Fifty years ago next week, American audiences were introduced to Ian Fleming's From Russia, With Love. As the fifth installment of the 007 series, the novel matched the suave brutality of a British agent against the brute efficiency of the Soviet system -- and made James Bond a household name.
Meanwhile, last month the Kremlin published "manuals" for high school history and social studies teachers. Though the manuals vindicate Putinism by praising Russia's long tradition of centralized authority -- Stalin's purges and gulags, for example, are glossed over as lamentable yet necessary -- what's most telling is the way they use recent American policies to justify both current and former restrictions on civil liberties. "Political and historical studies show," the manuals state, "that when they come under similarly serious threats, even 'soft' and 'flexible' political systems, as a rule, turn more rigid and limit individual rights, as happened in the United States after September 11, 2001."
The worst excesses of our security policies, in other words, are now being used to justify revanchist historicism and present day malfeasance alike. For dictators everywhere, both Guantanamo and the MCA -- the bill that officially made Guantanamo legal -- are therefore the gifts that keep on giving, the political sins that can be used to justify any abridgment of human rights, no matter how egregious. If our policy was dramatized, you could thus call it From Guantanamo, With Love.
No state has been quite as savvy at exploiting that policy, of course, as Putinist Russia. The manuals are just the tip of the iceberg: aggressive American defense policies have been used to provide cover for everything from their resumption this week of strategic bombing patrols and joint military exercises with China to their ongoing toward brutality toward Chechyan residents, all under the guise of implementing a "sovereign democracy."
The latter example is particularly salient. In March, Human Rights Watch released "The Stamp of Guantanamo," a chilling, 52-page report that documents how three Russians released from Guantanamo into Russian custody were repeatedly tortured upon their return. Then last month came word that the Russian military had simply killed Ruslan Odizhev outright. A former Guantanamo detainee, Mr. Odizhev had been released upon his initial return to Russia three years ago. But when Russian forces attempted to arrest him again at his apartment near Chechnya in July, they fatally shot him in a "fierce gunfight." (Question: if Mr. Odizhev was really as fierce and experienced an insurgent as they now claim, why would the Russians have released him in the first place?)
On the surface these examples would seem to prove, albeit ironically, that Guantanamo is a much better detention facility than comparable institutions in Russia. But the trouble is that that reality doesn't matter. For in politics (as in so much of life) all that matters is the perception of reality -- and right now the global perception of the US is such that Russia can get away with claiming its own detention policies are consistent with American ones.
Which brings us back, in a sense, to Bond. The franchise proved such a success because it humanized the Cold War in a way that the space or arms races never could. But today the wry wink with which Fleming hinted that Bond's brutality was okay, because sexier, could no longer work. Awash in the news of our own torture and secret prisons, we no longer possess the the countermanding gravity such entertainment demands. The moral gap between American and Russian policies is now too narrow, in other words, to sustain the kind of light-hearted fare that From Russia, With Love once provided.
If ever there were a telling sign of just how far we've, surely that is it.