gall and gumption

Saturday, June 09, 2007

A Sojourn Among the Cannibals

This image was part of an exhibition at Stanford in 2000, commemmorating the Great Exhibition of 1900 in London. The curators or critics attach this note: "Derogatory depictions of foreigners at the exhibition reflect a degree of xenophobia within British society. The "Cannibal Islanders" illustration in a popular book of the time demonstrates this contempt." But everybody looks a bit silly in the picture, it seems to me, and the Cannibals look so good-natured and confident and interested, while the English people across the table look so suburban. But it's the cannibals, not the English people, who are here on display as another imperial commodity, beside the latest patent knitting machine or dairy cow or medicinal plant.

"This latest plot was at once different and similar to what we have seen before," said New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. "Different in its distinct ties to the Caribbean, a region that is rarely thought of in terms of terrorism but of increasing concern to us as a crucible in the foment of Islamic radicalism."

A crucible, eh? Well. Let us see what is in the pot. I don't see much, but there's something dry and scaly stuck to the bottom. I scrape at it with the spoon and I'll be damned if it isn't a piece of old baloney!

Although there was no link to the global terror group al-Qaida, investigators said at least two of the suspects were linked to the Jamaat al-Muslimeen (JAM), the Islamic extremist group in Trinidad which attempted to overthrow the twin-island republic's government in 1990.

Now we know it's a joke. The 1990 incident shocked and disgusted Trinidad & Tobago and the whole region. This is not a beloved organization. To call that outbreak of lunacy an “attempted coup” is to bestow on it a dignity that it never had in the eyes of anyone in the Caribbean. JAM had no popular support. This is the remnant of a bunch of lost souls. What sort of life do you suppose these guys have been living since then? One long mockery. Literally. Spectacular political failures, and poor.

The story of Caribbean Islamoterrorism now grows. The LA Times finds a link between the epidemic of kidnappings that has swept Trinidad over the past several years, and Islamic terror.

In recent years, JAM has allegedly engaged in kidnappings, slayings, drug and weapons trafficking, and other illegal activities that have ratcheted up the concerns of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials.

But the vast majority of kidnappings in Trinidad have had no ideological component; they've been for purposes of extortion or the result of business vendettas. Why didn't the reporter, Meyer, make a call to Trinidad's director of public prosecutions and find out whether anyone has actually been convicted of these alleged crimes? If it is so well known that JAM have been so busy kidnapping, killing, selling drugs and trafficking in weapons, why have they been walking around free in front of everybody for the past 17 years? And what about all the non-Muslims, a much larger constituency of criminality, who have been doing these things for years?

Caribbean people have a healthy cynicism about the role of ideas in politics. Ideas hardly enter into it at all. What matters is getting: the job, the scholarship, the free T-shirt, the status, the title, the road project, the call center, the community center. When JAM failed so spectacularly it was a farce. just as surely as Miss Agatha, who has returned from America with her new affectations and accent and her new wig, will be knocked down a peg in some undignified mishap (possibly involving a donkey or the village drunk). In the Caribbean these ideologically motivated political dramas end in failure, a spasm of violence, poverty, and unsparing public derision. I wouldn’t want to be a JAM member and have to walk past a rum shop on a Saturday afternoon.

It’s not a culture that respects people who try different things and fail -- especially in politics. Especially when they have no money. Memories are long. Since the day they got their amnesty, the life of JAM members has been one long mockery. Literally. And so anybody who called these fellows up looking for assistance with a terror plot – well, maybe they should be locked up to be protected from themselves. Because they were some heck of plotters! They went looking to hook up with a highly visible terrorist organization to carry out a secret plot(if one of those JAM guys sneezed a ping went off on a monitor somewhere), seeking money where there was no money, and seeking approval from an organization whose only recorded achievement was a 17-year-old fiasco.

The Al-Qaeda connection is now found to be nonexistent, and the “plan”, it now begins to emerge, was a childish fantasy that would not have worked.

And here, for me, is where the jest suddenly stops. Here are a few things that might be news. Over the last 30-40 years violence in the Caribbean has steadily increased. More than a thousand people die by violence in Jamaica alone every year, Trinidad and Guyana are catching up, and the fear of violence is never far from the mind of any Caribbean person any more. In Jamaica you would be hard pressed to find a person whose life has not been materially touched by violence. Friends, family, murdered, robbed, raped. I can count off more than half a dozen cases in my own circle of family and friends, and I am not from the slums: I am from uptown. And I haven’t lived in Jamaica for 30 years. How many murder victims are there among your friends and family? From the time that this violence began in the early 1970s, it modeled itself on American films. The cinemas in the rough parts of Kingston (as those parts became rough, that is) showed B Westerns, American movies that Americans never heard of. Jamaican musicians, those great social observers, have been singing about this for going on 40 years.

The guns with which Caribbean people have waged unofficial and undeclared war on each other come from the United States. (According to the World Bank they also come from South America, where well-known U.S. makes are manufactured under license, i.e., offshored.) There is no ideological content to this war. It isn’t about Islam, or Rastafarianism, or Marxism. It is about identity and power in a really small setting: this street, that alley, this village, this road works job, those four votes over there, who controls which precinct, respect and disrespect. And it’s about being a Big Man, about creating this identity and living through it in order be seen as a Somebody. It is especially about that. There are historical reasons why it is especially about identity, but that’s for another day. It’s enough to say that the killers kill to show their power. It is the only use of power that they know.

So, again, let me simplify: American movies export the idea that a man with a gun and enough ammunition (Dirty Harry, Rambo, whoever it is that Bruce Willis plays, and any number of nameless cowboys, international men of mystery, rogue cops, gangsters, betrayed operatives, the whole assortment of swaggering tough guys) is equipped to solve any problem, and American gun dealers sell the guns for Caribbean audiences to solve their problems with. Is it solely a Caribbean problem when Caribbean people kill each other with American guns? Or is it a shared problem? Is it less of a shared problem than the drug problem?

The financial cost of all that bloodshed in the region is so huge that even the World Bank recently took notice of it. (Read the section, "Sources.") The social cost is incalculable. A very simple thing would have done a lot to mitigate it: coming to some workable formal arrangement between U.S. and Caribbean governments to control the export of guns into the region and to enforce those export controls with even half the zeal with which marijuana, say, is pursued. No expense is spared to stop cocaine at the source, before it gets to the user, and apparently this mostly ideological pursuit is worth the trouble no matter how paltry the results.

The Caribbean pays a high price for America’s indulgence in this logical inconsistency. In this as in so many things.

I met an American visitor to St. Kitts who observed to me that while the Caribbean was a fun place, it was a shame that the U.S. taxpayer spent so much money on aid.

Here is some more news. There is no aid. For probably the last 25 years, the Caribbean countries, like other developing countries, have borrowed money.

The only place the U.S. taxpayer’s money goes to in the Caribbean any more is drug interdiction and sex interdiction (also known as “HIV/AIDS education”), which are both certainly a waste of money: futile, harmful, and in defiance of all common sense. Oh, and mega-churches, whose missionary activities, money-grubbing, and broadcast technology the U.S. taxpayer cheerfully subsidizes. (And we have plenty enough homophobia out there without this additional contribution.) But of course that was not the sort of thing the man was talking about when he meant "waste." He was only politely expressing the fear that some black person somewhere was getting something for free. These guys who start this with me always take pride in their geniality and their ability to get on with all kinds of people and they sit there and dribble forth this fact-free complacent bullshit, as if the cylinders of their brains have never turned over once in the course of their entire lives. I remember in one of these arguments, one guy, light slowly dawning in his eyes, stopped and said, “Hey, wait a minute, you voted for Clinton, didn’t you?” This was apparently as far back in the universe’s order of cause and effect as he could possibly go. The belief that the rest of the world is one gigantic, dark-skinned and ungrateful Welfare State dies hard -- hell, it just won't die. It's hard to know whether the believer would prefer to keep his money or to cherish this grievance.

This is a man (and I have met him and his brothers and sisters in spirit through all the years I’ve lived in the United States), who expects to be told what to think. And because he thinks what he is told to think, he expects to be considered a thinker. The difference between him and me, in his view, is that I was being told what to think by the Wicked Witch Hilary Clinton, while he was being told what to think by the Right People. Actually informing himself wasn't even on the game board.

Fortune has put Caribbean people a little out of range of the fumes. They know they don’t live in the United States; they know they live in the Third World, where the means for self-deceit simply don't exist in such abundance. A bogus talking point like “Guns don’t kill people – people do,” does not sit in their minds passing for a profound original thought. Guns don’t kill people, people do? Fine. Then make people have to work harder to kill people.

But a sensible gun export policy, which would have the incidental effect of making things a little less convenient for any actually existing dangerous Islamocalypsofascists or other types of terrorists, would be governing. What we get instead is just hunting--the kind of hunting where the hunter does not spare himself any advantage in his “sport.” Radar to find the fish, caged birds, assault rifles to shoot deer.

For the human prey, no habeas corpus, no Geneva Conventions, no U.S. Constitution, secret evidence, limited access to lawyers, seizure of assets before guilt is established. And the torture, about which we know this much: it’s meant not only to inflict pain on the body, but to destroy the mind of the suspect before he even gets to go to trial. You think there was a moment in Jose Padilla’s ordeal when one of his “interrogators” suddenly turned and said, “Oops! I think we accidentally turned his brain to mush!” They were getting their filthy perverted jollies off and letting Padilla endure the punishment, the hell that is associated with pleasure in their minds. And they can turn around and think they are acting virtuously in a sacred cause, doing God’s work. This is the end result of dividing the world into evil Them and Good Us. The sleep of reason begets monsters, Goya said.

We do not know that these four men are terrorists, because for one thing the definition of what constitutes an act of terrorism has become so very blurred around the edges; their guilt must be proven, but we can reasonably expect that before it is proven attempts will be made to extract from them a rationale for this Big Scare. The abusers will try to force from them the justification for their own abusive behavior. The discredited al-Qaeda connection will persist, in all those minds where stupid self-serving lies take up residence and never move again, and when word leaks out about how they have been treated, you will hear that lie again, to excuse whatever barbarity is committed. These four men, we know, have entered the gates of hell. If they ever come out (and the lack of any case against them is no guarantee that they will get out) they will be damaged. But that's not too big a price to pay for a few minutes of the illusion of success on the nightly news. And the ordeal that these men now face has nothing to do with any real danger; the danger has been leaking out of this story by the hour. But that doesn't matter; there is still some use to be gotten out of these hapless, defenseless straw men. In a room in a prison somewhere, in secret, persons unknown will commit acts that shame the human race, convinced that they are bravely doing sanctified virtuous work: the highest work of the human race -- helping Americans to "feel" safe. Your rulers asked for the freedom to do this, and they got it. Because you're worth it. Welcome to the cannibal cult.

Update: Lest you think my fears are exaggerated, here's Digby summing up, again, the motives and methods of current practice in "terrorism interrogation."

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