Monday, September 29, 2008
monday book review: the dark side, by jane mayer
"He who does battle with monsters needs to watch out lest he in the process becomes a monster himself." - Friedrich Nietzsche

In reaction to Britain's brutal treatment of American prisoners of war, George Washington vowed that this new Democracy would "take a higher road." Thus, the U.S. military doctrine was born, based upon the belief that "Brutality undermines military discipline and strengthens the enemy's resolve, while displays of humanity could be used to tactical advantage." Since its inception, this doctrine has certainly been tried, sometimes quite strenuously, but it has remained a fundamental tenet of American government since our country's birth. Remained, that is, until the events of September 11, 2001.

The attacks of Al Qaeda spun America into a state of chaos and fear, and in this atmosphere came the decision to abandon some of our country's most fundamental beliefs. Hell-bent on revenge and terrified of further attacks, White House officials deemed it necessary to throw out the old rule book in favor of their own set of rules. Despite evidence that torture only produces uncooperative prisoners and questionable information, the Bush Administration felt certain it was the only way to stop further acts of terrorism. Surrounding themselves with lawyers charged with seeking out the legal loopholes that would grant the military carte blanche, it was in these dark days when a new doctrine was born - one which ignored the Article 5 Tribunals, The Geneva Convention, and the Constitution itself in favor of arresting, detaining, torturing, and even killing anyone with suspected connections to terrorism, no matter how tenuous those connections may have been.

On January 27, 2005, President George W. Bush, speaking to a New York Times reporter, said, "torture is never acceptable, nor do we hand over people to countries that torture." But while speaking these words, thousands of prisoners were currently being held without due process in one of America's "black sites," Gulag-like prisons hosted by as many as eight countries, including Afghanistan; Iraq; Cuba; and, allegedly; fledgling democracies such as Poland and Romania. Inside these ghost prisons lurked a secret horror show of abuse where "enhanced interrogation" techniques such as waterboarding, stress positions, sleep deprivation, and exposure to extreme temperatures were often applied by untrained and unqualified guards to prisoners who may or may not have had any information to give. What little information was gained was either false or forever clouded by suspicion due to the method in which it was obtained, and in hindsight it's this false information procured by torture that mistakenly connected the events of 9/11 to Iraq.

Perhaps "essential reading" is a distinction too easily granted to too many books, but after reading Jane Mayer's The Dark Side, it struck me that this is a case when it is certainly appropriately-applied. Meticulously researched and masterfully written, Mayer provides a non-partisan narrative of how America lost its way in the aftermath of September 11th. Resisting the urge to infuse her own commentary, Mayer lets the events spanning from the attacks of September 11 to the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib scandal speak for themselves, lending the narrative an unmistakable air of credibility. Of course, this also makes the story all the more repugnant.

Like most politically aware Americans, I remember being confused at how an attack by a Afghan-based terrorist cell could lead to a war in Iraq, was aware of the goings on at Guantanamo Bay, and was appropriately shocked when the Abu Ghraib story broke, but reading the finer details of these events alongside their causes and effects was both eye-opening and overwhelming. But though unpleasant, this is a story that demands to be heard, especially now when elections can and should be used to bring events such as these to light. Mayer's story is gripping, intensely troubling, and an absolutely necessary reminder of why we Americans deserve better leadership. I'd strongly encourage each and every one of you to read it.

The Dark Side
Jane Mayer
2008, 392 pages

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Blogger Mary said...

Wow it sounds really interesting.

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