Just Above Sunset
Volume 5, Number 10
March 11, 2007

What We've Become

 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

"Notes on how things seem from out here in Hollywood..."

Normalizing the Unthinkable

There's not much point in rehashing what the last four or five years have done to the reputation of the United States.  Even the iron-fisted Vladimir Putin is on our case -

    Vladimir Putin threw down the gauntlet to the west in a confrontational speech on Saturday, attacking what he called "illegal" US unilateral military action and arguing it had made the world more dangerous.

    In a speech that stunned most of the audience at an annual security conference held in Munich, Mr Putin also railed against US plans to build anti-missile defenses in Europe, the expansion of NATO to include countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, and a host of other western policies.

    To an audience that included Robert Gates, US defense secretary, John McCain, US presidential contender, and a group of Washington lawmakers, Mr Putin declared the end of the unipolar world, which he described as a failure for the world and the US itself.

    In a presumed reference mainly to the war in Iraq, Mr Putin said, "unilateral illegal actions have not resolved any single problem," emphasizing the many more people who had been killed as a result of US military action.

As you might recall, President Bush, way back when, looked into his soul and approved of what he saw.  Oops. Not only is the man turning Russian back into a police state, where people disappear, or critics end up glowing and dead in London, now this.

Gates was graciously chiding - we don't want another cold war, thank you.  McCain was upset - the "most aggressive remarks by a Russian leader since the end of the Cold War" - but for this -

    In almost the only conciliatory remarks in his presentation, he described President George W. Bush as a "decent man."

    "One can do business with him… when I talk to him I assume Russia and the US will never be enemies and I agree with him."

    Mr Putin also provided a glimmer of hope that Russia might put more pressure on Iran to respond more positively to efforts by the International Atomic Energy Agency to force Iran to resolve the standoff over its controversial nuclear program.

Well, that's something.

But it seems no one is pleased with us.  Those of a Cheney turn of mind, neoconservatives and the "Bush base," revel in that.  The enmity of the world is a badge of honor, or proof that we're doing something right, or something. Others wonder how we'll get anything done in this sorry world without at least the grudging cooperation of those who used to be our allies, as enthusiastic support is now out of the question.

An example of that can be found in The Axis of Fear from Shmuel Rosner. This is a detailed discussion of our efforts to get Saudi Arabia helping us out with containing and marginalizing Iran.  We are enlisting these Sunnis to help us stop a Shi'a axis from developing, one led from Terhan.  But this is mind-numbingly complicated - we helped birth a Shi'a government in Iraq that has no use for that nation's Sunnis and is aligning itself with Iran, and too, curiously, both al Qaeda, the baddest of the bad guys, and Saudi Arabia are both Sunni. Huh? And now has come down to what Rosner discovers is the real question - "Who do the Saudis fear more, expansionist Iranians or incompetent Americans?"  The signs are clear.  Our allies just don't trust us - they know we'll probably screw all this up, big time.

What is the best way to put it?  This is not going well.

We are distrusted by our allies, and others, neutral or antagonistic, have a problem with what we do - the prisons and detention without recourse not to mention the torture.

But that's external. There's the internal, like this column from a writer who served in the Army from 1995 to 2000 - as an Arabic linguist - and worked in Iraq as a "contract interrogator" in early 2004.  It has to do with looking through the other end of the telescope, not at what the world thinks of us, but how we think of ourselves -

    Despite my best efforts, I cannot ignore the mistakes I made at the interrogation facility in Fallujah. I failed to disobey a meritless order, I failed to protect a prisoner in my custody, and I failed to uphold the standards of human decency. Instead, I intimidated, degraded and humiliated a man who could not defend himself. I compromised my values. I will never forgive myself.

    American authorities continue to insist that the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib was an isolated incident in an otherwise well-run detention system. That insistence, however, stands in sharp contrast to my own experiences as an interrogator in Iraq. I watched as detainees were forced to stand naked all night, shivering in their cold cells and pleading with their captors for help. Others were subjected to long periods of isolation in pitch-black rooms. Food and sleep deprivation were common, along with a variety of physical abuse, including punching and kicking. Aggressive, and in many ways abusive, techniques were used daily in Iraq, all in the name of acquiring the intelligence necessary to bring an end to the insurgency. The violence raging there today is evidence that those tactics never worked. My memories are evidence that those tactics were terribly wrong.

    While I was appalled by the conduct of my friends and colleagues, I lacked the courage to challenge the status quo. That was a failure of character and in many ways made me complicit in what went on. I'm ashamed of that failure, but as time passes, and as the memories of what I saw in Iraq continue to infect my every thought, I'm becoming more ashamed of my silence.

Others may have come to "hate America" - or, if they don't generalize to us all, have come to hate what our current government has and is doing - but there's that internal damage. 

The CIA is still legally authorized to torture detainees under presidential order - the signing statement attached to the McCain anti-torture bill carved out that exception, where at the president's discretion anything can be done. No one much thinks about those doing the wet work.  It can get to you.

It should be noted there is a new website, American Torture - covering the issue with source documents and such. That's interesting, but may make little difference.  Andrew Sullivan comments - "This story is not over - and probably won't be until Bush leaves office. But the need for full accounting and for more aggressive Congressional oversight is vital. At some point, it will also be necessary to set up some kind of truth and justice commission to examine the record, and press charges against the guilty."

It that likely?

Wonkette, the DC gossip site, offers this odd item -

    Donald Rumsfeld has now been spotted repeatedly visiting the swank Washington DC law firm of Williams & Connelly. If this firm has one claim to fame, then it's representing the high and mighty inside the Beltway when they get into criminal law trouble. So let's guess which of Rumsfeld's legal issues have taken him there:  he's a) being sued for damages by Iraqis and Afghans, b) facing an indictment on war crimes in Germany; c) getting pulled into all kinds of dirt on Iraq contract corruption.

Who knows? It could be all three, or something else.

And back to our allies - it seems Lord Peter Goldsmith, attorney general for England and Wales, has called a second time for the closure our operations at Guantánamo Bay. This time he was speaking at a meeting of the American Bar Association, and his thing this time was saying the Bush administration's new rules for treatment of detainees accused of involvement in terrorism were somewhat disappointing, as in the changes are "too little and too late."  It is not a matter of who is angry at whom, or themselves, but a matter of being practical - our absurd treatment of detainees is hurting more than helping.  It's in the Associated Press item - Goldsmith has this crazy idea that the war on terror will not be won by force.  Ideas matter - and "the presence of Guantánamo makes it so much more difficult to do this for all of us."

Don't tell that to the people at Fox - not Fox News, but Fox Television. That would be the people who give us "The Simpsons" and the wildly popular show "24" - where each week the world is saved by the torture of a bad guy who gives up key information and we're all saved.  And the torturer-hero doesn't feel bad about his actions at all. No regrets.  He's done the right thing.  America just eats it up.

There's the New Yorker profile of the creator of the television series, Joel Surnow - a friend of Rush Limbaugh. It shows a view pretty far from that of the troubled interrogator in real life.

Consider this -

    Although he is a supporter of President Bush - he told me that "America is in its glory days" - Surnow is critical of the way the war in Iraq has been conducted. An "isolationist" with "no faith in nation-building," he thinks that "we could have been out of this thing three years ago." After deposing Saddam Hussein, he argued, America should have "just handed it to the Baathists and … put in some other monster who's going to keep these people in line but who's not going to be aggressive to us." In his view, America "is sort of the parent of the world, so we have to be stern but fair to people who are rebellious to us. We don't spoil them. That's not to say you abuse them, either. But you have to know who the adult in the room is."

    Surnow's rightward turn was encouraged by one of his best friends, Cyrus Nowrasteh, a hard-core conservative who, in 2006, wrote and produced "The Path to 9/11," a controversial ABC miniseries that presented President Clinton as having largely ignored the threat posed by Al Qaeda. (The show was denounced as defamatory by Democrats and by members of the 9/11 Commission; their complaints led ABC to call the program a "dramatization," not a "documentary.") Surnow and Nowrasteh met in 1985, when they worked together on "The Equalizer." Nowrasteh, the son of a deposed adviser to the Shah of Iran, grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, where, like Surnow, he was alienated by the radicalism around him. He told me that he and Surnow, in addition to sharing an admiration for Reagan, found "L.A. a stultifying, stifling place because everyone thinks alike." Nowrasteh said that he and Surnow regard "24" as a kind of wish fulfillment for America. "Every American wishes we had someone out there quietly taking care of business," he said. "It's a deep, dark ugly world out there. Maybe this is what Ollie North was trying to do. It would be nice to have a secret government that can get the answers and take care of business - even kill people. Jack Bauer fulfills that fantasy."

An interpretation of that (from Digby at Hullabaloo) -

    The Baby Party strikes again. "Please have Secret Government Daddy quietly 'take care of business' or I'll just die of fright!" And they admit to this embarrassing need for a big strong man to solve all their problems while Surnow refers to "foreigners" as children whom we musn't "spoil." Oh my god, what ridiculous people.

    And, you can't help but choke a little bit on the idea that the son of an advisor of the Shah of Iran is influencing Americans about the need for torture. Cyrus "SAVAK" Nowrasteh is quite a guy.

    But, still, it's just a TV show, right? Unfortunately, the article points out that this piece of shit is actually used by soldiers in Iraq for "ideas."

Well, it is, as the New Yorker item explains -

    This past November, U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point, flew to Southern California to meet with the creative team behind "24." Finnegan, who was accompanied by three of the most experienced military and FBI interrogators in the country, arrived on the set as the crew was filming... In fact, Finnegan and the others had come to voice their concern that the show's central political premise - that the letter of American law must be sacrificed for the country's security - was having a toxic effect. In their view, the show promoted unethical and illegal behavior and had adversely affected the training and performance of real American soldiers. "I'd like them to stop," Finnegan said of the show's producers. "They should do a show where torture backfires."

    The meeting, which lasted a couple of hours, had been arranged by David Danzig, the Human Rights First official. Several top producers of "24" were present, but Surnow was conspicuously absent. Surnow explained to me, "I just can't sit in a room that long. I'm too ADD - I can't sit still." He told the group that the meeting conflicted with a planned conference call with Roger Ailes, the chairman of the Fox News Channel. (Another participant in the conference call attended the meeting.) Ailes wanted to discuss a project that Surnow has been planning for months: the début, on February 18th, of "The Half Hour News Hour," a conservative satirical treatment of the week's news; Surnow sees the show as offering a counterpoint to the liberal slant of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart."

    … At other moments, the discussion was more strained. Finnegan told the producers that "24," by suggesting that the U.S. government perpetrates myriad forms of torture, hurts the country's image internationally. Finnegan, who is a lawyer, has for a number of years taught a course on the laws of war to West Point seniors - cadets who would soon be commanders in the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. He always tries, he said, to get his students to sort out not just what is legal but what is right. However, it had become increasingly hard to convince some cadets that America had to respect the rule of law and human rights, even when terrorists did not. One reason for the growing resistance, he suggested, was misperceptions spread by "24," which was exceptionally popular with his students. As he told me, "The kids see it, and say, 'If torture is wrong, what about "24"?'" He continued, "The disturbing thing is that although torture may cause Jack Bauer some angst, it is always the patriotic thing to do."

    … The third expert at the meeting was Tony Lagouranis, a former Army interrogator in the war in Iraq. He told the show's staff that DVDs of shows such as "24" circulate widely among soldiers stationed in Iraq. Lagouranis said to me, "People watch the shows, and then walk into the interrogation booths and do the same things they've just seen." He recalled that some men he had worked with in Iraq watched a television program in which a suspect was forced to hear tortured screams from a neighboring cell; the men later tried to persuade their Iraqi translator to act the part of a torture "victim," in a similar intimidation ploy. Lagouranis intervened: such scenarios constitute psychological torture.

So it's pretty effective propaganda. Perhaps Roger Ailes will call up Dick Cheney in the White House and have that dean of West Point, Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, relieved of command. It's a matter of just who is running the country.  Maybe they'll just tell Finnegan to shut the hell up. [Minor personal note - in a conversation with a one-star general out here, I discovered he and his wife are BIG fans of the show.]

The important people love this show -

    Last March, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife, Virginia, joined Surnow and Howard Gordon for a private dinner at Rush Limbaugh's Florida home. The gathering inspired Virginia Thomas - who works at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank - to organize a panel discussion on "24." The symposium, sponsored by the foundation and held in June, was entitled "'24' and America's Image in Fighting Terrorism: Fact, Fiction, or Does It Matter?" Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who participated in the discussion, praised the show's depiction of the war on terrorism as "trying to make the best choice with a series of bad options." He went on, "Frankly, it reflects real life." Chertoff, who is a devoted viewer of "24," subsequently began an e-mail correspondence with Gordon, and the two have since socialized in Los Angeles. "It's been very heady," Gordon said of Washington's enthusiasm for the show. Roger Director, Surnow's friend, joked that the conservative writers at "24" have become "like a Hollywood television annex to the White House. It's like an auxiliary wing."

So what have we become?  Fact, Fiction, or Does It Matter?

And you thought Hollywood was harmless.  Hollywood has become real life - for those in charge.


Minor footnote:

Surnow and Nowrasteh met in 1985, when they worked together on "The Equalizer."

Music for that series was provided by Stewart Copeland of The Police, the drummer - his first commission after the group disbanded.  Monday, February 12, they reformed and performed down the street at the Whiskey.

This item posted - in its final version - February 18, 2007

[What We've Become]

Last updated Saturday, March 10, 2007, 10:30 pm Pacific Time

All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 - Alan M. Pavlik