Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Tom Engelhardt Headshot

They Kidnap, We Render

Posted: Updated:
CIA SEAL
Pool via Getty Images

It sounded like the beginning of a bad joke: a CIA agent and a U.S. Special Operations commando walked into a barbershop in Sana...

That's the capital of Yemen in case you didn't remember and not the sort of place where armed Americans usually wander out alone just to get a haircut. Here's what we know about the rest of this mysterious tale that surfaced in the U.S. media in early May (only to disappear again shortly thereafter): According to unnamed "American officials," two armed Yemeni civilians entered that barbershop with the intention of "kidnapping" the Americans, who shot and killed them and were then "whisked" out of the country with the approval of the Yemeni government.

For today, set aside the mystery of what in the world was actually going on in that barbershop and just consider the fact that when "they" do it to "us," there's no question about what word to use. It's kidnapping, plain and simple. When we do it to "them" (even when the they turn out to be innocent of any terror crimes), it's got a far fancier and more comfortable name: "rendition" or "extraordinary rendition." When they bust into a barbershop in a tony district in the capital city of Yemen, no question what they have in mind. When we do it in Milan, Benghazi, Tripoli, or other major cities, sometimes with the collusion of the local police, sometimes with the help of the local government, sometimes with no locals at all, we're just "rendering" our victims to "justice."

The CIA in particular and more recently U.S. special operators have made global kidnappings -- oops, renditions -- a regular beat since 9/11. A kind of rampage, actually. As it happens, whatever it can't do these days, the "sole superpower" still has the ability to make the global rules to its own liking. So when we wield the "R" word, it couldn't be more "legal" or at least, as U.S. experts will testify, the only reasonable way to go. Of course, when others wield the "K" word, can there be any question of the nastiness or illegality of their acts? Here's a guarantee: not a chance. Any judge-jury-and-executioner-rolled-into-one approach to the world (as with, for instance, the CIA's drone assassination campaigns) is an ugly way to go and will look even uglier when other countries adopt the latest version of the American Way. As with torture (oops, sorry again, "enhanced interrogation techniques"), making global kidnapping your loud and proud way of life is a dangerous path to take, long term, no matter how bad the bad guys are that you may be rendering to justice.

Rebecca Gordon, author of Mainstreaming Torture, a new book on the American way of enhanced interrogation techniques, is here to remind us in "Still Living With Jack Bauer in a Terrified New American World" not only of those facts, but of an even uglier one. While the Obama administration washed its hands of torture (global assassination campaigns being its claim to fame), its top officials didn't think it worth the bother to dismantle the elaborate torture system created in the Bush years, which means that, with another flick of the switch somewhere down the line, off we'll go again.