Saturday, 17 November 2007

Devil in the detail


I have been reading Joe Sacco's Palestine, and I am very impressed.

Someone - a stranger - who saw me reading it remarked - a little sneeringly I thought - that it was an attempt at 'impartiality'. He didn't elaborate. I haven't finished it yet, and had barely started it at that time, but so far, I would strongly disagree. I will leave aside the literary arguments about the 'graphic novel' (Sacco himself prefers the term 'comic'. As he rightly points out, Palestine may be graphic, but it could hardly be described as a novel) form, and Sacco's authorial stance as device, etc., and focus purely on the political aspects of the debate.

To begin with, it is incredibly rare to hear any kind of reportage about Palestine and Palestinians. To hear anything at all which isn't to do with rocket attacks on Israelis, or Bushco, Olmert and the 'politics' of Hamas, Fatah and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.

For me, as the late Edward Said pointed out in his introduction, the book's power lies in the way that it humanises the people who are embroiled in the horrific and degrading events in the West Bank and (worse) in the Gaza Strip. The portrayal is not of kuffiyeh-wearing fanatics or child suicide bombers, but of ordinary folk, drinking tea, talking about music, and enduring the extreme hardships of their everyday lives.

But by far the most moving sequence I have yet read is that which deals with the imprisonment and interrogation of a Palestinian man held in detention in the Occupied Territories. The man is violently arrested in front of his family in the middle of the night and taken to prison because he is suspected of being among a group of stone-throwers at a settler's home. He suffers terrible physical and psychological torture, being made to wear a hood, to stand for hours in a brace position, tied to pipes, or squatting. He is beaten regularly, made to listen to seemingly interminable loud music and deprived of sleep for days on end. No confession is forthcoming, no new evidence is found, but on returning to court, the period of detention is extended 3 times, so that he spends over a month enduring these agonies without charge. Such is the psychological damage that he begins to hallucinate that members of his family are dead and lying in front of him in his cell. At last, he is released - seemingly on the whim of a judge, which just happened to be different to the whims of previous judges.

I found all of this to be extremely affecting, and made me begin to think about the mechanics of these things. Clearly, the Israel/Palestine situation is incredibly complex, part of the wider geo-political situation, and it evokes powerful emotions. I have my views, but will save them for another day. What did strike me, however, was the detail of the torture. What kind of people are those who would actively carry out such acts against another human being? I don't mean those at the top who are responsible for the policies, because - not to excuse them for their pusillanimity - they are several steps removed from the reality on the ground. I mean the goons who micro-manage the torture, who administer the kicks, turn on the CD player, apply the electrodes, or (perhaps not strictly related, but I think relevant) pump seven dum-dum bullets into the head of a Brazilian electrician.

Much of the argument has already taken place, following the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, where the focus was on accountability at the highest level, but would posit the view that we should look in the opposite direction. If, as reasonable people, we want to stop this brutality, if we wish to move towards a world which is less evil, then I think we must focus on this question:

Who are the torturers, and why do they do it?







17 comments:

marie said...

i am part of a group who regularly send letters to Palestinian women who are jailed in Plaestine and waiting for some kind of trials; The association is called Couserans-Palestine ( Couserans is the name of our Pays - a local and historical entity) we have to write in english. The letters are read of course by censors and we don't know if they reach their receiver but we make a point to send one letter a week to the same person. We talk about simple things - no plitics, religion.. just a letter to a friend : weather, occupations, thoughts... are you intersetd in joining us?

Myeral said...

Very much

EP said...

Perception is reality...was the "goon" or "gun-toting thug" sitting astride an innocent Brazilian electrician or a suicide bomber wired for sound? I'm talking about what the guy believed, at the time, in that context...and remember suicide bombers, rather than an outlandish fantasy, were rather thick on the ground and the underground at that time.

If you grant the latter then I don't think seven bullets in the head excessive. No, I really don't. If I'm sitting on what I believe to be someone who only has to twitch a finger - literally - to blow himself, me and anyone in the general vicinity to [insert your idea of an afterexistance here] then personally I'm not stopping pulling the trigger until I've no bullets left. I don't want the faintest trace of synaptic activity left in that brain.
Blame the system by all means and some of the events after the event were inexcusable, but I don’t understand your seeming antipathy towards the poor bloke at the sharp end.

Myeral said...

There has been a deal of debate around the issue of how much of a real threat JCDM was as he sat on that train. Whilst I take your point that a genuine terrorist attack needs to be dealt with in a professional manner, I am increasingly leaning towards a feeling that the operation on that day was at best muddy and mismanaged, at worst downright incompetent. There are a lot of conflicting stories about warnings, etc, and even worse lies about wires poking out of his puffy jacket. At the end of the day, the guy was innocent and I for one do not feel comfortable under the 'protection' of psychos like that, who are being managed by incompetents. The whole thing could - and should - have been prevented by a simple challenge as JCDM left the block of flats, before he got on two buses and a tube train. Next time, I might be on the wrong end of a gung-ho loony's firestick.

EP said...

"At best muddy and mismanaged, at worst downright incompetent" - I completely agree, I might even throw "negligent" in there. But what do you believe was in the head of the policeman who did the shooting at that moment, not an hour or a day later? That's my point - if you accept that he believed JCDM was an incipient suicide bomber what do you think the policeman should have done differently? Or do you believe that the policeman thought he was shooting an innocent man? What is there in-between? Do you think that he should have shot him a little bit? In case he was a more of a "cry for attention bomber"?

Do you think that the policeman who shot JCDM had much autonomy? As I understand it he, or the team, was ordered to kill (let's not gloss over it) JCDM - at that point what were they to do? The mistake (and it was a grotesque mistake in case anyone is mis-reading this comment) was made before that point.

Maybe teams of "gung ho loonys", "pychos", "gun-toting thugs" or "goons" (your open mind is showing - fess up - do you have "ACAB" tattooed acrooss your knuckles?) aren't the best way to protect us against terrorist threat. I'm open to that possibility.

But there's always the clincher isn't there: what's the alternative?

marie said...

Just in case
perception is reality... oups. let's all the paranoiac, allergics and oversensitive people shoot and kill every body just in case their perception of the world is too powerful for them to deal with in another manner.. and,just in case, i'll try and kill everybody who looks frightening.. just in case,you never know; DON'T CROSS MY ROAD MAN... YOU LOOK FRIGHTENING.

EP said...

Umm, yes. Did you actually read further than the first line? Or maybe you did but you'd made your mind up by then?

Would you like to respond to my points or are you happy that you know all you need to know about me?

Myeral said...

At the end of the day, unlike several other unfortunate people, I wasn't there when it all kicked off. I have read that communications were poor to say the least. Where did the order to kill come from? I do not think ALL C-A-B, but I honestly think that most are perhaps less than well equipped to deal with any high pressure situation, as it happens. Especially as these guys are supposed to be (highly) trained to protect us from the 'terrorist threat' and if that's the best they can do, then we need an alternative, surely? My references to goons, etc, were more related to less subtly nuanced regimes than the one we are fortunate enough to live in, as was the whole post, really. The JCDM reference was a tangent - clearly an interesting one - but a tangent nonetheless.

EP said...

I agree, having now read the report, that there was no direct order to kill. However, the actual words used, from La Dick herself, were "the male must not be allowed to get on a train at all costs". That doesn't bear too much interpretation, especially in the fevered atmosphere of the time.

The problems seems to have ranged from laws of physics, to depressing shortage of resources and an inconvenient call of nature. The recommendations are risible in my view. One concern was that there were not enough trained officers to intercept JCDM (hopefully in a less terminal way than was eventually the case) well before he got to the tube. The "recommendation" is basically to get more of them. From where, and how to finance them is not made clear.

Again, just to make this as clear as I can, I AGREE with you that this was an almightly cluster fuck and I'm not trying to defend it. But I have some empathy with the blokes on the ground that day. It's too easy to write them off as state thugs. The system fucked up and shit happened royally.

But, and I'm not trying to be contentious, what is the alternative you mention? Do you have a proposal?

marie said...

ok. i will attempt to answer your points in a more... polite manner.i would like to show you that fear is at the core of your argument, fear and the what can we do about it? syndrom.
What the alternative, you said at the end, i think there is one.
First,i and many people who live in an organised society, are aware that we put our power to kill within a set of rules, a society, call it what you want.This moral entity - personne morale- is not based on perception, fears, fantasies and myths but on ideas such as justice. The police force is the armed force of this moral entity, not of our fears and fantasies. if a policeman starts shooting because he's scared, then he's not fulfilling his function( does it make sense?) If i deposited my own power within his hands, i don't think it's to see him behave as i would have done if i had thrown a tantrum;If fear and pressure rule over the police force, we should all take our marbles back and start anew.
i refuse to see the man behind the policeman, for that reason.You would pull the trigger, fair enough,maybe i would to, but a policeman isn't to be scared or else that means he doesn't believe in what he's doing. I don't want to know what he felt before, during and after.. a policeman at work should assess the situation,call his team -ordered to kill, ok no gloss-, he shouldn't go around the place trying to be a hero.. heroes belong to our dreams, our myths and fantasies, they have no place dans un monde de justes.
alternative, take back the power we gave to incompetent men.
sorry about the language..

EP said...

Marie - I agree with what you say. And don't apologise for the language as you put it rather well.

On a general level everything you say is correct. Specifically in that moment though was the policeman acting as a human being or a policeman? Acting as a human being I think he might have turned and run the other way. I think I might have anyway. Acting as a policeman I think he did what he thought was right - at that time and within his belief and understanding (his reality) at that time.

I think the problem here might be that I am making a rather technical point against a very emotionally charged background. I accept that.

My premise is this:
1. the policman / team believed that JCDM was a suicide bomber who was wired with explosive
2. this explosive could be detonated either by JCDM himself with almost no effort or even by a stray bullet from one of them
3. JCDM was intent on detonating his explosives in the train and killing many innocent people.

Now this is the crux - do you think that they actually believed this or not? If you do think that that was their reality in the moment I think they acted in a logical fashion.

If you don't accept that they really had this belief (horribly, horribly mistaken as it turned out to be) then they murdered him in cold blood and deserve what they get (or don't get, I suppose).

I honestly struggle to see anything in between. The report is here if you would like to read it (it's quite depressing): http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/08_11_07_stockwell1.pdf

marie said...

it is depressing indeed! especially the faces of the two guys on the video -the chairman of the ipcc and his accolyte, they need a little sun what this new police and immigration bill?

EP said...

Where's the video? I missed that.

marie said...

http://news.bbc.co.uk
search: de meneze
ipcc menezes report published video

Myeral said...

I have not yet read the IPCC report, but have been reading your comments with interest.

Focussing on the 'moment of truth' and putting all the other stuff to one side, I suppose for me there are two issues. One is a strong suspicion that the guys were not certain about JCDM's intent, but followed through with extreme prejudice anyway. The other is that they are so poorly trained that they shouldn't be let loose with deadly weapons in the first place.

In either case, I can't say I feel comfortable under the protection of such people.

As for the alternative. National Service?

I don't know, there's a helluva mess there, and I don't want to bore you with my wooly-minded liberalism.

EP said...

Bore away, I'm curious.

What makes you think they are poorly trained (in general I mean - I'm aware of the potential irony of that question under these specific circumstances)? I'm not saying that they are or are not - I really don't know. We are TOLD that they are highly trained and the report talks in terms of them all being both highly trained and highly experienced, for what it's worth.

Y'know there is still the incovenient truth that there actually was a terrorist bombing that killed more than 50 people in the UK July 2005. And a failed one a little later. It's not ALL paranoia (although I'm going to assume you think it's over-done...and I would agree with you if you do).

Or are you going to tell me the CIA did it? :-0

Myeral said...

The CIA? Ridiculous. It was clearly the FBI. I don't know the truth about training either. I mean, the way the government guards its secrets, you couldn't get anything out of them could you? :-p

I speak mostly from experience of the common or garden copper, who doesn't often seem able to deal with a basic street situation very well, and extend that to the more specialised guardians of the state.

I will post at a near future point about what I believe to be an alternative.