Then They Came for Me

Friday, October 15th, 2010

Speaking out a year ago against the idea of holding civilian trials for terrorism suspects, Liz Cheney captured the paranoid arrogance of the past decade with stunning efficiency:

“This demonstrates conclusively that we are going back to a pre-9/11 mentality,” she said.

Oh the horror! Fair trials, rule of law, habeas corpus, Miranda rights, blah, blah, blah — remember what a nuisance our justice system used to be before Liz’s father and the rest of the neocon High Nooniacs made us safe by hustling us off to a police state and perpetual war?

I can’t help but think about the younger Cheney’s comment — and the fear it implies, not of terrorists but of liberals — in connection with the lawsuit that a recently freed Guantanamo detainee, Abdul Razak al Janko, has filed in U.S. Federal Court against Robert Gates, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and about a hundred other current and former military and government officials.

And when I do, the first words that come to my mind are those that Martin Niemoller, a conservative German Lutheran minister, famously uttered at the end of World War II: “First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me, and no one was left to speak for me.”

Janko, a Syrian who is now 32, was forced as a young man — who was in the wrong place at the wrong time– to join a Taliban combat training camp near Kandahar, Afghanistan. When he tried to flee instead, the Taliban denounced him as a spy for the U.S. and Israel and sentenced him to 25 years in prison. For the next 18 months he experienced hellish treatment at the hands of the Taliban: severe beatings, electric shock, sleep deprivation, death threats, cigarettes extinguished on his body, and much more. He finally confessed to being a spy and a deviant.

Shortly after 9/11, when the U.S. ousted the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, Janko, the “confessed” U.S. spy, rather than being freed, was merely transferred to U.S. custody and eventually consigned to Guantanamo. He remained a prisoner. And the torture didn’t stop. He was still in hell.

Indeed, his U.S. captors and the Taliban rival one another in their ability to do torture, Janko said. According to his lawsuit, at Guantanamo he was subjected to severe beatings, sleep deprivation, exposure to extreme temperatures, intimidation with police dogs, threats to inflict intense physical pain (such as removal of his fingernails), extreme degradation (he claims that U.S. soldiers urinated on him when he first arrived at Gitmo), years of solitary confinement, and much more.

He was in such unrelenting desperation he made 17 suicide attempts while at Guantanamo, according to the lawsuit. Eventually, the “confessed” American spy “confessed” to his new captors that he was a member of al-Qaida. Since he didn’t know any of their plans, he made some up.

All that saved Janko’s life — what was left of it — was the fact that the “pre-9/11 mentality” of Liz Cheney’s nightmares wasn’t completely dead in his captor nation. In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court, dominated by conservative justices, ruled that suspected terrorists had a right to file claims of false imprisonment in federal court. In June of 2009, Janko won his case. The presiding judge, George W. Bush-appointee Richard J. Leon, commented in his decision that the former Taliban prisoner’s detention by the United States “defies common sense.”

The fact that Janko’s nightmare may be over, that he may actually see a modicum of justice for the unimaginable horrors he has endured, radiates hope, certainly. But I remain deeply concerned that it isn’t merely the lingering neocon remnants of the Bush regime who stand in opposition to this process.

Carol Rosenberg, in a recent article about Janko’s lawsuit in the Miami Herald, writes: “The United States, however, has not acknowledged mistreatment of detainees at Guantanamo beyond what it says were scattered episodes of guards and interrogators misunderstanding the boundaries of behavior.”

A fear- and vengeance-driven post-9/11 mentality could yet become the done deal it is in Liz Cheney’s mind. She and other war-on-terror promoters still have enormous political and financial power. They also have an outsized media forum from which to bloviate and intimidate, despite all the harm they have wrought this past decade, not just to millions of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan and to the American troops who served their ends, but to the financial and moral integrity of their own country.

And a wishy-washy Obama administration, unable to break publicly from the worst policies of its predecessor, mostly serves the agenda it was elected to stop. In this political void, lawsuits such as the one brought by Abdul Razak al Janko are our stand-in for the truth commission, or the war crimes investigation, that should be convened to begin reversing the Bush era.