Friday, April 03, 2009

It takes all kinds.

Throughout my life, I've had the experience of bridging different 'worlds'. It started young, when we lived in Bavaria for a year. Immersed through attendance at a Catholic nursery school, I quickly became fluent in the local dialect, and acted as interpreter, linguistic and cultural, for my mother; at school I was a little ambassador for Amerika. Once back home in a community sharply divided between college town and agricultural county, I was part of a tiny minority of town-centric students in my county school. I was the only child at Sunday school or in my Brownie troop to stick up for county kids -- my neighborhood and school friends -- when townies made redneck jokes. I was also the only member of the 4-H club to do my exhibit project on ornamental hollies...

Later on, as an LBJ-liberal southerner at a northern Quaker high school divided internally between 'jocks' and 'artsy-craftsies', I was unusual in having friends in both camps. As I got involved in political work, it seemed I was always the radical among liberals or the moderate among radicals. Bridging the gulf between election-focused and movement activists has been a long-standing tension.

This lifetime of straddling has sharpened my ability to see the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches, and the usefulness of having a variety of approaches overall.

That said, I find myself lately at a low ebb in my appreciation for "process liberals." Familiarity gained by yoking myself to them over the last seven years in the broad anti-Bush/Cheney coalition has inevitably bred a bit of contempt.

Human rights, specifically the issue of torture, is what brought me into political work and continues to motivate me. The record of just who stood up for what principles and when over the last fifteen years has been instructive. Those who didn't shrink from voicing their darkest suspicions early on out of concern for being thought unreasonable or "reflexive America-haters" were proved right, and quickly. Those who stepped up to take on the cases of people accused of terrorism when doing so was beyond unpopular -- considered treasonous, even -- have my undying respect.

I trimmed my own sails for several months after September 2001, trying to see things from the centrists' view well enough to make myself effective in communicating to them the wrongness of wars of choice and of endless, lawless, unreviewable detention. I've not only used pragmatic arguments but tried to help others learn when and how to make them. But for some time now, an inner Nell has been curling her lip and saying, "Fvck that noise."

Which brings me to Clive Stafford-Smith and Reprieve.

Stafford Smith's career m.o. involves publicity and showboating, but always for a point, and to good purpose. I don't doubt that his actions sometimes make other Guantanamo lawyers wince. But without someone with his chutzpah, we'd be much more in the dark than we are about the crimes committed by the U.S. and U.K. authorities and their accomplice states. In a system of lawless dictatorship and Catch-22 -- the system in which the prison at Guantanamo was established, and from which it has yet to break free -- there has to be a Yossarian or two.

Hilzoy (of Obsidian Wings and Washington Monthly), someone who exemplifies the best and the most maddening qualities of process liberals, posted this back in February:

[Binyam] Mohamed's lawyer has alleged that DoD officials censored a letter that he sent to Barack Obama about what his client had gone through. His evidence seems to be that he got a redacted copy of the letter back. ... does it sound plausible that some DoD official could have blacked out these pages in order to keep Obama from seeing them and succeeded? The President can see any classified information he wants. And if I were trying to prevent him from seeing something, handing him a letter with two pages blacked out would not be my method of choice.

In comments to that post I responded:

Good on Clive Stafford [Smith] for publicizing the Kafka-esque redaction of his own client's [history]. By posing the question of whether the information in it was kept from Obama, he implictly raises the serious issue of Obama's obligations should he become undeniably aware of what was done to Mohamed at the behest of the U.S. government.

Now the Pentagon's privilege review team has confirmed my reading of their purpose in redacting the memo (to give Obama plausible deniability of the knowledge of the U.S. crimes), by retaliating against Stafford Smith for publishing it:

Lawyers for Binyam Mohamed face the incredible prospect of a six-month jail sentence in America after writing a letter to President Obama detailing their client's allegations of torture by US agents.

Clive Stafford Smith, director of legal charity Reprieve, and his colleague Ahmed Ghappour have been summoned to appear before a Washington court on May 11 after a complaint was made by the privilege review team ... [who] argue that by releasing the redacted memo Reprieve has breached the rules that govern Guantánamo lawyers and have made a complaint to the court of "unprofessional conduct".

There are significant differences among Guantanamo defense lawyers in their adherence to the letter and spirit of the rules laid down by the Department of Defense. But I imagine that even those lawyers who've been most circumspect about complying would agree that the rules and the enforcement of them by the privilege review team have been arbitrary, punitive, petty, and abusive over the last seven years. Granting the lawless jailers legitimacy at all is a grim necessity of functioning as a lawyer in such a repressive system; giving them the benefit of the doubt and attributing decent motivations to them means being played for a fool.

Thanks be for seriously un-foolish jesters like Clive Stafford Smith. He deserves support and gratitude, not sniffy diffidence.
Cross-posted to A Tiny Revolution

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At 2:49 AM, April 04, 2009, Anonymous james said...

Ridicule is a very powerful weapon against the lunacy of the powerful. And given that their power rests ultimately on the perceptions of the dispossed, I think it should be encouraged at every turn.

It would certainly be a blessed relief from the tedious pedantry and nit-picking of "liberals" frightened of losing their priviledge should they venture too far and actually upset the status quo.

It is, indeed, telling that Hilzoy's and Gude's response to the redacted letter was, "it can't be true" rather than, "show us the letter" as you would expect of someone tenaciously pursuing in the truth.

Even viewed from a distance -
"when Obama asked what information, he was handed two completely blacked out pages and that’s the end of the story. Seriously, does that sound plausible?"

should have been countered by a thinking person with,
"Would Stafford-Smith risk saying he had this redacted letter when in fact he did not?" and "who is more likely to lie here?"

So I agree, fuck the noise. Lampooning may be the most effective harpooning. If not, then it is, at least, a tonic along the way.

At 12:54 PM, April 04, 2009, Blogger Nell said...


You may be misinterpreting Hilzoy's response. She wasn't doubting that Stafford Smith had received a redacted copy of his memo from the review team, since she included a link to the pdf of it. She was skeptical that Obama was given a redacted copy.

But I think she was missing Stafford Smith's point: raising the question of whether Obama had actually seen the full underlying document was the purpose of the Pentagon's screeners in sending the redacted copy back to Reprieve.

They couldn't possibly have expected Stafford Smith to stay silent about that, making their punitive action now even more clearly an attempt to harass and intimidate.

At 4:28 PM, April 04, 2009, Anonymous james said...

So are you saying that the DoD officials set a trap for Stafford-Smith and he duly walked into it?

On re-reading the Obsidian Wings article, I noted the pdf link as you indicated. I think because of the choice of words by Hilzoy and Gude, I took it the way I did because that reading made more sense.
I wonder if dealing with snakes and their convolutions ends up affecting the thinking and speech of people like Hilzoy so that they start to sound just as convoluted? Or maybe it's just me.

Whatever, I can't begin to imagine the fortitude Clive Stafford-Smith must have in dealing with these snakes for so long.

At 8:57 PM, April 05, 2009, Blogger Jonathan Versen said...

Hi Nell,
are you familiar with Helena Cobban's Just World News? I don't automatically assume you are a Quaker, but your mentioning your schooling made me think of her website/blog. She is a Quaker, and used to write for the Christian Science Monitor, mainly on the middle east.

At 6:15 PM, April 07, 2009, Blogger Batocchio said...

Clive Stafford Smith with Greenwald, if you missed it.

At 8:00 PM, April 07, 2009, Blogger Nell said...

@Jonathan V: Yes, she's a treasure. I'm not a Quaker (yet another bridging exercise at school), but I've gained a real appreciation for the Quaker approach to conflicts, something that Helena Cobban displays in action.

@Batocchio: Thanks for linking that; I just read the post before checking in here. As a reader and someone on dialup, I'm very grateful for GG providing transcripts of his interviews.

The attention being paid by Greenwald and Horton to the Kafka-esque persecution of Stafford Smith is heartening.


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