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Rebecca Gordon, A Nation of Cowards?

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

It sounded like the beginning of a bad joke: a CIA agent and a U.S. Special Operations commando walked into a barbershop in Sana...

That's the capital of Yemen in case you didn't remember and not the sort of place where armed Americans usually wander out alone just to get a haircut. Here's what we know about the rest of this mysterious tale that surfaced in the U.S. media in early May (only to disappear again shortly thereafter): according to unnamed "American officials," two armed Yemeni civilians entered that barbershop with the intention of "kidnapping" the Americans, who shot and killed them and were then "whisked" out of the country with the approval of the Yemeni government.

For today, set aside the mystery of what in the world was actually going on in that barbershop and just consider the fact that when "they" do it to "us," there's no question about what word to use. It's kidnapping, plain and simple. When we do it to "them" (even when the they turn out to be innocent of any terror crimes), it's got a far fancier and more comfortable name: "rendition" or "extraordinary rendition." When they bust into a barbershop in a tony district in the capital city of Yemen, no question what they have in mind. When we do it in Milan, Benghazi, Tripoli, or other major cities, sometimes with the collusion of the local police, sometimes with the help of the local government, sometimes with no locals at all, we're just "rendering" our victims to "justice."

The CIA in particular and more recently U.S. special operators have made global kidnappings -- oops, renditions -- a regular beat since 9/11. A kind of rampage, actually. As it happens, whatever it can't do these days, the "sole superpower" still has the ability to make the global rules to its own liking. So when we wield the "R" word, it couldn't be more "legal" or at least, as U.S. experts will testify, the only reasonable way to go. Of course, when others wield the "K" word, can there be any question of the nastiness or illegality of their acts? Here's a guarantee: not a chance. Any judge-jury-and-executioner-rolled-into-one approach to the world (as with, for instance, the CIA's drone assassination campaigns) is an ugly way to go and will look even uglier when other countries adopt the latest version of the American Way. As with torture (oops, sorry again, "enhanced interrogation techniques"), making global kidnapping your loud and proud way of life is a dangerous path to take, long term, no matter how bad the bad guys are that you may be rendering to justice.

Rebecca Gordon, author of Mainstreaming Torture, a new book on the American way of enhanced interrogation techniques, is here to remind us not only of those facts, but of an even uglier one. While the Obama administration washed its hands of torture (global assassination campaigns being its claim to fame), its top officials didn't think it worth the bother to dismantle the elaborate torture system created in the Bush years, which means that, with another flick of the switch somewhere down the line, off we'll go again. Tom

The 25th Hour Still Living With Jack Bauer in a Terrified New American World By Rebecca Gordon

Once upon a time, if a character on TV or in a movie tortured someone, it was a sure sign that he was a bad guy. Now, the torturers are the all-American heroes. From 24 to Zero Dark Thirty, it's been the good guys who wielded the pliers and the waterboards. We're not only living in a post-9/11 world, we're stuck with Jack Bauer in the 25th hour.

In 2002, Cofer Black, the former Director of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, told a Senate committee, "All I want to say is that there was 'before' 9/11 and 'after' 9/11. After 9/11 the gloves come off." He wanted them to understand that Americans now live in a changed world, where, from the point of view of the national security state, anything goes. It was, as he and various top officials in the Bush administration saw it, a dangerous place in which terrorists might be lurking in any airport security line and who knew where else.

Dark-skinned foreigners promoting disturbing religions were driven to destroy us because, as President George W. Bush said more than once, "they hate our freedoms." It was "them or us." In such a frightening new world, we were assured, our survival depended in part on brave men and women willing to break precedent and torture some of our enemies for information that would save civilization itself. As part of a new American creed, we learned that torture was the price of security.

These were the ruling fantasies of the era, onscreen and off. But didn't that sorry phase of our national life end when Bush and his vice president Dick Cheney departed? Wasn't it over once Barack Obama entered the Oval Office and issued an executive order closing the CIA black sites that the Bush administration had set up across the planet, forbidding what had euphemistically come to be called "enhanced interrogation techniques?" As it happens, no. Though it's seldom commented upon, the infrastructure for, the capacity for, and the personnel to staff a system of institutionalized state torture remain in place, ready to bloom like a desert plant in a rain shower the next time fear shakes the United States.

There are several important reasons why the resurgence of torture remains a possibility in post-Bush America:

* Torture did not necessarily end when Obama took office.

* We have never had a full accounting of all the torture programs in the "war on terror."

* Not one of the senior government officials responsible for activities that amounted to war crimes has been held accountable, nor were any of the actual torturers ever brought to court.

Torture Did Not Necessarily End When Obama Took Office

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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