacks.   (All military-age males in a target zone get counted as combatants unless there is specific intelligence posthumously proving they were innocent.)

This is from the Center for Constitutional Rights:

“When a 16 year-old boy who has never been charged with a crime nor ever alleged to have committed a violent act is blown to pieces by U.S. missiles, alarm bells should go off,” said CCR Senior Staff Attorney Pardiss Kebriaei. “The U.S. program of sending drones into countries in and against which it is not at war and eliminating so-called enemies on the basis of executive memos and conference calls is illegal, out of control, and must end.”

Call me old-fashioned, but I think that all Democrats should be able to agree on that.  Which in a sane country would raise the question of whether Obama should be impeached, rather than re-elected.  But we live in this country, don’t we?  And in this country, earnest liberal-minded people feel they must concentrate on stopping Mitt Romney, or there will soon be public beheadings of Planned Parenthood workers, and all that.  What I am wondering is this: is there no limit, beyond which Democrats will not support Obama?  Beyond which they just have to say, “Not with my vote–Not in my name?”

But we are sooooo far from that.  I think we are mostly like Orwell’s “nationalist,” never even hearing about the atrocities of our own side.  Like victims of  Dementor attacks in Harry Potter, our very souls are being sucked out by the endless series of compromises and adjustments to an ever more debased and violent National Security State.  Swept up by the inexorable gravitational pull of unlimited corporate money, we have lost our political parties, our res publica, the commons.  The means of mass communication, in their ever-growing sophistication, are deployed as the tools of human consciousness production, and are used only to distract us, stimulate consumer demand, misinform, disempower.    We don’t denounce Obama’s crimes because we’ve already forgotten about them, or—more likely—we never heard about them in the first place.  They weren’t talking about them on The View.   Everyone on NPR seems to think things are okay, and if they aren’t, we can start an Internet petition and Obama will do better in his second term. He certainly seems like a nice man, and he’s trying to do the right thing.  He’ll come around.   Plus, he sings just like Al Green.

Fortunately for most of my liberal friends, they won’t have to agonize too much about their vote, because they live out here on the Commie West Coast, and the Electoral College has already nullified their importance in the grand scheme of things.  It will all come down to a few people in the divided “swing states,” like that Mormon bastion of Nevada, best known for its gambling and legalized prostitution (you gotta love this country!)  You all vote for Obama if you wish.

But they’ll have to waterboard me.

Tom Wright lives in Olympia, Washington. He can be reached at, or, in the near future, in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba