Monday, December 15, 2008

Reflections: X Happens

A regular part of my Saturday morning routine is going online to have a look at the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Don’t ask me why I don’t wait until Sunday to do this, because I have no answer to that sensible question. When I actually lived in New York City, rising early enough to get to the corner candy store and buy the Sunday Times before they were all gone was a must-do task, to be completed regardless of the weather or one’s state of health. So what was a Sunday ritual in New York has become a greatly modified Saturday habit in Ohio.

This past Saturday one of the features in the book section was “The Ten Best Books of 2008”—five fiction and five nonfiction. I hadn’t read any of them, although I remembered having read reviews of several. I had added one or two of them to my “to read at some future time” list.

This past Saturday was also the day of the monthly used book sale at the public library. I didn’t need any books (God knows), but I did need to gas my car; and getting out of the house for awhile seemed like a good plan as well. So off I went to the library.

When I emerged an hour or so later I had in hand one used book that I didn’t need (Deus lo Volt! by Evan S. Connell) and two of the “Top Ten” books from the Times list: 2666 by Roberto Bolano, and The Dark Side by Jane Mayer: one fiction, one nonfiction.

Back home, I started reading The Dark Side. I found the first five chapters to be unexciting. They provided a lot of detail on Cheney and his minions, their thinking, and how they influenced Bush’s decisions vis-à-vis the “War on Terror.” But I didn’t feel that I was learning anything new that wasn’t essentially trivial. Then I got to chapter 6, “Outsourcing Torture”. Sure, I knew about this too; but from this point on, the trivia ceased to be trivial. At least it was not trivial in the moral universe.

The horror begins with the story of a captive known as Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, an alleged al-Qaeda commander, who was captured and turned over to the Americans by the Pakistanis. He was being interrogated by two FBI agents and the sessions were going well. But then: “Whatever the motive, several days into what the FBI regarded as winning al-Libi’s trust, a young Arabic speaking CIA officer named “Albert” ...burst into the cell where Fincher was questioning al-Libi and started shouting at the prisoner. “You’re going to Egypt!” he yelled. “And while you’re there, I’m going to find your mother, and fuck her!” It’s all down hill from there:

After the CIA took custody of al-Libi, the FBI lost track of him. There were rumors that he was rendered to Egypt, where he was being tortured. One memorable but unconfirmed detail that made the rounds was that he had been buried alive in the desert, with sand up to his neck. He was said to have lost his mind.

Al-Libi had been cooperating with the FBI, who had been treating him humanely. Al-Libi had a Syrian wife and was lobbying to get the wife and her family into the United States in exchange for information he was willing to provide, even though it resulted in his conviction. Then the CIA took over. My reading has slowed considerably at this point. I’m still stuck on chapter six. A quick glance at the coming attractions reveals that it only gets much worse.

Do you remember that post-9/11 equation that went (with numerous variables): if X, then the terrorists have already won? Well, yeah…

My question to anybody who is not horrified by our programs of rendition and torture is simply: Quo vadis?