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Tom Engelhardt

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How to Create the Foundations for an American Totalitarian State

Posted: 05/09/2013 10:20 am

Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com

Indefinite detention of the innocent and guilty alike, without any hope of charges, trial, or release: this is now the American way. Most Americans, however, may not care to take that in, not even when the indefinitely detained go on a hunger strike. That act has certainly gotten Washington's and the media's collective attention. After all, could there be anything more extreme than striking against your own body to make a point? Suicide by strike? It's the ultimate statement of protest and despair. Certainly, the strikers have succeeded in pushing Guantanamo out of the netherworld of non-news and onto front pages, into presidential news conferences, and to the top of the TV newscasts. That, in a word, is extraordinary. But what exactly do those prisoners, many now being force-fed, want to highlight? Here's one thing: despite the promise he made on entering the Oval office, President Obama has obviously not made much of an effort to close the prison, which, as he said recently, "hurts us, in terms of our international standing... [and] is a recruitment tool for extremists."

If Congress has been thoroughly recalcitrant when it comes to closing Guantanamo, the president's idea of what shutting down that prison meant proved curious indeed. His plan involved transferring many of the prisoners from Cuba, that crown jewel of the offshore Bermuda Triangle of injustice that the Bush administration set up in January 2002, to a super-max-style prison in Illinois ("Gitmo North"). That would mean, of course, transferring indefinite detention from the offshore world of extraordinary rendition, black sites, and torture directly into the heart of the American justice system. Obama himself has indicated that at least 50 of the prisoners can, in his view, never be released or tried (in part because confessions were tortured out of some of them). They would be kept in what he, in the past, politely termed "prolonged detention."

Here's a second thing the strikers undoubtedly wanted to highlight and it's even harder to take in: Guantanamo now holds 86 prisoners (out of the 166 caged there) who have been carefully vetted by the U.S. military, the FBI, the CIA, and so on, and found to have done nothing for which they could be charged or should be imprisoned. All 86 have been cleared for release -- years late, often after brutal interrogation experiences sometimes involving torture. The problem: there is nowhere to release them to, especially since the majority of them are Yemenis and President Obama has imposed a moratorium on transferring any prisoner to Yemen.

Then there are the prisoners who may indeed have done something criminal in regard to the U.S., but had confessions tortured out of them which won't hold up in court. They are among the ones who will never be brought to trial, but never cleared for release either. In other words, indefinite detention, something anathema to the American justice system, will for the conceivable future be us. The fact that relatively few Americans seem fazed by this should be startling. No charges, no trials, but never getting out of prison: that would once have been associated with the practices of a totalitarian state.

We know one thing: no one, not George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, or other top officials involved in setting up such a global system of injustice, sweeping up the innocent with the guilty, and subjecting them to horrors without end (including now force-feeding) will ever be brought to justice in an American court, nor will anyone involved in the system of rendition, torture, or abuse. In the Obama years, while indefinite detention remained a grim American reality, the government, as TomDispatch regular and former State Department officer Peter Van Buren himself experienced, honed other methods for punishing those it was unhappy with, especially whistleblowers of all sorts.

One of those methods might be called "indefinite suspension." Instead of not being charged, you are charged repeatedly and dragged endlessly -- your life in a state of suspension -- through various bureaucratic judicial processes, the actual courts, and endless appeals thereof, so that even if sooner or later you come out the other side exonerated, you will still have been punished for your "crimes." Let Van Buren explain this mockery of "justice" to you in his latest piece, "Homeland Insecurity, Seven Years, Untold Dollars to Silence One Man."

 
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