Saturday, November 19, 2005

Vice President of Torture

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by : By M.J.Akbar

Media disseminates information, triggers reaction, further shapes response, and creates new facts. Media thereby becomes the vehicle of change and the procreator of history. Truth was never a simple fact, but it could be hidden in an establishment cupboard till the time of accountability, at least in this world, had passed. Now, truth can evolve almost on a daily basis, once it is out; the genes of this evolution lie in media.

Media used to be merely the message. But that was once upon a time, when a Canadian professor of literature, Marshall McLuhan, coined the phrase, and a laconic British poet, Philip Larkin, announced the birth of sex in 1963. We have moved on from the Sixties. A new dictum rules. History is media.

I do not offer that proposition to suggest that modern media compiles the data that will comprise the history waiting to be written. That is too passive a role, and if only this were true it would not be worth writing about. Modern media is not just an accumulation of dormant technology, a data bank called Google — the latest avatar of HAL, Stanley Kubrick’s memorably sinister computer in Space Odyssey. Media is now an active ingredient and vital instigator of events. Information is the new mother of invention.

Media disseminates information, triggers reaction, further shapes response, and creates new facts. Media thereby becomes the vehicle of change and the procreator of history. Truth was never a simple fact, but it could be hidden in an establishment cupboard till the time of accountability, at least in this world, had passed. Now, truth can evolve almost on a daily basis, once it is out; the genes of this evolution lie in media.

Dictators, and manipulative democrats, would prefer it the other way around. They would like media to become history. They want media to return, at best, to the fundamentally obedient, if not corrupt, state in which it existed during socially progressive but nevertheless brutal regimes like those of Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong; and nihilistic, suppressive and genocidal regimes like the one of Adolf Hitler. Media did exist in Soviet Union, China and Germany but it was blind to mass murder of peasants, mass starvation of citizens and mass extermination by Nazis.

Even the most repressive governments today cannot quite hope to survive behind an unliftable curtain of ignorance. It is not almost impossible for brutality to remain an archival fact, to be discovered only after their perpetrators have enjoyed a lifetime of power. Today accountability is increasingly around the corner.

The governments of superpowers publicly worry about Weapons of Mass Destruction: WMD, or nuclear weapons, in Iraq yesterday and Iran today. I suspect that privately they are far more worried about the real modern WMD, media. The exhilarating part is that media destroys what needs to be destroyed, the lie, the evasion — not wholly, nor in full measure, but substantially. (Those who hear an echo of Jawaharlal Nehru, albeit in another context, have their ears tuned correctly.)

Nuclear weapons are a Weapon of Mass Perception (WMP) rather than a WMD. They are victims of the ultimate paradox: nuclear weapons are too destructive to be destructive. Generals who want to bomb the enemy back into the Stone Age are going to achieve precisely what they want, except that the stones will be found back home as well when the nuclear cloud clears. And since you won’t get hamburgers or SUVs in the Stone Age, that option is unrealistic for even a hyperpower like George Bush’s America. (Important: we must always make a distinction between America and Bush’s America.)

The only time America used nuclear bombs was in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. That was enough. Even when America is at its most desperate, as in Vietnam or in Iraq, it might resort to chemical killers but has not found the will to use nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union was a mighty nuclear power, but that arsenal was impotent when the Soviet state imploded. Israel has at least a hundred nuclear bombs. Not one of them is useful against a Palestinian struggling for self-respect and freedom.

Nuclear weapons are useful only as a strategic reality, not as a tactical option. They did enormous service to the world during the long decades of the Cold War, when they successfully prevented that war from boiling over into bloody combat, as could have happened over Hungary in 1956, Berlin in 1962 and even Czechoslovakia in 1968. Today, they are extremely useful in preventing a fourth full-scale war between India and Pakistan. Thank you, Dr Einstein, Dr Raja Ramanna, President Kalam, Dr A.Q. Khan and all your mentors.

How do we know that America has used chemical weapons in Iraq, during the Fallujah operations? Well, I can safely report that Donald Rumsfeld did not hold a series of press conferences on the subject, and the Pentagon did not issue a news bulletin. Italian television found out before it was confirmed, lips very tight and eyes wide shut, by the Pentagon. Nor did the Pentagon call editors over for an illuminating chat on Abu Ghraib. It was only the severest pressure that forced it to convict a couple of underlings on its payroll as token punishment for images that shocked the world and stirred more than one heart to who knows what depths of anger.

It might, in passing, interest you to know that since Abu Ghraib, the Pentagon has sacked one general for adultery, but found absolutely no evidence of any culpability against any senior officer for the scandal at Abu Ghraib. But of course, in Bush’s immortal words, America doesn’t do torture. I often wonder what Bush would have tried to get away with if media did not exist, or if all the world’s media were controlled by Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox TV in the United States and choice properties elsewhere. Bush seems oblivious of Abu Ghraib. Or that John McCain, a Republican ally who helped him remain in the White House, is author of legislation that would ban torture by the American administration and is being opposed by Dick Cheney. This is what, according to AFP, Admiral Stansfield Turner, has to say: "We have crossed the line into dangerous territory. I am embarrassed that the US has a Vice President for torture. I think it is just reprehensible. He (Cheney) advocates torture, what else is it? I just don’t understand how a man in that position can take such a stance."

Stansfield Turner is not a Sunni-Wahabi-Baathist-mullah from Baghdad. He is a former chief of CIA. He also reaffirms my early comment that we should not confuse the Bush Brigade with America.

It is not just America that is affected by the syndrome. Cross over to the other side of the world. Thailand is mired in a virtual insurgency in its Muslim-majority provinces; more than a thousand people have died since January 2004. If there was one moment that turned disaffection into active war, a "nerve moment", then it was surely the incident during Ramzan when a Thai general packed Muslim suspects into a "black hole" in which about 80 suffocated to death. When questioned, he dismissed this as a consequence of weakness due to fasting. Thaksin Shinawatra was Prime Minister and did nothing. He later won a landslide victory by gently fanning prejudice against Muslims. How do we know about this "nerve-moment"? Because of media. Otherwise it would have remained a shadowy rumour, regularly dismissed as "preposterous" in gentle Thailand.

Predictably, France has given a whole new meaning to our subject. We have heard of the Internet revolution. Silicon Valley and Bangalore must find a new term for what they do after the French Revolution of Autumn 2005 in which minorities, primarily but not uniformly Muslim, rose against the quasi-racism of Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s long-tongue interior minister. This was a revolt planned and implemented on the Internet. They’ve finally stopped counting, after 9,071 vehicles were torched and 126 police officers injured.

Modern media’s greatest service to contemporary civilisation is that it has made injustice that much more difficult to hide. Obviously I wish I could say that all media lived by this creed. I cannot. Most media is still conformist and obedient. Almost every government in the world has its own channel (Bush has Fox). State-owned channels, almost without exception, are propaganda platforms for their governments. But this does not matter. All you need is one television station or newspaper to report the truth. Once facts emerge they develop a life and power of their own and create new facts. Reaction overpowers action.

As the President and Vice President of Torture are beginning to discover.

- Main Blog of MJ Akbar

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