Dealing With the Keystone Cops

The Keystone Cops are now obscure, at least the original Keystone Cops – the totally incompetent cluster of policemen in that series of silent film comedies produced by Mack Sennett for his Keystone Film Company between 1912 and 1917 – a long time ago. You catch clips now and then – and see a bit of nearby Glendale and Silverlake, where these were filmed. But the conceit got old, and things couldn’t be the same with sound – this was visual comedy. Sure, in 1955 there was “Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops” – pure crap – and in Mel Brooks’ “Silent Movie” there’s a Keystone Cops car chase – a bit of homage. There was Joseph Papp’s 1972 Much Ado about Nothing – Beatrice is a suffragette, Benedick one of Teddy Roosevelt’s rough riders, and all the slapstick scenes feature what were, in fact, the Keystone Cops, with the same uniforms and silly hats – and it sort of worked. The setting – Middle America around 1900 – may seem odd for Shakespeare, but there’s a long tradition of that sort of dislocation. Shakespeare is not around to complain, after all. 

 

And the Keystone Cops have become metaphor, even if no one remembers the short silent comedies. Any bumbling, impulsive, massive and stunningly ineffectual response to an emergency and you say those in charge were running around like the Keystone Cops. That’s what Joe Lieberman said of the response of the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA to Hurricane Katrina – you could look it up – those folks “ran around like Keystone Kops, uncertain about what they were supposed to do or uncertain how to do it.” Everyone knew what he meant. It’s just shorthand.

 

Perhaps the last eight years, the years of the Bush administration, will one day be called the Years of the Keystone Cops. But at least the original Keystone Cops were funny. But many now see our response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, as a bumbling, impulsive, massive and stunningly ineffectual response to an emergency. We went to war with the wrong country – Iraq – based on an assessment of threat that was, best case, unwittingly flawed, or next best case, a matter of what in the business world they would call “insufficient due diligence,” or next best case, exaggerations, omissions and distortions to fool us all, or worst case, just lies.

 

There was no threat. To hear now words like “we didn’t know that then” and “but everyone else thought there was a threat too” is to enter Keystone Cops territory (even if the films were silent). These guys were supposed to “know that then” – we pay them to know such things. And everyone else didn’t think there was a treat – that’s documented, as the Germans had told us that cousin of Chalabi, codenamed “Curveball,” was a drunk and a liar and all his talk of mobile weapons labs was nonsense. The UN weapons inspectors on the ground said they weren’t finding anything – we made fun of them, and then told them to get out of there, as we’d be bombing. Mack Sennett would understand. He just wouldn’t find it funny.

 

And then there’s our offshore prison in Cuba – Guantanamo – where no laws apply and we can do what we want with the “worst of the worst,” as we call them. The problem now is the latest supreme court ruling, the third in a row that concluded some rules have to apply – you don’t lock up and abuse people for six years without giving them some opportunity to argue you might have made a mistake and they really shouldn’t be there. Some third party will have to look at the evidence, eventually, and decide they should or should not be there, and the default third party now will be the federal courts.

 

On the heels of that decision came the Keystone Cops articles, like Tom Lasseter of the McClatchy Washington Bureau with America’s Prison For Terrorists Often Held The Wrong Men – pulling together what had been reported in dribs and drabs elsewhere then doing their own legwork to confirm it all. It comes down to this:

 

An eight-month McClatchy investigation in 11 countries on three continents has found that Akhtiar was one of dozens of men – and, according to several officials, perhaps hundreds – whom the U.S. has wrongfully imprisoned in Afghanistan, Cuba and elsewhere on the basis of flimsy or fabricated evidence, old personal scores or bounty payments.

 

McClatchy interviewed 66 released detainees, more than a dozen local officials – primarily in Afghanistan – and U.S. officials with intimate knowledge of the detention program. The investigation also reviewed thousands of pages of U.S. military tribunal documents and other records.

 

This unprecedented compilation shows that most of the 66 were low-level Taliban grunts, innocent Afghan villagers or ordinary criminals. At least seven had been working for the U.S.-backed Afghan government and had no ties to militants, according to Afghan local officials. In effect, many of the detainees posed no danger to the United States or its allies.

 

The investigation also found that despite the uncertainty about whom they were holding, U.S. soldiers beat and abused many prisoners.

 

Prisoner mistreatment became a regular feature in cellblocks and interrogation rooms at Bagram and Kandahar air bases, the two main way stations in Afghanistan en route to Guantanamo.

 

While he was held at Afghanistan’s Bagram Air Base, Akhtiar said, “When I had a dispute with the interrogator, when I asked, ‘What is my crime?’ the soldiers who took me back to my cell would throw me down the stairs.”

 

See Digby at Hullabaloo with the obvious:

 

Needless to say, doing this caused far more problems than it allegedly solved. Contrary to what puerile minds like Bush and Cheney believe, indiscriminately “showing muscle” doesn’t always result in the enemy dropping to their knees and capitulating. Indeed, the opposite often happens.

 

And the most frustrating thing about the torture and imprisonment of these innocent men is that it has left us with this dilemma of what to do with innocent people who we have tortured and radicalized by our barbaric behavior. The moral thing to do is to let them go free, of course. They did nothing wrong. But we created some enemies, no doubt about it. And many, many tens of thousands more around the world.

 

But McClatchy found that our Keystone Cops knew all along they were just wrong:

 

The McClatchy investigation found that top Bush administration officials knew within months of opening the Guantanamo detention center that many of the prisoners there weren’t “the worst of the worst.” From the moment that Guantanamo opened in early 2002, former Secretary of the Army Thomas White said, it was obvious that at least a third of the population didn’t belong there.

 

Of the 66 detainees whom McClatchy interviewed, the evidence indicates that 34 of them, about 52 percent, had connections with militant groups or activities. At least 23 of those 34, however, were Taliban foot soldiers, conscripts, low-level volunteers or adventure-seekers who knew nothing about global terrorism.

 

Only seven of the 66 were in positions to have had any ties to al Qaida’s leadership, and it isn’t clear that any of them knew any terrorists of consequence.

 

If the former detainees whom McClatchy interviewed are any indication – and several former high-ranking U.S. administration and defense officials said in interviews that they are – most of the prisoners at Guantanamo weren’t terrorist masterminds but men who were of no intelligence value in the war on terrorism.

 

But we went on with it all. We couldn’t back down and let the innocent or useless prisoners go – that would look even worse, after all the years and what they’d say about how we treated them.

 

But perhaps that wasn’t ever considered. Digby may be onto something with her talk of “puerile minds” – those would be neoconservatives in charge, who know that indiscriminately “showing muscle” was the whole point. And now the Supreme Court is taking that core option away from them. As Digby says:

 

And the administration liked pimping the specter of the concentration camp – thought it scared the wogs. So they just kept doing it. And if our next president is John McCain, they’ll find a way to keep doing it.

 

This may be the conservative mind at work, or at least the neoconservative mind:

 

The Pentagon declined requests to make top officials, including the secretary of defense, available to respond to McClatchy’s findings. The defense official in charge of detainee affairs, Sandra Hodgkinson, refused to speak with McClatchy.

 

The Pentagon’s only response to a series of written questions from McClatchy, and to a list of 63 of the 66 former detainees interviewed for this story, was a three-paragraph statement.

 

“These unlawful combatants have provided valuable information in the struggle to protect the U.S. public from an enemy bent on murder of innocent civilians,” Col. Gary Keck said in the statement. He provided no examples.

 

No examples – indeed. The Keystone Cops never had those either. And then there was Newt Gingrich on Sunday, June 15, on Face the Nation, explaining it all. That Supreme Court decision “could cost us a city” soon:

 

My judgment, as somebody who’s studied politics for a long time, is because it won’t work in the end. Obama’s a very articulate, very intelligent Harvard Law graduate, you know, who is extraordinarily smart, and he is not going to come across in a debate like some guy who’s dopey. I mean, he’s going to come across as fully prepared. He knows how to study all this stuff. He has good military advisers.

 

The problem with Obama is he’s wrong. It’s not that he’s inexperienced, it’s that his policies are wrong. He applauded this court decision.

 

This court decision is a disaster which could cost us a city. And the debate ought to be over whether or not you’re prepared to risk losing an American city on behalf of five lawyers – it was a five-to-four decision, and five lawyers have decided that the Supreme Court counts more than the Congress and the president combined in national security. That has never been true in American history.

That ought to be a principled argument between McCain and Obama, about whether or not you’re prepared to allow any random nutcase district judge who has no knowledge of national security to set the rules for terrorists.

 

They’re terrorists? Some are. Many, it seems, are not. Just how else are you supposed to deal with that?

 

We are dealing with “puerile minds” here. Or we are dealing with two kinds of minds. It’s all a liberal-conservative thing, really, as discussed previously. And there will be no meeting of the minds. They shout the usual – “I’m right and you’re WRONG!” Liberals shrug – “Whatever.” You’re not going to change their minds – you know that. And they can never respect your views, for reasons that go to the core of their defensiveness about life.

 
There is something about that core defensiveness (fear) on the one side, versus the core “what-if” openness on the other side. And a good question might be whether these are learned traits, a product of socialization (or the failure of socialization), or innate temperaments, either inherited or congenital. The latter argument seems most likely – innate personality as determining things, like a fondness for strict authority figures and bullying, or on the other hand, a sense of fairness and reciprocity, as in “Johnny plays well with others.”

 

Determining which it is will take some research, and that will follow one day. As for now, we get things like this from Sarah Baxter in the Times of London – Get Osama Bin Laden before I leave office, orders George W Bush:

 

President George W Bush has enlisted British special forces in a final attempt to capture Osama Bin Laden before he leaves the White House.

 

Defence and intelligence sources in Washington and London confirmed that a renewed hunt was on for the leader of the September 11 attacks. “If he [Bush] can say he has killed Saddam Hussein and captured Bin Laden, he can claim to have left the world a safer place,” said a US intelligence source.

 

As Dave Johnson at Seeing the Forest comments, Finally – but for the Wrong Reasons:

 

… he is doing it so his own legacy looks a little better, not to protect America.

 

If Bush and the Republicans had wanted to protect America he would have gone after Bin Laden from the start instead of retargeting most of the military on Iraq.

 

Actually, if he had wanted to protect America he would have listened to the Clinton people who were trying to get the incoming Bush administration interested in fighting al Queda. Instead they completely ignored the threat and let 9/11 happen.

 

Well, yes – see Keystone Cops, above.

 

And there’s Steve Benen at the Carpetbagger Report with McCain “promises” to get bin Laden – with “people who can swim in the water” – which is kind of a giggle:

 

“I will look you in the eye and promise you that I will get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice,” McCain said in response to a direct question from one of the 2,000 people in attendance at the college’s Pemberton campus gym.

 

McCain said the key to ending the long search for bin Laden was to increase the number of human spies abroad.

 

“We need better human intelligence. We need people who can swim in the water,” McCain said.

 

Benen points out that there’s not much water for swimming in the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan, although his larger point is that this is just posturing. “Swopa” at Needlenose gets it exactly right – Daddy Promises to Catch the Bad Man. There is a difference in how the neoconservative mind works. The word puerile seems to capture the essence of it.

 

But for the real essence of it, see Maureen Dowd reporting from Paris, as George Bush visits Sarkozy, with W. Regrets Almost Nothing. The Europeans know puerile when they see it:

 

In the French imagination, Barack Obama is already the president. To the French, the Democratic primary was the general election.

 

The word “elite” is not a pejorative here; it’s a compliment. It does not occur to Parisians that Americans will choose the old, white-haired one if they can have the cool, skinny one with the Ray-Bans, John le Carré novels, chic wife and secret cigarettes.

 

Of course that’s more than a little catty – Dowd is like that – but there’s this:

 

In Old Europe, they’ve moved on, assuming that the American president has done all the damage that he can do. The blazing hostility toward W. has faded to indifference and a sort of fatigued perplexity about how les imbeciles de regime cowboy got into office, and how America could have put the world through all this craziness.

 

And all the talk of spreading freedom is falling flat:

 

Paris responded with a yawn. (Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to say.) A Bush organizer asked people sitting in the back of the hall to move to the front, so the empty seats would not be visible on TV. The image of the U.S. abroad has improved slightly, according to a new Pew poll, but only in anticipation of seeing the back of this president.

 

In a way, W. is very different from the cocky, know-nothing, chip-on-his-shoulder “Bully Bush” I followed on his maiden European tour in 2002. His disdain for Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder, and theirs for him, was bristlingly clear. He told the bemused French that he’d heard tell from Jacques about their “fantastic food,” and he lectured the bewildered Germans, as though they were thick on the subject, that Saddam was evil because he “gassed his own people.”

 

He’s better now, but still a little bully:

 

He was still pushing, but more softly, the same refrain that turned Europe so virulently anti-American: his muscular proselytizing that sometimes military power is necessary to break up terror networks, and that there is “a moral obligation” to extend “a more hopeful and compelling vision” of democratic ideals to “provide our security and to spread the peace.”

 

Europeans overwhelmingly agree with Scott McClellan, the former Bush press secretary, that this approach amounts to “coercive democracy,” and that the administration’s “compelling vision” on Iraq was undergirded with a brazenly untruthful and cynically manipulative propaganda campaign.

 

Ah, the French do like old American slapstick movies, even Jerry Lewis junk. In March 2006, the French Minister of Culture awarded Lewis the Légion d’honneur, calling him the “French people’s favorite clown” – but there are limits, and slapstick in real life is something else entirely. Maybe there are far too many dead and horribly maimed, and the world in political, religious and economic chaos, for a crew of Keystone Cops to make it all funny.

 

But you do have to wonder – will the two sides here, those fearful to their core and those curious and open, ever understand each other?

 

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Boumediene v. Bush and Al Odah v. United States, Bush, Conservative Thought, Foreign Policy, Guantanamo, Habeas Corpus, Maureen Dowd, McCain, Neoconservate Thought, The Conservative-Liberal Divide, The French. Bookmark the permalink.

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