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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

man and superman

I normally try to avoid blogging about obvious things. We know, for instance, that thoughtless people say silly things on talk radio. You don't need me to point that out. I try to save my attention and yours for the odd occasion when I think I have a rare insight to share or a piece of information too little noticed elsewhere.

The recent hysteria against transferring Guantánamo detainees to prisons on the U.S. mainland is so obviously silly that I should ignore it, shouldn't I? There is nothing sensible to say about it that a million others have not already said more cleverly than I. And yet, the matter bothers me so keenly that I must say a few words, however unoriginal, about it.

It was understandable to be shaken up by the terrorist attacks of 2001 and even to overestimate the people responsible. This panel from one of the first installments of David Rees's comic strip 'Get Your War On' typified that scared sentiment.

Bush and Cheney did their best to prolong people's exaggerated fears of the enemy, but thoughtful people eventually put things back in perspective.

That perspective has gone out the window in the debate over where to house the detainees after the closure of the prison camp at Guantánamo. One way to understand the hysteria is to think of contamination models. It's as if, in the minds of the hysterical, the detainees were a virus which could only be contained on a remote island somewhere. If the prisoners are brought here, to a land known since September 11, 2001 as 'the homeland', all hell will somehow break loose.

Another helpful frame of reference is comic books: the remaining detainees—'the worst of the worst' according to Donald Rumsfeld—have come to seem like super-powered villains, hence Rees's invocation of Lex Luthor. No prison on earth can hold them, if you believe the fearmongers. Like General Zod, Ursa, and Non in the first Superman movie (1978), we have no choice but to banish them to the Phantom Zone and pray that they never come to Earth where their Kryptonian physiology will be unbound by our planet's weak gravitational pull. We somehow have to convince the American people that the detainees cannot fly, punch through walls, or use their X-ray vision to destroy the republic.

Historical examples should work: the German and Japanese prisoners held on U.S. soil during World War Two, Soviet spies during the Cold War, and so on. Better still, perhaps we ought to remind people that U.S. prisons currently hold quite a few who fit the description of terrorists. Let's consider a few cases.

1. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols

McVeigh was convicted of the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 and executed in 2001. Not only did he serve time in the federal 'supermax' prison in Florence, Colorado in the same cellblock as the Unabomber and Ramzi Yousef, but he was moved, without incident, to Indiana for his execution. So much for terrorists breaking free in transit. Nichols, serving a life sentence without parole, was convicted on 161 counts of homicide and other charges.

2. The 1993 World Trade Center bombers

Mahmud Abouhalima, Ahmad Ajaj, Nidal Ayyad, Eyad Ismoil, Mohammad Salameh, and Ramzi Yousef, the nephew of Khalid Shaikh Muhammad, were all convicted for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. They are the only people who have bombed the WTC and lived to tell the tale, yet U.S. prisons are somehow able to hold them. If we follow the comic-book reasoning of the hysterical, should we transfer them to Guantánamo just to be on the safe side? Note that these guys were held in NYC during their trials.

3. The 1998 embassy bombers

Wadih el-Hage, Mohamed Sadeek Odeh, Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-'Owhali, and Khalfan Khamis Mohamed are all serving life sentences in U.S. federal prison for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

4. Recent al-Qaeda characters, 2001-2009

All of these al-Qaeda-affiliated convicts rounded up in this decade also reside in U.S. prisons: Zacarias Moussaoui (not 'the twentieth highjacker'), Richard Reid ('the shoe bomber'), Jose Padilla ('the dirty bomber'), John Walker Lindh ('the American talib'), et al.

(For more notable prisoners at the Colorado 'supermax' prison, see Wikipedia's list.)

How is it that we can sleep safe and sound every night with these bad guys on U.S. soil, but the detainees at Guantánamo are too—too what exactly?—to be brought here? If they really have super-powers, wouldn't they have busted out of their cabanas by now? Are they really more secure in a camp set up in a couple of weeks than they would be in a federal prison? It's time to put down the comic books and act like reasonable people again. America's supermax prisons could probably hold Superman. Fortunately, Kal-El is not among the detainees at Guantánamo and neither is Lex Luthor.

As an institution, the supermax stands as a monument to a generation whose politics and priorities were warped by fears of crime. Now, at a time when a different set of fears has done great damage to the republic, putting our faith in the prison-industrial complex might actually bring us back to our senses. In the end, the Phantom Zone could not hold General Zod and his cronies, as we saw in Superman II (1980). Yet, thanks to the billions we spent on prison construction rather than schools over the past twenty years, no one has ever broken out of ADX Florence, the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Colorado.

The men at Guantánamo—men, not supermen—are not going to break out either. If we don't trust our prisons to hold them, then I think we should get those billions of taxpayer dollars back and build schools instead. Perhaps if we educated our children better, they would build better prisons, or better yet, not need as many.

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Anonymous 42 said...

Maybe there is a big red shield blocking our sun's rays over Cuba. It would explain a lot.

10:38 AM, May 20, 2009

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Either that or the island is made of Kryptonite. That would explain a lot of the last half-century.

10:56 AM, May 20, 2009

Anonymous 42 said...

That's what I meant.

10:54 PM, May 20, 2009

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought it was obvious: the Senate does not want the detainees to have constitutional rights.

2:32 AM, May 21, 2009

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

This time, I tried to bracket off the question of the detainees' rights or what Americans owe themselves as citizens of a republic of laws. Those are the most important questions but also the ones we have discussed at greatest length for the past seven years.

Considering that the U.S. leads the world in incarceration—numerically, technologically, and pathologically—one would think that a prison-minded, lock-em-'up society like ours would want to hold the so-called 'worst of the worst' on U.S. soil just to prove the point that we are the best of the best of the best when it comes to building jails that even the worst of the worst could never break out of. Are Americans scared of a bunch of ragtag, Third-World, third-rate Baader-Meinhof wannabes? What, they're too baaaaad for us? You would think that certain parts of the country, say Mississippi and Alabama, would be clamouring to hold the Guantánamo detainees in their states, entirely for the wrong reasons.

On a more serious note, these are the six senators who voted against withdrawing the funds to close Guantánamo in yesterday's 90 to 6 vote: Dick Durbin (D-IL), Tom Harkin (D-IA), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Carl Levin (D-MI), Jack Reed (D-RI), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). These are, under any circumstances, some of our greatest sitting senators. I am genuinely surprised at how many punked out.

11:17 AM, May 21, 2009


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