That Italian Surprise

America was always the New World, and that was always the problem. Everything was fresh and bright and there was all the endless space out west. As Gertrude Stein once said – “In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. That is what makes America what it is.”

She was onto something there, that mysterious and magnetic emptiness out there to explore. No one else had that.

But that empty space generates insecurities. We were always the kids, bumping around in a world where all the European nations that our parents and grandparents had left had centuries of complex history and centuries of traditions, and all that culture too, and the cool old buildings, and the interesting cuisines. We could scoff at all that, and say we’d willingly walked away from all that nonsense to build something new, that we’d tear down and replace with something even newer and better, that we’d then replace again – but much of that was bluster. Everyone knew we had a bit of an inferiority complex, a big one that we covered over with sneers and bragging. That is also what makes America what it is.

But we pretty much had zilch. There wasn’t an American literature until Mark Twain and maybe Walt Whitman, and no American music until King Oliver begat Louis Armstrong who begat jazz – just pallid imitations of European stuff. Gertrude Stein, born in Pittsburgh and raised out here in Oakland, ended up in Paris, and captured the conflict in her famous quip – “America is my country and Paris is my hometown.” Only psychotics and those with senile dementia live in the world of the perpetually new, and that’s an Alzheimer’s nightmare. Hang around Paris and you’ll get it – there you slow down and all the tension and defensiveness will fall away, as it always feels as if you’ve finally, really come home.

So we like the Old World, and do the Old World things – we love our French wine and Italian restaurants and odd Bergman movies from Sweden, and we read Dickens and Sherlock Holmes stories and listen to Mozart. And every Christmas every American city has at least one production of The Nutcracker running – the Tchaikovsky ballet, composed in 1891–92, from Alexandre Dumas père’s adaptation of a Hoffman story. You take the kids to see it. It’s an American tradition.

Of course, after they helped us with our revolution, we decided the French were useless. Lafayette must have been the exception, as they become the effete cheese-eating surrender-monkeys who would rather discuss the existential implications of all the possible perceptions of an issue rather than just doing something about it. We preferred the Italians.

Back in 1953 there was that pleasant movie Roman Holiday – Audrey Hepburn on a Vespa and that sort of thing. She won the Oscar – she was delicious as the sheltered young princess who sneaks out and discovers the real world – and Dalton Trumbo won the Oscar for the screenplay, although, given his politics, the fellow who fronted for Trumbo got the award. There was that Black List thing, you see. That was all fixed in 1993, when the Academy re-awarded the Oscar in question to Trumbo’s widow – Joe McCarthy was long gone and it was finally safe to admit what every in town knew all along, even if Trumbo was long dead by then. Such things happen.

But all that nonsense aside, the movie just had to be a hit. Hollywood, and thus America, has always been fascinated with all things Italian –not just young Audrey Hepburn buzzing around Rome, but all the gangster films with the oddly fascinating Mafia, reaching a peak with the Godfather epic and then the Sopranos. So of course there are ultra-high-end Italian restaurants all over the place out here and, from the Sunset Strip through Beverly Hills, some days every other car you see is a shiny new Ferrari or Lamborghini – and of course there are the tailored Italian suits and thousand dollar shoes these folks really must wear. Italian is good. And Frank Sinatra is still cool.

Of course we also turn Italians into cartoons. You get your pneumatic sex goddesses like Sophia Loren, and all those flawed mobsters from the Godfather through the Sopranos, and the eccentrics like Fellini and his literary equivalent, Umberto Eco (Foucault’s Pendulum is as strange as Fellini’s Satyricon). And there’s Bugs Bunny as Arturo Toscanini – the fat absurd tenor is always Italian, just as the fat contralto with the metal bullet-bra is always German. Italians provide comic relief – for every Benito Mussolini there’s a Silvio Berlusconi.

But then the loveable Italians go and mess it all up. The item was buried in the avalanche of news stories about our November 2009 elections, which marked the stunning resurgence of the Republican Party, or its contraction into a mean-spirited party of spite, or something. The story got lost in the shuffle, as also at the same time the Yankees won the World Series and the healthcare reform stuff got even more complicated. But the news was startling – the criminal conviction of twenty-two CIA agents, and also two Italian intelligence officers, by an Italian court.

This was for the 2003 kidnapping of an Islamic cleric, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, right off the street in Italy, and his “rendition” to Egypt, to be tortured, to see what he knew. You don’t go doing that sort of thing – kidnapping anyone you’d like in someone else’s country, without even telling anyone in the government about it, much less asking for permission, and then packing the guy off for what is a war crime, but one you want someone else to commit for you. The Italians are neither thugs nor buffoons – that’s for the movies. They know right from wrong. They’d have nothing to do with this, thus the trial and convictions.

At Glenn Greenwald has a few things to say about this, as he comments on CNN’s account of what happened:

First, illustrating how these matters are typically distorted by the U.S. establishment media, note that CNN – in the very first paragraph of its story – claims that the CIA agents were convicted “for their role in the seizing of a suspected terrorist in Italy in 2003.” What did Nasr allegedly do that warrants that “terrorist” label? Did he participate in the 9/11 attacks, or plan attacks on “the American homeland” or U.S. civilians? No. According to CNN, this is what makes him a “suspected terrorist” – “He was suspected of recruiting men to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Well, at least they covered the story. They are thorough, or actually journalists. But Greenwald wants us to think about how they framed it – “So the West invades, bombs and occupies Muslim countries, and when Muslims attempt to find people to fight against the West’s invading armies, those individuals are deemed ‘terrorists.'”

Well, maybe the idea is to make it easy for their viewers, using a kind of shorthand. But the shorthand itself creates its own problems.

Greenwald prefers a bit less compression, and recommends this 2005 Washington Post article. That one details how the CIA’s kidnapping derailed the Italians’ criminal investigation of Nasr, on legal grounds, without blowing off any laws:

Nasr was wanted by the Egyptian authorities for his involvement in Jemaah Islamiah, a network of Islamic extremists that had sought the overthrow of the government. The network was dispersed during a government crackdown in the early 1990s, and many leaders escaped abroad to avoid arrest.

The Italians were already working on getting the guy, and even sending him back to Egypt, at their request. But we stepped in with our secret shortcut:

The Egyptian government, long propped up by the United States, is one of the most tyrannical and brutal in the world. But Egyptians who work to overthrow that government are deemed “terrorists” by the US, and we’re apparently willing to kidnap them from around the world – including from countries where they’ve received asylum — and ship them back to our Egyptian friends to be imprisoned and tortured.

Well, either way, it got done, although the definition of just what a terrorist is gets loose here. It is someone out to attack American and Western interests, or someone just pissed off at the current Egyptian government and doesn’t much think about blowing up subways in London or shopping malls in Cleveland?

Greenwald says we use the word rather indiscriminately:

For many Americans – probably most – the word “terrorist” conjures up images of the people responsible for the 9/11 attack. For that reason, labeling someone a “suspected terrorist” can justify doing anything and everything to those individuals (after all, other than civil liberties extremists, who could object to the “seizing of a suspected terrorist” – or their indefinite detention or torture?). It’s therefore unsurprising that the US Government would use the term “terrorist” so promiscuously and selectively… It’s a powerful term that can justify almost any government action.

Greenwald recommends John Cole’s contrast between what we deem to be “terrorism” when it happens to us here versus what we deny is “terrorism” when done by us, comparing we how reacted to those anthrax letters long ago and Hillary Clinton’s defense of our drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan that tend to kill a lot of unlucky civilians:

So, to review. When Pakistani citizens watch their friends and neighbors blown up by missile strikes, it is the position of this administration that they should not view it as terrorism. On the other hand, when we receive a letter without a stamp, we shut down a portion of the most powerful government in the world out of a general hysteria over terrorism.

I’m even going to go out on a limb and wager that more Af/Pak citizens have been killed by missiles than Americans have been by unstamped letters.

Greenwald agrees, and just hates sloppy thinking, caused by sloppy use of language:

… the US media’s willingness to mindlessly apply the term “terrorist” in exactly the subjective, self-serving way the U.S. Government dictates – starkly contrasted with their refusal to use the far more objective term “torture” on the ground that the term is in dispute (i.e., disputed by the US Government torturers) – illustrates the establishment media’s principal function: to serve American political power and justify whatever our government does. That’s a major reason – perhaps the primary one – why the U.S. Government has been able to get away with everything it’s done over the last decade. Those unseen victims of torture, rendition, indefinite detention and other government crimes are all just “terrorists,” so who cares? In reporting on these convictions, CNN immediately and helpfully proclaims Nasr to be a “suspected terrorist” in a way that guts any meaningful definition of that term and – in many minds – justifies whatever was done to him, no matter how illegal.

It’s worth asking this question: which sounds more like actual “terrorism”: (a) kidnapping people literally off the street and shipping them thousands of miles away to be tortured with no legal process, or (b) what Nasr is “suspected” of having done?

Well, that may be a little harsh on CNN. They are hardly alone. But they are not blameless, as Greenwald points to this discussion on CNN where Wolf Blitzer and Jeffrey Toobin discuss what the Italian court had just done:

TOOBIN:  This is a real criminal conviction in a country where we tend to honor reciprocal legal arrangements. So they are in a – they are in no jeopardy as long as they are inside the United States, but, if they were to leave, they are potentially at risk for being jailed and brought to Italy.

BLITZER: Because even if they went to a third country, like England, let’s say, or France, Interpol could have a warrant out for their arrest. They have been convicted by an Italian court.

TOOBIN: That’s why this is such – so troubling. It would one thing if they only had to stay out of Italy, but, because of Interpol, because of the reciprocal nature of these agreements, they are potentially at risk almost anywhere they go.

Greenwald suggests this shows that “our political and media elite” simply do not believe in the rule of law or accountability for high government officials, and, in fact, they explicitly believe that such officials should be entitled to break the law and be exempt from consequences:

So according to Toobin, this is all “so troubling.” Why? Because the people who were found by a duly constituted court to have committed a serious crime are faced with the risk that there might actually be consequences? After all, these are Americans who were part of the US Government, and consequences for lawbreaking are simply not meant for them. Echoing Joe Klein’s infamous Orwellian claim that torture shouldn’t be prosecuted because the CIA is “asked to behave extra-legally for the greater good of the nation,” Toobin added that “one of the things you do when you are a CIA agent, at least in part, is break the law of other countries” – Toobin says that as though they have the right to do that without accountability, and without mentioning that causing people to be tortured is also a violation of US law. …

And he goes on to discuss the appellate court ruling that American government officials are immune from consequences even when they abduct an innocent man and knowingly cause him to be tortured – even after the Canadian government publicly disclosed its detailed investigation of that matter, publicly apologized to the victim, a Canadian citizen and paid him nine million dollars. The appellate court said they just couldn’t get involved in presidential decisions. After all, who knows where that might lead? And Greenwald covers our attempt to compile a “hit list” of Afghan citizens we intend to murder because we suspect them of drug trafficking that prompted angry objections from Afghan officials that our plan violated due process and the rule of law. And Spain continues to pursue the possibility of criminal prosecution of our high government officials for war crimes, but, as Greenwald notes, Obama wants to look forward:

And now an Italian court demonstrates actual judicial independence and adherence to equality under the law by holding American and Italian government kidnappers liable for their complicity in torture – something our own government institutions have repeatedly failed and/or refused to do…

But we’re not saying anything:

The State Department yesterday expressed “disappointment” with the Italian court ruling – just as it did when a British High Court recently ordered the disclosure of evidence of American torture. The DOJ continues to insist that no American courts can examine past rendition and torture cases on the grounds of secrecy. The Obama administration has explicitly decided to continue the “rendition” policy which led to Nasr’s illegal kidnapping, albeit with the addition of  anti-torture “safeguards” similar in language if not effect when compared to those in place under Bush (it remains to be seen to which countries these “rendered” suspects will be sent, and whether the renditions will be the illegal kind practiced by Bush/Cheney or the arguably “legalized” form that took place before that, beginning with Reagan through Clinton). And most notably of all, we continue to be a country which – in the name of secrecy and national security – insists that the rule of law and accountability simply do not apply to our highest government officials when they break the law.

No one else seems to think that way these days. We’re special.

You can find more in the Greenwald item – with links to other details and observations – but you see what he is arguing here. We’ve become untethered from the rest of the world, and from its values. And we seem proud of it, as we prefer the perpetually new, where perhaps there are no values yet, nor much sense, nor much real law, nor much of anything. So maybe Gertrude Stein was right. In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. And that really is what makes America what it is.

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.
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