What authoritarian rule looks like
Several recent events have lead me to some dots that need connecting. The dots may seem wildly disparate: the kidnapping of peace workers in Iraq and Palestine, the recent NYT revelations of counter-protest tactics employed be the NYPD, and a French film about heavy-handed manipulation of political prisoners.
Part One: Les Yeux des Oiseaux
I saw a movie two decades ago called EYES OF THE BIRDS. It depicted a prison in Uruguay for enemies of the state. They were making preparations for an inspection by the Red Cross. The story told of repercussions suffered by the political prisoners as a result of the long anticipated visit.
A couple of recent news items made me recall the film. In an early scene the prison warden ordered one of his men to do something irrational. Without provocation the warden ordered a guard to begin shooting at the prisoners who were assembled in the yard. At the same time, the warden filmed how the prisoners reacted.
That night the prison staff studied the footage to determine who among the political prisoners were the troublemakers. They weren’t looking at who was the more provoked, who was the quickest to run for cover, or even who was the most defiant. They weren’t looking for the strongmen or cellblock Kapos, they were looking for the leaders. They noted who shielded the others with their own bodies, who shepherded fellow prisoners to cover, and who sought to defuse the chaos by urging everyone to remain calm.
Those persons were then sequestered from the rest of the population, kept from contact with the Red Cross inspectors, and promptly dispatched with bags over their heads and buried. The film was fictional, but based on many corroborated accounts from Uruguay’s long years of repressive rule and disparados.
Part Two: NYC undercover cops
A recent New York Times article describes how NYPD officers infiltrated a number of peaceful street protests to incite the crowds to react. Tactics like this are nothing new for union-busters. The Pinkerton Security Agency for example got its start by hiring thugs to disrupt early efforts to organize strikes.
But do we expect such behavior from our men in blue? They’ve sworn to protect and serve us “with honor!” It used to be against the law for law enforcement to infiltrate political organizations.
Here’s what the NYPD was doing. Perhaps so as not to risk charges of false arrest, the police would plant, not drugs, but arrestees! The police would confront a crowd of protesters and arrest their own undercover officers. Immediately one of the arrestees would reveal himself as being under cover. This would divert suspicion from the ones still playing the victims and serve to incite the crowd to anger. They were angry for having been infiltrated, and then for seeing several among them arrested without apparent provocation.
With the crowd sufficiently distracted from its non-violent mantras, uniformed officers could move in from the sidelines and make their selective arrests.
From video taken by an IndyMedia reporter.
Number 36 cried out
“I’m under cover.”
The two behind him
pretended to be arrested,
only to be spotted later
at another protest site.
Real arrests followed.
Does this authoritarian maneuver resemble the M. O. used in Uruguay? To work, the perpetrators count on two things. First, that the heat of the moment will wrong-foot even the most defensive strategist. The tactic is after all nothing new.
That the targets feel the heat counts on a second, very cynical, assumption: that peace activists, like political dissidents, like freedom fighters, have a not easily repressed sense of humanity. They’ll betray their own goodness sooner than bear witness to injustice.
Probably you can see where I’m going with this.
Part Three: CPT Peace activists in the Middle East
When we hold vigils for the Christian Peacemaker Team members still held hostage in Iraq, we wonder how can those nasty insurgents threaten the lives of people who are so plainly on the side of the Iraqi people? It does seem particularly godless of those rebels doesn’t it? And absurd. I offer four thoughts.
A. Peace workers held in high regard
A friend of mine went to Iraq before the first Gulf War as a human shield to try to prevent the U.S. bombing campaign against Iraq. He wore a t-shirt which proclaimed his purpose there.
He told me that after a while, his journalist friends were begging to buy his t-shirt from him. So revered were the peace activists, they could walk into the worst areas in the middle of the night, and fear nothing. The few reporters and photographers who remained in Baghdad were so jealous of the access the peace workers had to ordinary Iraqis as a result of the deference shown to them.
B. Iraqi treatment of captured U. S. soldiers
Without exception, American soldiers captured by Iraqi forces have been returned to us safe and sound, neither hooded, tormented, tortured, nor humiliated. The extent of the “interrogation” of the captured supply line crew was to ask them to put truth to a lie: “had they been greeted with flowers and candy?”
Footage banned in the US: Iraqis ask them “were you greeted with flowers and candy?”
Not far from there, Iraqi doctors were already trying to return the captured Jessica Lynch to the American lines, but American soldiers kept shooting at their ambulance, forcing them to turn back. (Later American doctors would accuse the dumb-founded Iraqis of having raped Jessica’s limp body. In fact Lynch had earlier been forceably sodomized by a fellow U.S. soldier.)
Indeed Iraqis have shown a greater sense of compassion and humanity than our feeble representatives have ever shown them. From cluster bombs to DU to acceptable collateral damage to Free-Fire Zones to Kill Boxes to indiscriminate savagery to dehumanizing protocol. Americans have proven to be as barbaric as the Iraqis are cultured and forgiving.
What about the suicide bombers and the beheadings? The Iraqis are a divided people, and they have been driven to desperation. Execution by beheading, so horrifying to us, is more commonplace in their traditions. And then again, all may not be what it appears…
C. The mysterious beheading of Nick Berg
Nick Berg was a young do-gooder who traveled to Iraq on his own dime to try to take part in the reconstruction. He supported the war apparently, but it would be hard to paint him as an opportunist or profiteer. Nick Berg went to Iraq without a contract, nor much prospect for getting one. He went there to help.
The last people to see Nick Berg alive were CIA, a fact they denied at first. Nick was being detained by the U.S. military before his disappearance into the hands of his executioners. Though he was horribly decapitated on a video distributed all over the world, no reporter is quite ready to say who did it. Behind Nick Berg in the video, the figures under the robes did not look quite right.
The U.S. military immediately said the voice on the tape was that of AL-ZARQAWI. Robert Fisk, one of the most respected and senior reporters of Middle East affairs is not prepared to say that he even believes there exists such a person as Al-Zarqawi.
The timing of Nick Berg’s beheading was also very strange. World outrage was at an all time high from the photos just out of Abu Ghraib prison. Nick Berg’s gristly death seemed to provide a counterpoint to Lindy England’s sorry pose.
If I were suggesting that U. S. Forces were behind the Nick Berg execution, the case has been made by many already, I would be going off track. It certainly reflected poorly on the insurgents. But making the other side look bad is no clever trick. We trained Central Americans to do it all the time. Take off your uniform, dress up like rebels, and make it look like they massacred the village and not you.
When the Iraqi police in Basra apprehended two British black-ops this summer and then refused to release to them to British custody, the British forces immediately organized a prison break by driving a tank into the police station. They rescued the captured brits before they would be made to explain why they were dressed up like insurgents and what they were planning to do with a carload of live Improvised Explosive Devices!
It is suggested that those who killed Nick Berg took Abu Ghraib off the front page. I would suggest that the abduction of westerners serves a motive more closely related to the Uruguayan – NYPD gambit.
Why aren’t these hostages taken from the ranks of American soldiers? Some of the hostages have been contractors, and I’m sure many of their abductors have been criminals. Large ransoms are being paid for these hostages, it stands to reason that organized crime wants a piece of it. And whether these abductions are sanctioned or renegade, they achieve the same result, for whomever.
For the most part, the highest visibility hostages have always been people sympathetic to the cause of righteousness. It makes the insurgent/resistance fighters look bad, but more importantly I bet it makes them feel bad. Whichever it is, the Iraqi people probably scramble as desperately as we do to save the lives of the hostages.
D. British aid workers kidnapped in Gaza
Peace workers go to Palestine for one purpose, to save Palestinian lives. Palestinians are being shot left and right by Israeli soldiers, it is only when they are accompanied by western volunteers that the Israelis are deterred from shooting them and that Palestinians have a chance of being permitted through checkpoints so that they can reach medical care, or so that their children can reach school unmolested.
Activists Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall died putting themselves between Palestinian civilians and Israeli rifles. Activists brave tough Israeli travel restrictions to get into the occupied territories so that they can try to save innocent lives.
Certainly only the most heartless of Palestinians could be threatening the lives of these altruist activists. Maybe the Israeli military is counting on the fact that most Palestinians will not be heartless enough to sit idly by.
If there are Palestinians who believe the kidnap scenario, perhaps they are trying to contact resistance members whom they believe might have some influence. Perhaps resistance members themselves are hurriedly trying to ferret out possible miscreants in their ranks.
Regardless of who is in possession of the captives, the Israeli military is no doubt studying everyone’s movements very carefully. Normally a resistance network has to communicate between cells very sparingly. But with the clock ticking, with international pressure, and the life of a selfless non-combatant at stake, resistance fighters might eshew the risks of disclosing their activities in their effort to facilitate the search for an unjustly jeopardized fellow human being.
What does Palestine have to do with Iraq?
More on that another time. It is fashionable to argue that the liberation of Iraq was less about democracy and more about oil. What are you now paying for gas? This war is even less about oil than it is about global dominance. In the Middle East our colonial presence is called Zionism.
Could the Americans be orchestrating the kidnapping of sympathetic westerners in an Uruguayan style provocation of the Iraqi resistance? Have our other military actions been any less dastardly?
Let’s pause for a moment of silence for the hostages. May both sides unite to save the lives of the captive Christian Peacemaker Team, and of Kate Burton and her parents in Palestine. And please Lord, may too many Iraqis not jeopardize their own lives trying to help save a handful of ours.