We have come to accept that 9/11 served as a mere pretext for implementing a wish list of far right objectives, from regime change in Iraq to sweeping new police powers to tax cuts to privatizing Social Security. To date, however, we have tended to assume that torture and “harsh interrogation techniques” were a response, even a panicky reaction to the terrorist attacks.
Personally, I’ve never thought that to be the case. The people in charge at the Bush White House represent a wing of the body politic that has long clamored for the overturn of Supreme Court decisions dating back to the 50s that, in the view of this claque, “coddle criminals.” What these folks have dreamed of now for more than a generation is a return to the days when cops felt free to take suspects into the backroom and beat confessions out of them and courts were willing to accept such coerced evidence.
No, prisoner abuse is no afterthought with these criminals. As with the wholesale privatizing of Iraq, the Bushies have introduced torture and other banned practices overseas as a backdoor route to acceptance of them on our own soil. Already, White House doublespeak and coded messaging have given law enforcement agencies at every level of American society the green light to rough up people detained for whatever reason. After all, if they weren’t criminals, they wouldn’t have been detained, right? Fortunately, most law enforcement personnel are decent, well-meaning individuals unwilling to take up the tacit invitation. But, as at Abu Ghraib, there are always going to be a few “bad apples” more than happy to follow the lead of the truly rotten apples at the top.
Consider an incident that occurred last month at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. On that day, a gang of probably bored ICE (Immigration and Custom Enforcement) agents decided that a party of Finnish musicians and filmmakers here to embark on a free tour of the Upper Midwest – at the invitation of the University of Minnesota, no less — were drug smugglers, no doubt about it, based solely on the fact that the group had flown in from Amsterdam and one of their party is a long-haired male. And if not drug smugglers, then at the very least they must have been trying to sneak into the U.S. to find work without the proper visas.
The Finns’ ordeal began when they were waiting in line to clear customs. In a variation on the Shock and Awe methods so beloved by the Bush Administration, an ICE agent approached the long-haired male musician and began jabbing his finger into the poor guy’s face and screaming, “You’re a criminal! Don’t deny it! We know you’re a criminal!” The musician, whose English is limited, tried to explain what he was doing in the country, but to no avail. The agent went on with the tantrum.
Before long, the entire group was accosted by agents – eventually eight ICE agents in all were involved in the incident — all screaming and carrying on like a military patrol kicking in doors in Anbar Province. Before long the group’s luggage had been dumped in the center of the room and, while other passengers waited to get through Immigration and Customs, searched.
Failing to discover any contraband, the ICE agents – -rather than releasing the group with an apology – changed tack and decided that its real offense was to try to enter the country under false pretenses. Because the artists were not being paid to tour – the University was covering its expenses – they did not all have work visas, just passports.
For the next three and a-half hours the members of the group were separated and placed in interrogation rooms where they were screamed at, threatened with jail if they did not “confess,” and lied to by agents claiming that other members of the party had already confessed to unspecified offenses. In retaliation for claiming that he might have some legal, or at least human rights the agents were infringing upon, the ICE goons not only started bellowing “You have no rights! You have no rights” at one of the Finns but also ordered the offending fellow to strip naked and subjected him to a full-body cavity search.
The whole ordeal finally came to an end in a way that suggests the utterly haphazard nature of our border security: another international flight arrived and the ICE agents had to turn their attention elsewhere. The Finns were released without explanation or apology.
Perhaps the most damning comment on the incident was delivered by the Finn who was strip-searched. On a couple of occasions prior to 1991, he was detained by the KGB and interrogated. Compared to the ICE agents here in the Twin Cities, the KGB operatives, he says, “at least acted like human beings. Not a bunch of animals.”
Needless to say, the artists were traumatized by their experience of American hospitality. None express any interest in returning to this country for any reason. Can’t imagine why…