Friday, October 20, 2006

On The Battle of Algiers and the Military Commissions Act of 2006

I have a confession to make: Though I had often heard of its greatness, until this week I had never seen Gillo Pontecorvo's highly influential film Battle of Algiers, which chronicles some of the key moments in the bloody revolution that eventually saw Algeria win its independence from France in 1962 after an eight year war. That being the case, I was stunned by how relevant the film is to present-day debates in the United States about the methods which the U.S. government should employ to fight its terrorist foes and proceed amidst the current relentless march of carnage in Iraq. The parallels are even more suggestive given the August 2003 screening of the film by the US Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict at The Pentagon, a flyer for which stated that the film illustrated "how to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas."

On this day when militiamen linked to the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr overtook the southeastern Iraqi city of Amara, and when the United States seems to have sacrificed many of its fundamental liberties in the name of security, the power of The Battle of Algiers remains in its refusal to sanitize the violence that came from any side in the Algerian conflict, showing civilians as victims equally of the pro-independence Front de Libération Nationale as well as French miliatry and colonial forces.

When one witnesses the great French actor Jean Martin, in perhaps his most memorable role as the imperious Colonel Mathieu, telling assembled reporters that “the word ‘torture’ isn’t used in our orders, we use interrogation as the only valid police method against clandestine activity,” the words of U.S. president George W. Bush from a September 6th press conference this year echo strongly.

At that press conference this year, Bush declared that, when the U.S. government captured the Al Qaeda terrorist Abu Zubaydah “the CIA used an alternative set of procedures” to question him.

“These procedures were designed to be safe, to comply with our laws, our Constitution, and our treaty obligations.” Bush went on. “The Department of Justice reviewed the authorized methods extensively and determined them to be lawful. I cannot describe the specific methods used -- I think you understand why -- if I did, it would help the terrorists learn how to resist questioning, and to keep information from us that we need to prevent new attacks on our country. But I can say the procedures were tough, and they were safe, and lawful, and necessary.”

One month later (this month), President Bush signed into law the Military Commissions Act of 2006, a piece of legislation which, though it specifically bars acts such as murder and rape and "cruel and inhuman" treatment, gives the green light for, among other things, withholding evidence from defendants, denying defendants the right to file habeas corpus petitions, establishes military tribunals for terror suspects, retains the right to send detainees to secret prisons abroad and gives immunity to U.S. government agents for acts regarding their interrogation practices. The Act also broadens the definition of “enemy combatant” to include anyone who offered “material support” to a person or persons engaged in hostilities against the U.S., enabling them to be held indefinitely in military detention regardless of whether or not they took any active role in any hostilities.

Following the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, such a policy would seem short-sighted at best and an active undermining of the rule of law, both national and international, well, by any rational context.

Hopefully the next administration will try and stitch the shreds of the Constitution back into something that resembles America, as that image seems to be getting more and more distant everyday.

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