The System Works? Not Really

Tens of thousands of innocent detainees have passed through Guantánamo, Bagram, Abu Ghraib, Diego Garcia and other U.S. torture facilities. Thousands remain “disappeared,” possibly murdered. Some may be on one of the Navy vessels recently revealed to have been repurposed as prison ships. Dozens have been beaten to death or killed by willful medical neglect.

For seven years, the Bush Administration, the Democratic Congress and its media allies have denied “unlawful enemy combatants” (or, as Dick Cheney called them, “the worst of the worst” terrorists) the right to habeas corpus, the centuries-old right of persons arrested by the police to face their accusers and the evidence
against them in a court of law.

Thanks to a 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court, America’s latest flirtation with fascism is coming to an end. Parts of the infamous Military Commissions Act of 2006 that eliminated habeas corpus have been declared unconstitutional. Prisoners at Guantánamo and possibly other American gulags, will now be allowed to demand their day in court. Since the government doesn’t have evidence against them, legal experts say, most if not all of “the worst of the worst” will ultimately walk free. “Liberty and security can be reconciled,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority.

In short: Oops.

“America is back,” Barack Obama has said he will tell the world if he becomes president. Even if McCain wins, Guantánamo will probably be closed. Torture will be re-illegalized. Which is really, really great. But there’s a problem. How do we give back the four years we stole from Murat Kurnaz?

In December 2001, Kurnaz was a 19-year-old German Muslim studying in Pakistan. He was pulled off a bus by Pakistani security services, who delivered him to the CIA for a $3,000 bounty. He was flown to Guantánamo concentration camp, where he received what The Village Voice‘s Nat Hentoff calls “the standard treatment: beatings, sleep deprivation, and special month-long spells of solitary confinement in a sealed cell without ventilation.”

He went on hunger strike, and Kurnaz’s tormentors apparently worried he might starve to death. After 20 days “they gagged me and shoved a tube up my nose, stopping several times because the tube filled with blood,” Kurnaz remembers.

What did this “worst of the worst” do to deserve such treatment? Nothing. But don’t take my word for it. Six months into his ordeal, the U.S. military determined, there was “no definite link or evidence of detainee having an association with Al Qaeda or making any specific threat toward the U.S.”

The U.S. government knew Kurnaz was innocent. Yet they held on to him another three and a half years.


It would be comforting if the torture of innocent men sold by self-interested bounty hunters were an aberration. It wasn’t. A McClatchy Newspapers analysis confirms the horrifying results of a Seton Hall University study. “Only eight percent of Guantánamo detainees were captured by U.S. forces,” reports McClatchy. “86 percent were turned over to the U.S. by Pakistan or by the Northern Alliance,” a coalition of Afghan warlords. “The bounty hunters were often the source of allegations.”

Right-wingers say security matters can only be entrusted to the military. “The courts,” writes Richard Samp of the pro-government Washington Legal Foundation in USA Today, “simply lack the expertise and resources to justify second-guessing military experts on such issues.” Maybe. But the military is run by liars.

“The McClatchy investigation found that top Bush Administration officials knew within months of opening the Guantánamo detention center that many prisoners weren’t ‘the worst of the worst.’ From the moment that Guantánamo opened in early 2002, former Secretary of the Army Thomas White said, it was obvious that at least one-third of the population didn’t belong there.”

At least six died at Gitmo. (The Pentagon characterized a spate of suicides as clever acts of “asymmetrical warfare.”)


Deranged leaders who carry out horrific acts of mass murder and oppression with the consent of the people are hardly new to American history, reminds Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States. “Begin with the Salem witchcraft trials of the 1690s,” he told a commencement ceremony at Southern Methodist University. “Move forward to the Alien and Sedition Acts of the early Republic, and from there to the suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War. Turn then to the arbitrary political arrests of the First and Second World Wars, the many abuses of the Cold War McCarthy era, and from there the civil liberties climate in our time.”

So many oopsies! But those are temporary excesses, Weinstein reassures. “Self-corrective forces at work in American society”–lefties, liberals, a single swing vote on the U.S. Supreme Court–always pull us back before we careen off the brink. Disaster is avoided.

Which would be fine if it weren’t for the problem that: (1) one of these days, Justice Kennedy won’t be around to restore the rule of law. The other problem being (2): a lot of “witches” get drowned during our periodic episodes of madness.

No one was ever held accountable for blacklisting actors or massacring Native Americans. Such tacit endorsement of villainy sets the stage for the next outrage committed during a future “temporary madness” driven by national security worries. Apologies are rare. Penance is scarce and stingy. The government stole the homes and businesses of Japanese-Americans and shipped them to concentration camps during World War II; decades passed before Congress cut them checks for a measly $10,000.

We think we Americans are good people who do bad things when we’re not on top of our game. “Self-corrective forces,” we pat ourselves on our collective backsides, always kick in before we go too far.

But that’s not really how it is.

Some Americans are good. Other Americans are bad. And the good ones are often lazy, willing to let the bad ones get their way.



17 Responses to “”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Here I’ll help you libs out with your guilt. Just pretend the detainees are pro-life conservative Christians.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Anonymous, you’re simply a stupid asshole.

    I don’t think many of us “libs” feel any guilt about this matter, only impotent outrage. We’ve never supported this insanity, why should we feel guilt?

    I always enjoy a good scoff when rightists speak of “liberal guilt.”


  3. Anonymous Says:

    Pro-Life Conservative Christians?


    You must produce the body in the court. That is the literal translation of Habeas Corpus and the foundation of Western Civilization; when the English Nobility forced King John (of Robin Hood Villainy fame) to sign the Magna Carta.


  4. Anonymous Says:

    Hmm, it helps to pretend the detainees are you, 1st Anon.

  5. SDS Says:


    Best column ever. Perhaps you’ve been more news-breaking before, but this is a matter of the soul of the nation, and an important one. I would love to live in a country that learned its lessons. I’d love that. But you presage what will happen when Obama likely wins. We’ll pull a Pontius Pilate and wipe our hands of the whole mess.

    And it’s not right. Both the anonymous writers are wrong. I’m a liberal and I’m guilty. Part of the terms of living in a society. There is blood on my hands. Perhaps I can be somewhat content that I tried to get Bush out in ’04 on campaigns. But that doesn’t make the Iraqis less dead, tortured, or the prisoners less wrongly held.

    A friend of mine recently compared the Bush era to a bad bender. Well, ok. Then, let’s have the classic alcoholic event: a moment of clarity. We’re 30 years removed from Vietnam. The CIA has divulged the details of incursions into so many states around the world that it should make you weep. Maybe it’s because I don’t have kids yet, but I actually do care that we’ve made people suffer by our very existence. We can do better. And it will take more than just Obama to take the stain off our souls.

  6. Angelo Says:

    Just pretend the detainees are pro-life conservative Christians.

    We don’t have to pretend…

  7. Aggie Dude Says:

    Whenever I feel liberal guilt I just stroke my beard faster.

  8. Anonymous Says:

    “Whenever I feel liberal guilt I just stroke my beard faster.”

    I’ll try that–hey it works!


  9. Anonymous Says:

    I’m sure it’s been said before, but ii looks like Halliburton turning into the “Company” from Catch-22?? Hmmmm….. “Pilot to bombadier…”

  10. Aggie Dude Says:

    Hey Dave, I’m glad to see that helped!

  11. Anonymous Says:

    What is wrong, Ted?

    There were revolutions or revolts in minor scale in many countries. But not every time when something happens that deserves an uprising. Please do not take too hard on yourself, Americans.

    Australia, Canada, Germany and many other nations apologized for their crimes. So what?

    We don’t do it here. We don’t even recognize there were crimes, except some three time strikes and things like that. Then where is the need for OOPS.

    Please do not think too high of Americans. All Americans, for that matter anybody in the rest of the world, are not objective when it comes to righteousness. Please do not feel far superior to Africans, Arabs, Asians or Europeans on this matter.

    Our militia would do not brutally rape women just to reduce the population of particular clan. But we have every indifferent policies to screw them.

    It pisses off when we talk as if nothing happened. It pisses off when we talk bad about other countries. But it is all part of life.

    So, the solution is not to drop all your writings.. Please keep up your writing. Let us have more people aware of what crimes are being committed. Yet, don’t get too demoralized for muted population. And do not take too hard on yourself.

    BTW, we need people like you to keep our fire alive. We also protest and fight for some good causes – successfully too. Not all are very hopeless.

  12. Anonymous Says:

    You are wrong. The libs in Congress have supported Bush on “torture”. I accept your apology.

    From the WaPo:
    “In September 2002, four members of Congress met in secret for a first look at a unique CIA program designed to wring vital information from reticent terrorism suspects in U.S. custody. For more than an hour, the bipartisan group, which included current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), was given a virtual tour of the CIA’s overseas detention sites and the harsh techniques interrogators had devised to try to make their prisoners talk.
    Among the techniques described, said two officials present, was waterboarding, a practice that years later would be condemned as torture by Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill. But on that day, no objections were raised. Instead, at least two lawmakers in the room asked the CIA to push harder, two U.S. officials said. . . .
    “In fairness, the environment was different then because we were closer to Sept. 11 and people were still in a panic,” said one U.S. official present during the early briefings. “But there was no objecting, no hand-wringing. The attitude was, ‘We don’t care what you do to those guys as long as you get the information you need to protect the American people.’ ”

    Anonymous, you’re simply a stupid asshole.

    I don’t think many of us “libs” feel any guilt about this matter, only impotent outrage. We’ve never supported this insanity, why should we feel guilt?

    I always enjoy a good scoff when rightists speak of “liberal guilt.”


  13. PB Says: recently had an article pointing out that this is the third “decisive victory” for those held in Guantanamo, and nothing has changed. Several of the prisoners were described as no longer caring to continue with legal challenges. Why should they, even when they win, it’s as if they lost? It’s appalling that people have been tortured and that innocent people have been held for years with out charge, but I’ll believe it when I see it that this legal “victory” will lead to anyone being released or charged.

  14. Angelo Says:

    The libs in Congress have supported Bush on “torture”. I accept your apology.

    they are not libs…

  15. Anonymous Says:

    Who’s “lib,” anyway?

    Anonymous is still a stupid asshole for equating Ted Rall and his readers with the Hillary Clinton “libs” in Congress.

    There’s plenty of blame to go around, but those of us who opposed the war and torture from the begining don’t owe anyone an apology. In fact, the larger culture owes us an apology for smearing us as “out of touch” or even traitorous.

    My first coherent thought after watching the towers fall: A lot of innocent brown people are going to get bombed. I fought to stop it and later I fought to stop the concentration camps.

    Here’s your apology, Anonymous: Fuck you.


  16. Anonymous Says:

    For nearly eight years we’ve played “Terrorist Gestapo” and now we’re tired of that so we’re moving on to something else…same thing happened in Vietnam; we (CIA, South Vietnamese police) set up a redition/torture machine called the Phoenix Program. They think 20 to 50 thousand people (alleged Viet Cong leaders; really anybody who got in the way) were tortured to death from 1968-74thanks to this system and thousands were found in small cages (“tiger cages”) by the victorious North Vietnamese at war’s end. We never said a word of apology after 1975 (for that or the whole f–king war) and William Colby (later CIA director) lied to Congress during the early 1970’s trying to defend his agency’s monster. Unless there is a revolution in America, the government will never apologize to people like Omar Khadr (one of the kids who became a man in Gitmo) nor arrest and prosecute this present rotten administration, members of whom should either have to face a firing squad or eternal exile to hard labor in Siberia.

    – Strelnikov

  17. Anonymous Says:


    And the “Congress liberals” would not even talk about impeachment.. The label “liberal” is totally hijacked by lazy bums.. It really sucks.

    We need to infiltrate both big parties and bring some sanity to them. We have to start recruiting…

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