05/05/2014 10:02 am ET Updated Jul 05, 2014

"Disappearing" What Irks You -- College Rape, Iraq, Spying

"Disappear" as a transitive verb is often seen in stories about the brutal practices of Latin America dictatorships which kidnapped and killed opponents -- real or suspect -- by the thousands to secure their rule. The Soviet Union, for its part, "disappeared" people by the millions. Physical removal from the premises of public figures often was accompanied by their being "disappeared' from history. By excising references in publications, by airbrushing old pictures, real persons were transformed into non-persons whose very names could not be spoken without fear of dire retribution.

Today, we "disappear" issues.* They are rendered non-issues through a related process of collective sublimation. It does leave traces, physical ones in archives and psychic ones at some level of mind among the few who have motive to maintain conscious awareness. However, so far as public discourse or political action is concerned, they have been reduced to a zombie status that renders them innocuous. This is a subtle process requiring the tacit cooperation of politicos, pundits, media types, and intellectuals whose complicity takes shape despite diverse purposes and diverse professional roles. The permissive factor is a public that prefers to have these matters swept out of sight and out of mind.

Examples are numerous. At home, the disgraceful suppression of rape incidents on American college campuses, including several of the most prestigious, is a stunning case in point. University officials have devised systematic methods for evading and/or hiding attacks on young women -- thereby ignoring the dictates of justice. The aim is to "disappear" an ugly reality that could tarnish their schools' image as a safe place to live and study -- while paying $40,000 for the privilege. The big worry is a drop in alumni and other donor contributions to university coffers. In some cases, the victims themselves are functionally "disappeared' by shunning or intimidation. The scripts followed by institutional leaders -- down to the trite phraseology about "collective concern," "conversation," "due process" and "community" -- are nearly identical. That can lead to imaginings that they improbably gather at summer retreats to refine techniques for "disappearing" issues of sexual abuse on campus. More likely, the art of saying and doing nothing while giving a facsimile appearance of taking action may be absorbed directly from the surrounding ether and the Business School mentality that today permeates leadership ranks.

The "disappearing" of serious issues at the University is done with the passive complicity of the faculty who, like the public on political matters, instinctively follow the model of the three non-communicative monkeys. All of course know full well that any initiative that stands in the way of an institution's self-protective instinct will have consequences. At Harvard, one notable, distinguished faculty member who disregarded explicit warnings not to speak up about the University's cover-up of rape and sexual abuse, indeed has been literally "disappeared." She was fired -- contrary to the overwhelming evidence of her scholarly competence -- acknowledged by officials who exceptionally already had granted her a Chair. University officials act to type regardless of gender -- in this instance and others. ("Kimberly Theidon" The Harvard Crimson April 18, 2014) Indeed, a very large percentage of the senior university officials with responsibility for these matters are women -- for whatever reason.

It is important to recognize that the administrative behavior in question goes far beyond subtle procedural issues. At USC, officials decided that "true" rape occurs only when the male reaches orgasm -- this definition, originating with the chief of the university police, was adopted by the university. (HUFFPOST July 22). At Berkeley and other schools, investigations and hearings on alleged rape were held without ever informing the accusers or telling them of the determination. In Yale's case, university authorities found six students guilty of "nonconsensual sex" during the first half of 2013 -- "nonconsensual sex" being the sanitized Ivy League euphemism for rape. It allowed all of them to remain enrolled; four received written reprimands with one required to attend gender sensitivity training. The other five evidently already met Yale's gender sensitivity standards by some obscure measure.

The suppression of rape incidents has become so widespread and blatant that the United States Department of Education currently is pursuing 55 investigations in response to complaints judged deserving of examination. This is unprecedented for an agency known for its reluctance to get involved in the policing of university conduct on these issues. All its organizational instincts over the years have been to avoid confronting university administrations.

Belatedly, the Obama White House too has chimed in. On April 29, the President's task force on rape and sexual assault issued a report. Its central initiative, now promoted by the administration, was an appeal to universities to conduct campus surveys of the "climate" regarding non-consensual sexual encounters. It announced that it stood ready to supply "tool kits' to help schools organize the surveys. A signature Obama approach that reduces a serious social problem to a bloodless exercise in survey data collection. Ancillary proposals include expanding bystander intervention programs and the launching of a website: These anodyne measures will have little if any effect on changing the incidence of sexual abuse or the disposition of university authorities to penalize it; however, their potential for 'disappearing" the issue is considerable.

Abroad, Iraq is an outstanding example. Amnesia veils just about everything we did there: the lies, the deceit, the destruction, the deaths, the torture, the waste, the corruption of every kind at every level. Mr. Obama spoke for most of the nation when, five years ago, he relegated that entire sorrowful episode to the dustbin and urged us to find closure on those memories "going forward" into a better future. Iraq's current descend into (deeper) strife and sectarian violence as it approached the upcoming election elicited barely a flutter of attention. A few seconds of tape here, a few column inches there -- none of it particularly informative. That's about it. No purple-finger magazine covers. The goings-on in the Central African Republic get far more coverage -- even in The New York Times; indeed, one might say especially in The New York Times. On the election's eve, the paper of record did dispatch two veteran reporters to Baghdad to follow the vote. It would have had no less authority or depth if downloaded from the Web on West 43rd Street. (The C.A.R. has been experiencing a wrenching human tragedy. But the American stake and involvement is minimal).

Of course, the attention span of the American people is notoriously short. Foreign affairs is noteworthy only when the news touches Americans directly in the here and now -- with the exception of anything having to do with Terrorism whose place in the national psyche is a replica of that previously occupied by Communism. Otherwise, the demands on one's time and intellectual resources just don't seem worth the bother.

Both the avoidance behavior and the exception made for Terrorism help to explain how quickly and easily we have "disappeared" the issue of massive NSA spying and the related shenanigans of the CIA. Snowden's exposure of these agencies' systematic assault on Americans' civil liberties, entailing the virtual abrogation of the Fourth Amendment, did make it onto the front pages for a while. A spate of commentary followed. For a brief moment, remembered as a feast of public spiritedness, it looked as if the country was prepared to overcome its inhibitions and peer searchingly into its soul. That soul-searching has not occurred, though. The multiple concerns over invasions of privacy, the manipulation of electronic communications systems, the compromising of supposed safeguards by industry and government alike, the outright perjury before Congress by the Director of National Intelligence, General James Clapper, the untruths issued from the White House unmasked one after the other -- all has begun to fade through neglect by those who we have legitimate reason to expect would keep them sharply focused: elected representatives and the media.

One must revert to the blogs and the marginal non-MSM just to keep abreast of what little is happening in the way of action to mitigate or correct the situation. The last flurries of acknowledged news centered on two developments: Senator Feinstein's condemnation of the CIA's hacking of the Senate Intelligence Committee's computers; and President Obama's proposal of a few minor procedural changes he'd like to see made in the way that the NSA does meta data collection. Since then, silence -- certainly as far as political debate or MSM news are concerned.
The huge disparity between the consequential nature of the issues at stake and the paucity of attention they receive is typical of the "disappearing" phenomenon. The aim is less to suppress outright than it is to encourage and to facilitate forgetting. Let us recall the magnitude of the stakes.

Feinstein's unprecedented intervention revealed to us that the CIA and the White House have been conspiring to actively stymie the Senate Intelligence Committee's performance of its constitutional duties to oversee the conduct of the nation's intelligence agencies -- the CIA above all. They have hacked into staff computers, they have removed crucial documents (including the Agency's own Inspector General's report) received from the Agency itself, and they have brought a formal complaint to Mr. Obama's Department of Justice alleging that the Senate Committee committed criminal acts by acquiring and reading those documents. The President himself confirmed the truth of this recounting. Moreover, he has explicitly stated that he is not considering any action to rectify the situation. He gives his full and unqualified backing to the CIA.

The reason for these draconian measures is the CIA's refusal to allow access by anyone other than its own leaders and the President to materials that confirm embarrassing accusations about the Agency's misconduct. That includes the establishment and operation of several torture camps, the deaths of a number of inmates caused by abusive treatment, kidnappings of foreign citizens (most innocent of anything) and rendering them to black sites in third countries, and -- most embarrassing of all for the CIA -- firm evidence that their abusive practices in no way served the security interests of the United States. In other words, no information of value about past, current or would-be terrorist acts was obtained through torture. Yet, this is exactly what Director John Brennan and his predecessors have testified to all forums for almost a decade.

The current state of play? The Senate is pledged to release a summary of its completed report. But it has conceded to allow the White House and the CIA itself to excise anything in the report that they judge detrimental to the national interest. That is to say, anything that casts them in an unfavorable light. Hence, the public will never know the truth. The abuses and mendacity of the CIA never will be revealed. Nothing will change.

The second matter that has faded into the woodwork is the systematic spying by the NSA at home as well as abroad which continues unabated. Indeed, several programs taking shape will employ ever more sophisticated technology in ways that will extend and deepen the reach of the Agency. Here, too, the outcome of the Snowden revelations is to change almost nothing -- and surely nothing fundamental. President Obama went out of his way to hammer home that point in his statement of January 17. He had received a number of tepid recommendation from his handpicked panel, incorporated in the Podesta Report, which did at least have a modicum of potential to inflect the way that the NSA does some of its business. He rejected them. The few feeble proposals that he made solidify the status quo. In addition, he refused to use his unquestioned Executive powers to implement them. Instead, he passed the ball to Congress in full knowledge that they would be further watered down by the Republican House of Representatives.

As with regard to the CIA, the unpalatable truth is the agency's ineffectualness as much as its abuses. The NSA shares with the CIA the sorry record of contributing next to nothing to the welfare of the citizenry despite the vast resources at its disposal. Director General Keith Alexander can point to only one instance over the past ten years where draconian surveillance by the Agency related to terrorist plotting in any way. That is the case of a tiny financial contribution to al-Sabaab in distant Somalia -- whose exposure may in fact have been based on other, conventional sources.

Those are the truths that both the CIA and NSA are desperate to conceal. For their combined performance record in anticipating major international developments is one of serial failure: inter alia, the Egyptian military coup, Putin's moves in Ukraine, the Karzai veto of the Status Of Forces Agreement, the al-Maliki rebuff, the betrayal in Mali by U.S. trained special forces, the Rouhani initiative, Erdogan's double-dealing on Syria. Just a few weeks ago, we learned that the CIA and the Army's Africa Command had built a clandestine base west of Tripoli to train elite Libyan commandos to combat anti-American jihadist groups; those very groups now occupy and operate the base when "our guys" proved unwilling or unable to play the roles assigned them by Langley. This in the aftermath of the CIA's display of ineptitude at Benghazi.

This is not a record to be proud of -- much less one that justifies enormous expenses, self-serving secrecy and the infringement of individual liberties. Hence, it will be "disappeared."

*This is an ancient if ignoble tradition: think of the thoroughness by which the early Church fathers "disappeared" the Gnostics and all their works.