Off Label: A Tragicomically Beautiful Art-Doc

The profound, personal tales stemming from the commercialization and subsequent abuse of prescription drugs deserve a penetrating exposé, but don’t discount October Country filmmakers Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher’s tragicomically beautiful art-doc, which sensitively favors unflinching testimonials and visually impressionistic observations over journalistic activism. In a tangentially linked, cleverly edited medley of portraits, a 22-year-old army medic gripes about the inapt pharmaceutical dregs offered him to combat PTSD from his Abu Ghraib stationing, while a former inmate forgives the institutional villains who ruined him through forced medical experiments. Other guinea pigs step forward, like the neo-hippie couple who undergo drug trials to pay for their wedding, and a young Asian American who gets mistaken for a junkie because of his oft-punctured arms. As their stories unfold, the camera seeks out the nearby environment’s fleeting, Malick-friendly poetry—in bonobo babies, insect cocoons, and a passerby carrying a giant cross down the Vegas strip behind a subject sadly crafting balloon animals for tips—but even a graphic combat-death photo montage doesn’t chill the bones quite like the reform-fighting mom who recounts the ghastly specifics of her son’s antidepressant-study-caused suicide.



Yilana’s Fringe Sensation 666 at Minetta Lane

On the surface, the Spanish group Yllana’s 2009 Fringe sensation 666 (now transplanted to the Minetta Lane Theater) seems like another nonverbal spectacle for tourists, along the lines of Stomp or Fuerzabruta. But something’s amiss—the clowns in this show play orange-clad prisoners who twitch and stutter their way through a variety of orgiastic, puerile, and gruesomely amusing routines. Like Blue Man Group Goes to Gitmo, maybe. They pretend to empty their chamberpots into the audience (number 1, thankfully), they sexually harass an audience member, they love to mime anal rape (even victimizing a stuffed lamb). One clever bit of Bunraku-inspired staging makes possible a grimly funny skit about two recently hanged men.

Though first performed in Valencia, Spain, in 1998, the show has only become more disturbing in the intervening years of “black sites” and Abu Ghraib. Yet the piece is so juvenile that it makes that observation seem silly—the profundity ends when the trousers drop.

Since 666 begins beyond tastelessness, of course it devolves into gags about gas chambers, and of course the finale includes a Greek chorus of sweaty demons with three-foot phalluses assaulting playgoers with their members. If the show didn’t end there, it would have to kill you.


Memorial Day Tritely Places Onus of War on Douchey Troops

For a while at least, Memorial Day suggests B-roll left over from an Ocean City, Maryland, edition of The Real World. Realistically performed by a cast of unknowns, the film’s party animals paint their shore town red with expletives, gross displays of genitalia, and monologues about Jews and doughnuts, the street signs around them suggesting we “remember those who have served our country.” Inviting the audience’s disdain for these perpetually performing douchebags, writer-director Josh Fox’s convincingly styled mockumentary appears interested in examining that curious neocon idea that the war in Iraq is meant to protect our freedoms. Is showing your dick or bush to a camera a privilege we enjoy because of our troops or is it one that trivializes their courage? But rather than argue this question, Fox muddles it by revealing his spring breakers to be soldiers on leave. Back in Iraq, the film’s trite, unexamined spectacle of men and women behaving badly proceeds: a forced testicle-shaving, promises of cunnilingus, and childish philosophical rants that wink at the Abu Ghraib–like facility’s torture victims, who appear most pained by the bad improv that fills the air. Placing the onus of the war on the troops, Fox follows Redacted‘s vile moral playbook, only without Brian De Palma’s self-reflexive, formalist gestures.


Urban Death

Zombie Joe is the real thing: a genuine outsider artist with an aesthetic so single-minded it approaches madness. In Urban Death, an hour-long anthology of wordless terror tableaux, this North Hollywood–based writer-director carves a gory path somewhere between visionary theater and exploitation, between Richard Foreman and Ed Wood.

Opening with an Abu Ghraib–like pile of bodies that slowly quakes up into staring, stalking zombie life, Urban Death treats us to a nightmare clown, erotic asphyxiation, flashlight-lit creepy-crawlies, and assorted excisions and suppurations. Joe’s ensemble of 10 varies widely in polish but not in commitment—their eyes bugging over thick makeup, they all look like graduates of the George Romero school of commedia dell’arte.

Though the pace and shape of the evening often wavers, Zombie Joe has mastered one thing above all: the unique power of theatrical darkness. Many of these vignettes last less than a minute before they’re swallowed up by chillingly complete blackouts, and the resulting blackness seems to discolor even the show’s most garishly lit images. That sense of encroaching, inescapable gloom is finally the scariest thing about Urban Death. It may not be deathless art, but there’s an unmistakable, undead pulse in Zombie Joe’s black-box theatrics.


Daily Flog: Poland to the rescue, homicidal geezer school-bus driver, China imports gold, Georgia imports Rice, more abuse (ho-hum) of Iraqis

Running down the press:

Times: ‘U.S. and Poland Set Missile Deal’

Refusing to take off their Cold War monocles, Thom Shanker and Nicholas Kulish ignore the hilarity of Condi Rice going to Georgia to simmer things down. Instead, they try to get poetic on our asses:

The deal reflected growing alarm in countries like Poland, once a conquered Soviet client state, about a newly rich and powerful Russia’s intentions in its former cold war sphere of power. In fact, negotiations dragged on for 18 months — but were completed only as old memories and new fears surfaced in recent days.

The funniest line in this super-self-consciously serious piece:

Polish officials said the agreement would strengthen the mutual commitment of the United States to defend Poland, and vice versa.

Vice versa . . . Poland defending the U.S. . . . let’s see . . . oh, yeah, maybe we could get Poland to step in on behalf of Williamsburg’s Poles to try to stop Manhattan developers from wrecking the Brooklyn enclave’s waterfront.

Solidarność with the hipsters!

See FAIR’s fresh dissection of media blubber: “Georgia/Russia Conflict Forced Into Cold War Frame.”

McClatchy: ‘U.S. ‘no’ to intervention leaves Russia in control of Georgia’

One of the best U.S. sources of world news — and probably the liveliest — the McClatchy D.C. Bureau (the old Knight-Ridder operation) is a solid site. For the full flavor of the good reporting and breezy writing, try this from Nancy A. Youssef, Tom Lasseter, and Dave Montgomery:

American officials on Thursday ended speculation that the U.S. military might come to the rescue of Georgia’s beleaguered government, confirming Russia’s virtual takeover of the former Soviet republic and heralding Moscow’s reemergence as the dominant power in eastern Europe.

“I don’t see any prospect for the use of military force by the United States in this situation. Is that clear enough?” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told reporters in his first public comments since the crisis began Aug. 7.

“The empire strikes back,” said Ariel Cohen, a Russia expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Gates’ comments came just 24 hours after President Bush dramatically announced in a televised White House appearance that American military aircraft and ships would be dispatched to carry humanitarian aid to Georgia and that the U.S. was expecting unfettered access to Georgia’ ports and airports.

But Bush apparently had spoken out of turn, before Turkey, which by treaty controls access to the Black Sea, had agreed, and on Thursday, Pentagon officials said they doubted that U.S. naval vessels would be dispatched.

Slate: ‘Conventional Nonsense: Making the case for a press boycott of the national political conventions’

Jack Shafer notes the foregone conclusions of these non-events. Amen.


The tab’s institutional contempt for Hillary pays off in this case, because she really did push her way onto the DNC stage. Not that this is big news. But how many more shots at Hillary does the Post have left? And she is such an easy target.

Christian Science Monitor: ‘Mexican citizens asked to fight crime’

Sara Miller Llana‘s story notes:

[I]f Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard has his way, a new corps of 300,000 residents will become watchdogs of sorts — monitoring and turning in police officials who operate outside the law.

The Times reports on the same story — citizens outraged that corrupt cops are even aiding and abetting kidnappings of children — but of course it takes the establishment side, not even noting Ebrard’s call for a citizen corps.

Can you imagine a crew of 300,000 New Yorkers regularly keeping tabs on the NYPD? The Times sniffs, Don’t even mention it. And its story sez:

Given the involvement of some wayward officers in the kidnapping trade, it is easy to see why victims’ relatives look outside police forces in trying to bring such nightmares to an end.

But Luis Cárdenas Palomino, director of intelligence for the federal police, says that private negotiators do not have the same experience as his veteran agents, who he says have been catching more kidnappers and freeing more victims in recent years.

No wonder that, here in NYC, the Times, with its institutionalized obeisance to authority, doesn’t hold the NYPD’s feet to the fire.


A runaway school bus crushes pregnant NYPD traffic agent Donnette Sanz, “but a superhuman effort by 30 strangers who lifted the vehicle off her body miraculously saved her baby before she died.”

Word pictures of the bus driver with his head in his hands — “”The light turned red, and I couldn’t stop . . . I tried to miss her. I tried to go behind her, but she stopped and moved back, and I hit her.”

Oh, by the way, we find out only at the end of this weeper that the 72-year-old driver hasn’t had a license in 40 years and that his record includes “a gun bust and arrests for driving on a suspended license, grand larceny, menacing and aggravated harassment.”

And he was driving a school bus — a school bus!

Most absurd quote of the day:

Mayor Bloomberg, who went to St. Barnabas to comfort [her] relatives, said, “I hope that as this child grows up, he comes to understand that his mother gave her life in service to our city, and we are forever grateful.”

The Daily News account is lamer, but it does include this quote from Bloomberg:

“It is a terrible poignancy that Donnette’s son’s birthday will now coincide with the day his mother died.”

Give Bloomberg a break. George W. Bush couldn’t have connected those dots.


Great quote garnered by Ikimulisa Livingston:

Kareem Bellamy stepped out of Queens Supreme Court to the open arms of relatives and cheers from his relentless law team, which spent nearly four years working to get him freed.

“I hope I don’t get struck by lightning,” he joked in the midst of a thunderstorm. “I can’t believe I’m really walking out.”

Times: ‘Bomber Kills 18 on Shiite Pilgrimage in Iraq’

Obsessed with Georgia, the Times editors are now consigning Iraq news to a roundup — you know, like those small-town-newspaper city council stories that always include “in other business” items.

Today’s example is yet another suicide bombing. In other business, the Times adds:

And at Camp Bucca, an American military base in southern Iraq, six sailors who were working as prison guards in Iraq are facing courts-martial on charges of abusing detainees, the United States Navy said in a statement on Thursday.

Only two other brief grafs, both far down the story, about this abuse. No mention of exactly what kind of abuse is alleged or that Camp Bucca is the largest U.S. prison in Iraq, housing a staggering 18,000 Iraqis, probably none of whom have been to trial.

At least the BBC saw fit to present a separate story on this.

But the U.S. establishment press has consistently underplayed jail abuse, except when it reaches the high embarrassment level of Abu Ghraib. Remember the proud “Murderous Maniacs” at Camp Mercury near Fallujah, the U.S. soldiers who beat up prisoners for sport? If you don’t, see yesterday’s Daily Flog.


Feds yesterday busted a birdbrained Philadelphia man for allegedly trying to blackmail Giants Coach Tom Coughlin with false allegations of extramarital flings with two women.

Stop right there, unless you want to walk around all day with images swirling in your brain of this aging coach naked and having sex.


Hed of the day, lovingly applied to a wire story:

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – The man who fatally shot the chairman of the state Democratic Party after he lost his job had a Post-it note at home with the victim’s last name and phone number along with 14 guns, antidepressants and a last will and testament, according to court documents.

Wall Street Journal: ‘World Economy Shows New Strain’

If you can tear yourself away from Olympic water polo for a second, remember that China is losing the gold-medal battle but is raking in the gold anyway.

The WSJ reports, in other business:

The global economy — which had long remained resilient despite U.S. weakness — is now slowing significantly, with Europe offering the latest evidence of trouble. . . .

With the European growth report, four of the world’s five biggest economies — the U.S., the euro zone, Japan and the U.K. — are now flirting with recession.

China, the world’s fourth-largest economy, is still expanding strongly, as are India and other large developing economies. . . .

The global weakness marks a sharp reversal of expectations for many corporations and investors, who at the year’s outset had predicted that major economies would remain largely insulated from America’s woes.

The Journal almost always leavens its dense reporting with a human touch (not on its inhumane editorial pages, but in news stories), and even this piece has a good morsel:

British consumers are hunkering down. “The cost of living has rocketed,” says Gareth Lucas, 34 years old. He works part time at a hospital in Swansea, south Wales. With fuel costs so high, Mr. Lucas tries to fit more tasks into each car trip and no longer treats himself to cappuccino at a nearby café.

At night, to make extra cash, Mr. Lucas does gigs as a stand-up comedian — but increasingly he performs to smaller audiences. “People just aren’t going out anymore,” he says.

Wall Street Journal: ‘Data Raise Questions On Role of Speculators’

Suspicions confirmed: The oil market is being driven by scumbag speculators, not the “free market.” The WSJ puts it into perspective:

Data emerging on players in the commodities markets show that speculators are a larger piece of the oil market than previously known, a development enlivening an already tense election-year debate about traders’ influence.

Last month, the main U.S. regulator of commodities trading, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, reclassified a large unidentified oil trader as a “noncommercial” speculator.

The move changed many analysts’ perceptions of the oil market from a more diversified marketplace to one with a heavier-than-thought concentration of financial players who punt on big bets.

This is a fascinating developing story — let alone a probable explanation of why gas costs so much — if only the rest of the press would take the topic seriously.

Here’s the politics of it:

The . . . questions about the reliability and transparency of data in this market are feeding into efforts by Congress to impose restrictions on energy trading. Four Democratic senators on Thursday called for an internal CFTC inspector-general investigation into the timing of a July 22 release of a report led by the agency. That report concluded speculators weren’t “systematically” driving oil prices. Oil prices soared until mid-July before beginning a decline.

In recent months, legislators in Congress have demanded insight about the distinction as they try to answer concerns of constituents, from companies to consumers, about what has contributed to the high price of gasoline and other fuels.



Daily Flog: Warning to whitey, desired streetcars, soiled Lennon, two Georgias, Target practice

Running down the press:

Daily News: ‘First look at wife of John Lennon slayer in decades – she says let me be’

Jesus Christ! I’d forgotten that Mark David Chapman was such a sicko/twisted Lennon wannabe that he had also married a woman of Japanese descent.


Congratulations to the Post for not only mentioning in the second paragraph that the shooter had just been fired from a Target store but also for showing the maturity not to hammer into readers that grim irony, as I am immaturely doing right now.


Good story, better head. The fourth graf is key:

McCain has closed the gap by padding his lead among whites, Southerners and white evangelical Christians.

At least that should make the rest of us whites feel better — that we’re not quite as bad at acting on our institutionalized, internalized racist impulses.

Being upfront about race is something that much of the media is not doing. Witness this CNN story:

“McCain, Obama to address ‘values voters’ “

Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama plan to appear together Saturday at a minister-moderated forum held in a church as thousands of evangelicals plan to gather in the nation’s capital to pressure both men move further to the right on social issues.

“Values voters” my shiny metal ass. The rest of us also vote our “values.” These are white conservative Christians (99 percent of them), so call them that in the headlines. Christ, there are even political parties in Europe that use “Christian” in their names.

Newsday: ‘Revealed: Julia Child was a U.S. spy in World War II’

This AP story is old news, but it does remind us why she seemed to have such mixed feelings about turkey.


Clever hed on this:

The 38-year-old Favre – who turns 39 in October – had his fifth practice yesterday morning for the New York Jets, but he admitted his arm wasn’t exactly feeling lively.

Brett Favre is one pro athlete who talks like a real person, unlike the platitudinous Derek Jeter, for example, or the former Giant blowhard Jeremy Shockey or the guarded-beyond-all-reason, high-paid choker Alex Rodriguez. Favre sez:

“I didn’t throw the ball very well this morning, underthrew some throws. No pain, but I’m 38 years old. It’s got to be fatigued a little bit. . . . I felt 38 today, I’m not going to lie to you.”

In his case, he probably won’t. A rare celebrity.

Times: ‘In a Generation, Minorities May Be the U.S. Majority’

Warning to whitey: Your reign as The Man will end sooner than predicted. Sam Roberts reports:

The census calculates that by 2042, Americans who identify themselves as Hispanic, black, Asian, American Indian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander will together outnumber non-Hispanic whites. Four years ago, officials had projected the shift would come in 2050.

The British press doesn’t whitewash this news with P.C. tentativeness. The BBC’s lede, for example:

White people of European descent will no longer make up a majority of the US population by the year 2042 – eight years sooner than previous estimates.

The big change is among Hispanics and Asians whose share of the population is set to double to 30% and 9%.

The Times more subtly emits a red-alert tone:

“No other country has experienced such rapid racial and ethnic change,” said Mark Mather, a demographer with the Population Reference Bureau, a research organization in Washington.

Unless you’re talking about the Cherokee Nation. In that previous monumental conflict in Georgia (even before Sherman’s march), Andrew Jackson ethnically cleansed the Cherokees, herding them to the Ozarks along the Trail of Tears and replacing them with slaves and ballcap-wearing, NASCAR-loving rednecks.

Anyway, the Times just loves trend stories, and here’s a trend in the Times itself: Just last week (as I noted on August 7), the paper blared “‘Minorities Often a Majority of the Population Under 20’ “

Next topic for the Times: How do we protect the Upper West Side from these Visigoths?

Human Rights Watch: ‘High Toll from Attacks on Populated Areas’

Yes, NYC-based Human Rights Watch has an open bias as a Goody Two-Shoes, but also does some great reporting — unlike its better-known but stodgy fellow NGO Amnesty International — so why not include it in “the press”?

Mainstream international papers, like the Guardian (U.K.), have no problem giving HRW full credit when it breaks news stories. This morning the Guardian‘s Mark Tran notes:

Human Rights Watch provides the first independent confirmation that Georgian villages in South Ossetia have been looted and burned.

HRW is somewhat schizoid as a news source, because it always follows its great nuggets of news with predictable appeals to officials to stop the madness. For example, today it reports:

Forces on both sides in the conflict between Georgia and Russia appear to have killed and injured civilians through indiscriminate attacks, respectively, on the towns of Gori and Tskhinvali, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch expressed its deep concern over the apparently indiscriminate nature of the attacks that have taken such a toll on civilians.

Memo to HRW: Lose the second sentence, please, because your news reporting speaks for itself and you’re clouding the impact of that reporting with that squishy, predictable statement of “deep concern.” (I guess HRW feels it has to do that, but I ignore such statements of concern — who could disagree with such sentiments? — and take its reporting seriously. Keep reading this item and you’ll see why.)

U.S. papers refuse to include HRW and like groups in their press club, but the Internet dissolves that separation because HRW’s reports are as freely and directly available as news from other sources.

You may have forgotten — and the mainstream press has done nothing to help you remember — that HRW broke one of the most grim and explosive stories (so far) from the Iraq War.

Back in September 2005, HRW revealed that U.S. troops at Camp Mercury, outside Fallujah, proudly called themselves “Murderous Maniacs” as they tortured and beat up hapless Iraqi prisoners merely for sport — and in a highly sexualized way that was worse than at Abu Ghraib. As I wrote back then:

In a shocking new report, soldiers of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne reveal that they or their fellow soldiers routinely beat, tortured, stripped, humiliated, and starved Iraqi prisoners in 2003 and 2004 at a base near Fallujah, often breaking bones, either at the request of superiors or just to let off steam.

HRW wasn’t guessing, nor was it chiding from its Fifth Avenue offices. It waded right in and talked to U.S. troops about it. From its own report, “Leadership Failure: Firsthand Accounts of Torture of Iraqi Detainees by the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division”:

The accounts here suggest that the mistreatment of prisoners by the U.S. military is even more widespread than has been acknowledged to date, including among troops belonging to some of the best trained, most decorated, and highly respected units in the U.S. Army. They describe in vivid terms abusive interrogation techniques ordered by Military Intelligence personnel and known to superior officers. . . .

The torture of detainees reportedly was so widespread and accepted that it became a means of stress relief for soldiers.

Soldiers said they felt welcome to come to the PUC [Prisoner Under Control] tent on their off-hours to “Fuck a PUC” or “Smoke a PUC.” “Fucking a PUC” referred to beating a detainee, while “Smoking a PUC” referred to forced physical exertion sometimes to the point of unconsciousness.

Three years later, HRW has made its own march into Georgia. So keep tabs on its reporting. For that matter, keep checking the Guardian‘s Georgia page.

NY Observer: ‘Penguin Group Wins Rights to Steinbeck Novels’

Minor note on a major author, especially compared with Tony Ortega‘s unique yarn about Steinbeck and Mexican-American farmworkers in today’s Voice: “John Steinbeck’s Ghosts.”

Times: ‘Ruling Is a Victory for Supporters of Free Software’

John Markoff‘s piece about a court ruling in favor of open-source software is a little confusing, but the upshot is that a major pothole has been patched on our major transportation artery, the information highway.

Times: ‘Conflict Narrows Oil Options for West’

In other transportation news: Good piece by Jad Mouawad about our latest loss in the centuries-old Great Game in Central Asia, and bad news for us SUV owners:

[E]nergy experts say that the hostilities between Russia and Georgia could threaten American plans to gain access to more of Central Asia’s energy resources at a time when booming demand in Asia and tight supplies helped push the price of oil to record highs.

Times: ‘Downtowns Across the U.S. See Streetcars in Their Future’

Yet another transportation story.

Unfortunately, the Times blows this story by just briefly noting that cities and even small towns across the country had functioning streetcar lines until the mid 1950s, and not mentioning at all that it was the automobile lobby that killed them as it pressured pols to build the Interstate Highway System.

I don’t blanch at this new development because when I was a kid in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, I depended on the kindness of streetcars. Public transit is a blessing, no matter how much my fellow straphangers grouse about the MTA and Long Island Rail Road.


Carolyn Salazar‘s lede is right to the point:

An enterprising squatter transformed a vacant Brooklyn lot into a thriving million-dollar business — an illegal parking lot and chop shop, prosecutors said yesterday.

Whereas powerful pol Shelly Silver is squatting like Jabba the Hutt on a vacant lot on the Lower East Side, as the Voice‘s Tom Robbins reports.

Daily News: ‘Gloomy Gotti trip to Sunshine State’

The latest installment of news about the fading Italian-American Gangster Era. John Marzulli reports:

Junior is on the move.

John A. (Junior) Gotti, aka Bureau of Prisons inmate 00632-748, began his journey to Tampa Wednesday to be arraigned on racketeering and murder charges.

Who gives a shit?

Daily News: ‘Elizabeth Edwards stayed with cheating husband John for children’s sake’

A perfect example of how the Daily News almost always lags behind the Post in tabloidian terms. The lede:

An anguished Elizabeth Edwards decided to stay with her cheating husband because she is dying and worried about their two young children, her closest friend says.

Only five tabloidian buzzers: “anguished,” “cheating,” “dying, “worried,” and “closest friend.” Yesterday, I noted eight in a Post Edwards lede.


Judging the Torture Presidency of George W. Bush

In Standard Operating Procedure, a definitive account of what happened at Abu Ghraib published by Penguin Press, author Philip Gourevitch writes of the American interrogators who so degraded the humanity of prisoners:

“Even as they sank into a routine of depravity, [the interrogators] showed by their picture taking that they did not accept it as normal. They never fully got with the program. Is it not to their credit that they were profoundly demoralized?”

The much more compelling question—in view of the extent to which Abu Ghraib and other American war crimes have degraded us around the world—is whether the president and all the others at the top of the chain of command ever felt themselves in the least demoralized by the results of their orders.

And, even more important, will these perpetrators ever be put on trial as a deterrent to future presidents, Defense Department and CIA heads, and their eager lawyer-accomplices in these crimes?

General Ricardo Sanchez, former commander of the coalition forces in Iraq, in his recent memoir Wiser in Battle, writes that George W. Bush’s 2002 memorandum—that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to our “detainees” suspected of terrorist ties—”constituted a watershed event in U.S. military history. . . . And that guidance set America on a path to torture.” (Emphasis added.)

Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, signed by the United States and thereby part of our law, guarantees that any detained person has the right to be free from “cruel treatment and torture; outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment.”

This right applies whether the detainee is a prisoner of war, an “unprivileged” belligerent, a terrorist, or a noncombatant. Moreover, this right is in effect “in all circumstancesandat any time and in any place whatsoever.” (Emphasis added.)

In last week’s column, “The ‘W.’ Stands for ‘War Criminal,’ ” I detailed the undeniable and direct involvement of George W. Bush and others at the highest levels of the executive branch in these criminal violations of the Geneva Conventions, and of our own laws.

Was Bush demoralized when he first saw the disgusting Abu Ghraib photographs? He publicly expressed sorrow for the humiliation suffered by the prisoners and their families, but added, wearing his American-flag pin, that he was “equally sorry that the people who had been seeing those pictures didn’t understand the true nature and heart of America.

There is a hole in the soul of this faith-based commander in chief.

But on what legal basis can Bush and his confederates be charged in an American court for these war crimes? It’s called “command responsibility,” codified for the first time as an international doctrine in the 1977 Additional Protocol to the 1949 Geneva Conventions:

“The fact that a breach of the Conventions . . . was committed by a subordinate does not absolve his superiors from . . . responsibility . . . if they knew, or had information which should have enabled them to conclude, in the circumstances at the time, that [the subordinate] was committing or about to commit such a breach and if they did not take all feasible measures within their power to prevent or repress the breach.”

In our law, this command responsibility is called the “Yamashita Standard,” from the 1946 Supreme Court case of that name. During the last months of World War II, General Tomoyuki Yamashita (the so-called “Tiger of Malaysia”) commanded a unit of the Japanese army in the Philippines. To quote The Supreme Court in Conference (1940–1985), published by Oxford University Press: “When Japanese forces surrendered to the allies, Yamashita was arrested and charged with allowing his troops to commit murder and other war crimes against POWs and Philippine civilians.”

Tried by a special military commission created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Yamashita was convicted by a vote of 5-0 and sentenced to death on December 7, 1945—four years to the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The commission decided that the atrocities committed by the Japanese forces in the Philippines were so notorious that General Yamashita had to know about them—and did nothing to stop them.

George W. Bush and his lawyers obviously knew about Abu Ghraib and other war crimes, and not only didn’t try to prevent their continuance, but justified these interrogation practices—which are actually forbidden in the U.S. Army Field Manual—by exempting the CIA from the policies laid out in that manual.

General Yamashita’s chain of appeals ended with the Supreme Court, where, in a 6-2 opinion written by Chief Justice Harlan Stone (with Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, and William O. Douglas agreeing), the court ruled that Yamashita had been convicted by a military commission instituted by the president, the military command, and Congress—and that its authority did not end after the peace agreement.

Dissenters Frank Murphy and Wiley Rutledge angrily claimed that in an American court, Yamashita had been deprived of such constitutional rights as a grand-jury indictment, trial by jury, and the protection of American rules of evidence.

But in the majority, passionate civil libertarians Douglas and Black nonetheless let the original charge stand that General Yamashita, the commanding officer, was guilty of “unlawfully disregarding and failing to discharge his duty as commander to control the acts of members of his command by permitting them to commit war crimes.” General Yamashita was subsequently executed.

Internationally, there were also the Nuremberg trials, in which we participated, and at which Nazi leaders were convicted of war crimes after having been given extensive due-process rights.

Although I believe that a war-crimes trial of George W. Bush and his accomplices is legally justified, I cannot foresee it ever taking place; not only because it would much more deeply divide the nation than impeachment proceedings, but also because I doubt that any future American administration, with the threat of terrorism likely to continue for generations, would welcome the precedent of such a trial if there were another 9/11, or worse—resulting in more violations of American and international law uncritically accepted by a terrified citizenry.

Even so, the future histories of George W. Bush’s torture presidency will lay out an abundantly documented case regarding the resounding crimes he has permitted, and committed, in our name.

Next week: A former high-ranking CIA lawyer adds dramatically to the indictment.


Errol Morris Lets Torturers Off Easy

It’s been 20 years since Errol Morris made The Thin Blue Line—a found “noir” that served to free an innocent man convicted of murder. Gathering evidence and dramatizing testimony, Morris’s movie circled around a single, unrepresentable event—the death of a cop on a lonely stretch of Texas highway.

The Thin Blue Line brooded on fate, illuminating the rules that govern a trial as a form of shared fantasy. But this masterpiece not only persuaded a judge to overturn the verdict, it apparently convinced its maker that 1) his penchant for people-collecting was an essentially political enterprise, and 2) the transparent reconstructions he used to illustrate the concept of a legal fiction were legitimate forms of documentary argument. Since The Thin Blue Line‘s remarkable intervention, Morris’s work has grown more public and more problematic—lofty yet snide, a form of know-it-all epistemological inquiry.

Standard Operating Procedure, Morris’s film about a more recent crime, caps his atrocity trilogy. Mr. Death (1999) offered a disturbingly facetious portrait of a “scientific” Holocaust denier; more sober, The Fog of War (2004) presented that old devil Robert McNamara with an all-too-human face, albeit allowing McNamara to put his own spin on his prosecution of the Vietnam War. Standard Operating Procedure addresses Iraq—specifically, the infamous photographs of abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib and the so-called bad apples who took them.

Morris doesn’t use voiceover; he’s a master at getting interviewees to pose certain questions on their own—like why did Abu Ghraib even exist? For one thing, this prison was where Saddam’s minions murdered 30,000 Iraqis. For another, it was located in a combat zone—and under frequent mortar attack. Common sense, if not common decency, would have suggested that the U.S. level this nightmare. Instead, as Morris’s interviewees attest, Rumsfeld and his generals elected to “Gitmo-ize” the operation, torturing and otherwise brutalizing prisoners they dumped there—thus converting Abu Ghraib from Baathist hell to international symbol of American occupation.

Standard Operating Procedure is all about symbols. The Abu Ghraib images are hardly unfamiliar; Morris’s mission is to interrogate them. How did these pictures come into existence? And what, if anything, do they reveal? The snapshots and videos are mainly annotated by interviews with four of the seven bad apples, all former MPs, as well as letters home written by the most diligent of the amateur photographers, Sabrina Harman. What emerges from this testimony—which also goes a bit up the chain of command to include Janis Karpinski, the former brigadier general who supposedly oversaw Abu Ghraib, and who has since been demoted—is the suggestion that whatever the CIA was doing to extract dubious intelligence, the MPs were just entertaining themselves by producing their own show.

Bored, ignorant, and afraid, the bad apples were simply having fun. The prisoner photographed naked on all fours with a dog collar around his neck wasn’t actually dragged by the leash. The hooded guy standing on a box, wires attached to his outstretched hands, was never really in any danger. These pictures were posed! For Morris, who seems skeptical that photographs can ever disclose anything, the issue is legalistic. Focusing only on the photographic evidence, he asks if these images prove the commission of criminal acts or simply illustrate what one MP calls “standard operating procedure”—that is, the acceptable methods of stress positioning, sleep deprivation, and the ordering of inmates to masturbate while wearing nothing but panties on their heads.

If there’s a moral distinction, I must be too dense to grasp its significance. In either case, these photographs demonstrate the fascist thrill of dominating a helpless fellow human—although Sabrina says that hers were an intended exposé of prison conditions. (As evidence, however, they only served to send the bad apples to jail, while their superiors and the system that created Abu Ghraib went largely unscathed.) But whether one interprets these images as proof of torture or sadism or artistic expression, they attest to the gross objectification of the prisoners (who are scarcely less objectified in this film). The MPs may have given these men names—that’s Gus on the leash and good ol’ Gilligan on the box—but they were used as living props.

Credit where credit is due: By arranging Gilligan’s mock crucifixion, Sabrina did create a poster boy for the Iraq War. For his part, Morris fusses with the frame. He literalizes ghosts haunting the prison corridors. He introduces Gilligan with a flash of lightning. When one of Sabrina’s letters makes reference to an exploding helicopter, the filmmaker obligingly visualizes it; he accentuates her account of finding a corpse in the shower with a low-angle shot of water exploding in super-slow motion from the showerhead. A description of dogs attacking naked prisoners is supplemented with close-ups of slavering hounds. This obtrusive mannerism is not only superfluous but, for a movie that aspires to be a critique of representation, bizarrely self-defeating.

Why so frantic? Does Morris fear that the faces, voices, and photographs he’s assembled are insufficiently compelling to hold an audience? A vivid description of Fallujah’s nauseating stink doesn’t require smell-o-vision to register. Is he, like his subjects, compelled to amuse? Diverting attention from the banality of his inquiry? Fielding questions after a screening at the Museum of Modern Art, the filmmaker blurted out an observation on the strength of Janis Karpinski’s bladder—a non sequitur less revealing of her anxiety than his. Indeed, this admission exposed Morris’s standard operating procedure: Attention must be paid—if not to the film, then at least to its maker.

In its witless way, Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo is also founded on epistemological questions. As these two Asian-American stoners (John Cho and Kal Penn) are profiled throughout, so do they consistently profile others. As the resident voice of reason tells the comic villain, a Homeland Security goon who (literally) wipes his butt with the Bill of Rights: “It’s people like you who make the world think Americans are stupid!”

Unfortunately, nothing in Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo is funnier than its title. A tiresome succession of scatological gags and rote dick jokes, this sequel to Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle starts promisingly with Kumar busted as a terrorist while attempting to assemble a “smokeless” bong in an airplane toilet. His buddy Harold is innocent but, profiled by Homeland Security as a two-dude axis of evil—”North Korea and Al Qaeda working together”—the pair is shipped off to Gitmo. Their actual incarceration may be brief, but it’s fascinating to see that the filmmakers, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, imagine the worst form of torture as sexual humiliation. It’s a scenario that would have made perfect sense to Sabrina and the gang.

Escape From Guantanamo Bay is a largely mind-numbing experience, but if I hadn’t sat through it before seeing Standard Operating Procedure, I don’t think I’d have appreciated how much the Abu Ghraib photos owe to dumb-ass frat humor, stupid pet tricks, and YouTube gross-outs. Despite their aggressive bad taste, Hurwitz and Schlossberg are too nice to introduce Harold and Kumar to Gus or Gilligan. Why so squeamish? After all, the prisoners dehumanized at Abu Ghraib have long since assumed their position in the moral shithole of Bush-era American culture.


Getting Our Reputation Back

Last April at Drake University Law School in Des Moines, Iowa, a Democratic presidential candidate said of the present incumbent that “by condoning torture, kidnapping, and the operation of secret prisons, he has made us less safe from tyranny and terrorism. And by spying on American citizens and detaining individuals without access to courts, he has undermined our national values.”

That presidential aspirant dropped out of the race after Iowa. During his many years in the Senate, he has acquired more hands-on foreign-affairs experience than all the other candidates combined. He is also a constitutional scholar and still teaches constitutional law as an adjunct professor at Widener Law School in his home state. And he has introduced legislation to restore the Constitution and our reputation in the world. (It still languishes in committee.)

But the press and the voters paid little attention to Joe Biden’s candidacy. While campaigning, he also pointed out that “our enemies have used Abu Ghraib to recruit additional terrorists,” going so far as to declare: “We should raze Abu Ghraib.”

On January 12, the Associated Press reported that Lt. Colonel Steven L. Jordan, “the only officer court-martialed in the Abu Ghraib scandal,” has had his conviction thrown out by the Army—thereby ending the four-year investigation into the shocking treatment of Iraqi prisoners that the infamous photos exposed to the world. Yet despite that photographic evidence, “no officers or civilian leaders will be held criminally responsible. . . . ”

Former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld and the Justice and Defense Department lawyers who authorized those crimes can now breathe easier—along with Dick Cheney and the commander in chief in the Oval Office.

Biden, trying to awake the electorate, also condemned Guantánamo Bay—that parody of American due process—on the hustings: “Nations around the world view Guantánamo not as a facility necessitated by the war on terror, but as a symbol of American disregard for the rule of law.”

The new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, has come to the same conclusion. Speaking to a handful of reporters during a visit to Guantánamo on January 13, Mullen said: “I’d like to see it shut down.” Asked why, he responded: “More than anything else, it’s been the image—how Gitmo has become around the world, in terms of representing the United States. . . . I believe that from the standpoint of how it reflects on us, that it’s been pretty damaging.” But Mullen also added: “I’m not aware that there is any immediate consideration to closing Guantánamo Bay”—perhaps because Dick Cheney, the vice-president for disregarding the rule of law, will not allow it.

I doubt that many Americans are aware of how people around the world—not the jihadists, but those who used to regard us with a measure of respect and even some longing to be here—feel about us now. In the January-February issue of American Prospect, John Shattuck—often a valuable source for this column as an ACLU official in the ’70s and ’80s—reveals the following:

“A poll published in April 2007 by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs showed that in 13 of 15 countries—including Argentina, France, Russia, Indonesia, India, and Australia—a majority of people agreed that U.S. cannot be trusted to act responsibly in the world.” (Emphasis added.)

Al Qaeda’s strategists must have had a good chuckle over that.

In his article, titled “Healing Our Self-Inflicted Wounds,” Shattuck attempts to provide a prospectus on how Bush’s successor “can restore the rule of law to U.S. foreign policy—and rebuild American credibility and power.” He further demonstrates the steep challenge facing the next president and Congress:

“A survey conducted in June 2006 by coordinated polling organizations in Germany, Great Britain, Poland, and India found that majorities or pluralities in each country believed that the U.S. has tortured terrorist detainees and disregarded international treaties . . . and that other governments are wrong to cooperate with the U.S. in the secret ‘rendition’ of prisoners.”

Since 2006, there has been a continuing investigation by the European Parliament—one that has been watched closely by the press there—on the degree of complicity by European intelligence agencies and heads of state in the CIA’s kidnapping of citizens off their sovereign streets.

These suspects are sent by us to be interrogated in countries condemned by the State Department’s annual reports on human rights for habitual “torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishments.” One of those countries is Egypt, which has been condemned by the State Department not only for the “abuse of prisoners” but also for “the [Egyptian] Emergency Law [that] empowers the government to place wiretaps . . . without warrants.”

Just like our government here at home.

Shattuck, presently the CEO of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and, from 1993 to 1998, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, suggests that one way for the next administration to lawfully combat terrorism and restore our credibility internationally is “[t]o provide assistance to other countries for counter-terrorism operations that comply with basic human-rights standards.” He knows, of course, that we first have to show that we are willing to comply with those standards.

And, as Shattuck also points out, there are countries who now cite our methods—the methods that Joe Biden condemned—as a justification for their own brutalities. “Fighting terror has become a convenient excuse for repressive regimes to engage in further repression, often inspiring further terrorism in an increasing cycle of violence. . . . ”

Among these brutal nations are Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, Eritrea, and Cuba, whose foreign minister, Felipe Pérez Roque, gloats that “Bush authorized torture at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib and is [an] accessory to the kidnapping and disappearance of people as well as . . . clandestine prisons. ” (See my column, “How We Delight Our Enemies,” in the November 13, 2007, Voice.)

Shattuck urges that this country “should take the lead in drafting a comprehensive treaty defining and condemning terrorism within a framework of human rights,” thereby helping to “counter the claim that differences in cultural values, religious beliefs, political philosophies, or justifiable ends make it impossible to define the crime of terrorism.”

But who among the presidential candidates is most capable of leading the effort to create such an international human-rights consensus: Barack Obama? John McCain? Would either make Joe Biden our new secretary of state?

And if we have a Democratically controlled Congress next year, of what use in restoring our global reputation will the clueless Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi be? Maybe Biden can find time to tutor them.


Polythene Pan

If you need a reminder of how great the album Abbey Road is, then go see Things Are Going to Change, I Can Feel It. But if you’re seeking thoughtful alternative theater, skip it. The show, presented by the collective Immediate Medium, is billed as an “absurdist tale” in which a Midwestern stewardess becomes president. Sounds funny, but that notion is sadly spotty in this non-narrative piece. The actors, who are all remarkably emotive despite the murky experiment in which they partake, shake and shimmy to classics like “Come Together” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” behind a screen that illuminates their silhouettes. They also participate in a number of more ominous scenes that appear to signify strangulation. (When they put pillowcases on their heads and douse each other with water, the images—projected through a live video feed—recall Abu Ghraib.) These moments are set to other
Abbey Road hits and to ’60s-style dance moves: step left, step right, and booty shake. Throughout the piece, nearly indiscernible spoken text on seizing control of the government overlaps with confessions on abortion and motherhood. It feels like a lot of talking without much meaning; it’s hard to tell what director J.J. Lind intends in this multimedia production. Too many secrets are no fun. In fact, they hurt someone: the audience.