Brace yourself for a flood of gruesome new torture snapshots. Last week, a federal judge ordered the Defense Department to release dozens of additional photographs and videotapes depicting prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.
The photographs will elicit what has become a predictable response: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld will claim to be shocked and will assure us that action is already being taken to prevent such abuses from happening again. But imagine, for a moment, if events followed a different script. Imagine if Rumsfeld responded like Col. Mathieu in "Battle of Algiers," Gillo Pontecorvo's famed 1965 film about the National Liberation Front's attempt to liberate Algeria from French colonial rule. In one of the film's key scenes, Mathieu finds himself in a situation familiar to top officials in the Bush administration: He is being grilled by a room filled with journalists about allegations that French paratroopers are torturing Algerian prisoners.
I recently caught a glimpse of the effects of torture in action at an event honoring Maher Arar. The Syrian-born Canadian is the world's most famous victim of "rendition," the process by which US officials outsource torture to foreign countries. Arar was switching planes in New York when US interrogators detained him and "rendered" him to Syria, where he was held for ten months in a cell slightly larger than a grave and taken out periodically for beatings.
Arar was being honored for his courage by the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations, a mainstream advocacy organization. The audience gave him a heartfelt standing ovation, but there was fear mixed in with the celebration. Many of the prominent community leaders kept their distance from Arar, responding to him only tentatively. Some speakers were unable even to mention the honored guest by name, as if he had something they could catch. And perhaps they were right: The tenuous "evidence"—later discredited—that landed Arar in a rat-infested cell was guilt by association. And if that could happen to Arar, a successful software engineer and family man, who is safe?
Last summer, in the lull of the August media doze, the Bush Administration’s doctrine of preventive war took a major leap forward. On August 5, 2004, the White House created the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization, headed by former US Ambassador to Ukraine, Carlos Pascual. Its mandate is to draw up elaborate “post conflict” plans for up to twenty-five countries that are not, as of yet, in conflict. According to Pascual, it will also be able to coordinate three full-scale reconstruction operations in different countries “at the same time,” each lasting “five to seven years.”
Fittingly, a government devoted to perpetual pre-emptive deconstruction now has a standing office of perpetual pre-emptive reconstruction.
Sure, there is a certain irony in being urged to get off the couch by the company that popularised the "drive-thru", helpfully allowing customers to consume a bagged heart attack without having to get out of the car and walk to the counter. And there is a similar irony to Bush urging the people of the Middle East to remove "the mask of fear" because "fear is the foundation of every dictatorial regime", when that fear is the direct result of US decisions to install and arm the regimes that have systematically terrorised for decades. But since both campaigns are exercises in rebranding, that means facts are besides the point.
It started off as a joke and has now become vaguely serious: the idea that Bono might be named president of the World Bank. US Treasury Secretary John Snow recently described Bono as “a rock star of the development world,” adding, “He’s somebody I admire.”
The job will almost certainly go to a US citizen, one with even weaker credentials, like Paul Wolfowitz. But there is a reason Bono is so admired in the Administration that the White House might just choose an Irishman. As frontman of one of the world’s most enduring rock brands, Bono talks to Republicans as they like to see themselves: not as administrators of a diminishing public sphere they despise but as CEOs of a powerful private corporation called America. “Brand USA is in trouble... it's a problem for business," Bono warned at the World Economic Forum in Davos. The solution is “to re-describe ourselves to a world that is unsure of our values.”