The Iron Laws of Imprisonment, Bush-Style

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The Nation

The Iron Laws of Imprisonment, Bush-Style

by
Tom Engelhardt

Back in the mid-1990s, in my book, The End of Victory Culture, I wrote the following about the adventure films of my childhood (and those of earlier decades):

"For the nonwhite, annihilation was built not just into the on-screen Hollywood spectacle but into its casting structures. Available to the Other were only four roles: the invisible, the evil, the dependent, and the expendable.... When the inhabitants of these borderlands emerged from their oases, ravines, huts, or tepees, they found that there was but one role in which a nonwhite (usually played by a white actor) was likely to come out on top, and that was the villain with his fanatical speeches and propensity for odd tortures. Only as a repository for evil could the nonwhite momentarily triumph. Whether an Indian chief, a Mexican bandit leader, or an Oriental despot, his pre-World War II essence was the same. Set against his shiny pate or silken voice, his hard eyes or false laugh, no white could look anything but good."

Having spent a recent evening in my local multiplex watching the latest superhero blockbuster, Iron Man, all I can say is: such traditions obviously die hard (even in the age of Barack Obama). The Afghans and assorted terrorists of the film, when not falling into that "invisible" category -- as backdrops for the heroics or evil acts of the real actors -- are out of central casting from a playbook of the 1930s filled with images of Fu Manchu or Ming the Merciless: Right down to that shiny bald pate, the silken voice, the hard eyes, and that propensity for "odd tortures."

It's lucky, then, that, in the real world, the Bush administration has made the decision to expand our no-charges, no-recourse, no-courts, no-lawyers prison network in Afghanistan to hold such monsters. Give Eric Schmitt and Tim Golden of the New York Times credit for their recent front-page scoop: "The Pentagon is moving forward with plans to build a new, 40-acre detention complex on the main American military base in Afghanistan, officials said, in a stark acknowledgment that the United States is likely to continue to hold prisoners overseas for years to come... [the new prison will be] a more modern and humane detention center that would usually accommodate about 600 detainees--or as many as 1,100 in a surge--and cost more than $60 million." The real money quote in the piece, however, lay buried inside the fold. The reporters quote an anonymous Pentagon official speaking of the infamous older American prison at Bagram Air Base where some of those "odd tortures" have taken place: "It's just not suitable. At some point, you have to say, 'That's it. This place was not made to keep people there indefinitely.'"

So, the new prison, then, is apparently for holding people "indefinitely." Lurking in that word, of course, is the logical thought that we'll just have to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely, too. Otherwise, who's going to do the necessary imprisoning? Perhaps it's worth noting as well that, at this moment, the Pentagon is also expanding its major prison in Iraq, Camp Bucca, already stuffed with up to 20,000 prisoners, to hold another 10,000, assumedly in case a future prisoner "surge" comes along, and assumedly once again "indefinitely." In fact, when it comes to prisons, the Pentagon and its contractors are the busiest of beavers. After all, they've been expanding Guantanamo in Cuba, too, while Bush administration officials talk idly about shutting that prison down. Even kids aren't immune. A recent report claims that the U.S. now holds at least 500 "juveniles," mainly in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan, and perhaps elsewhere as "imperative threats to security." (Guantanamo evidently now has no juveniles only because two prisoners have been held there long enough to grow into adulthood.)

These are expansive American facts on the ground in two occupied countries where, you might say (though you wouldn't know it from Iron Man), imprisonment is our middle name and "odd tortures" what we've built our rep on. Of course, at a time when the U.S. is hemorrhaging real jobs, Americans have made quite a living from building and expanding prisons and prison populations at home, too.

Once upon a time, there was an all-American superhero who fought for "truth, justice, and the American way." But that's passé today. As a nation, we're not much into justice anymore; what we're into is incarceration, punishment, and those "odd tortures." It's increasingly our métier, our truth, the American way. So maybe Iron Man, an arms dealer by day, is, as Nick Turse, author of the superb exposé of the new Pentagon, The Complex, indicates his latest piece "Irony Man," exactly the right superhero to illuminate our American moment.

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews. His book, The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press), has just been thoroughly updated in a newly issued edition that deals with victory culture's crash-and-burn sequel in Iraq.

Copyright © 2008 The Nation

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