August 2, 2008
The book of the week (and possibly the year) is Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals, in which Mayer pulls together her reporting for The New Yorker on the ways in which the Bush administration’s pursuit of “the war on terror” have soiled America’s good name in the eyes of the world and planted seeds for further radicalization of Islamic extremists. Congratulations to Jane Mayer for scoring a legitimate New York Times bestseller by writing on a very touch, very disturbing subject. Here are samples of some of the reviews:
. . . if you intend to vote in November and read only one book between now and then, this should be it. By and large, Mayer does not add any strikingly new information to what attentive readers already will know about Bush/Cheney’s adoption of torture as an instrument of American state power and of how the Central Intelligence Agency, its international accomplices and the U.S. military constructed what amounts to an American gulag to further that end. Mayer’s singular accomplishment is to fuse the years of events that have brought us to this pass into a single compelling narrative and to use her own considerable reportorial powers to fill in important connective and contextual events.
And so we must ask ourselves at last if terror is the best answer to terror. Mayer has her doubts. “Torture works in several ways,” she summarizes. “It can intimidate enemies, it can elicit false confessions, and it can produce true confessions. Setting aside the moral issues, the problem is recognizing what’s true.” Mohammed “confessed” to planning the assassinations of Presidents Clinton and Carter, as well as Pope John Paul II. Zubayda, under assault, spun outlandish tales of “plots to blow up American banks, supermarkets, malls, the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, and nuclear power plants,” sending law-enforcement officials scurrying down any number of blind alleys.
The greatest damage came from Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi. Chief of an al-Qaida training camp, he was captured by Pakistanis shortly after 9/11 and handed over to Egyptian interrogators, who pressed him for damaging information on Saddam Hussein. Al-Libi didn’t even understand what “biological weapons” were, and at first he was so confused by the line of questioning he couldn’t come up with a story. Soon enough, he figured out what his interrogators wanted, and the tale he fabricated — WMD flowing in an unbroken line from Saddam to al-Qaida — became a decisive factor in the decision to go to war. When asked later why he had lied, al-Libi had a simple explanation: “They were killing me. I had to tell them something.”
This vast regime of pain and terror, inflicted in the name of a war on terror, rests in large part on the untested belief of a few high-ranking leaders in Washington that torture is an effective tool for eliciting valuable information. But there is, Mayer persuasively argues, little available evidence that this assumption is true, and a great deal of evidence from numerous sources (including the United States military and the F.B.I.) that torture is, in fact, one of the least effective methods of gathering information and a likely source of false confessions. Among the many cases Mayer and other journalists have chronicled — including the case of the most notable Al Qaeda operative yet captured, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed — the information gleaned from tortured detainees has produced unreliable and often entirely unusable information. That many of the interrogations were conducted by American servicemen and -women with scant training made the likelihood of success even lower. (Some of the interrogators had no qualms about what they were doing and welcomed being unconstrained by any laws or rules. “It was the Camelot of counterterrorism,” one officer later told a journalist. “We didn’t have to mess with others and it was fun.” Others were traumatized by what they had done and seen, and suffered psychologically as a result.)
And, because you can’t have a carnival without a geek, here’s a National Review hack trying to discredit Mayer’s book without directly addressing its charges or its copious evidence.
Incidentally, The Dark Side is a featured selection of the recently launched Progressive Book Club. Why not join up and help support an excellent cause while getting an excellent book?
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Like cicadas, books by chastity bores turned media whores seem to run in cycles: in the late Nineties we had Tara McCarthy’s Been There, Haven’t Done That, among others; a decade later, Anna Broadway’s Sexless in the City and Jim Burns’ The Purity Code: God’s Plan for Sex and Your Body are coming to the stores to lament “hookup culture.” Fortunately, here’s Tracy Clark-Flory to speak up on behalf of casual sex, and not a moment too soon.
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Ray Bradbury loves libraries and used bookstores. Danny Fingeroth lists the Top 10 Graphic Novels. Scott McLemee isn’t all that keen on Vincent Bugliosi’s book about prosecuting Dubya for murder. Reviews are coming in for the Library of America’s second Philip K. Dick collection. George Pelecanos has some interesting movie music on his iPod. Meet the sleazebag who helped grease the skids for the invasion of Iraq.