Thursday, January 25, 2007

"A way of happening, a mouth"

The old joke ran: "Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they're not out to get you." Maher Arar is still on the US "watch list," which means he can't return to this country. Not that he'd want to, of course, and that denial of access to our fair shores is hardly the point. Which makes this obfuscation by the US Ambassador to Canada all that much more pathetic:

The United States ambassador to Canada yesterday scolded Stockwell Day, the Public Security Minister, for insisting that Maher Arar be taken off a U.S. security watch list, fuelling a rift between Washington and Ottawa over the case.

Ambassador David Wilkins told reporters in Edmonton the decision to keep Mr. Arar's name on Washington's "no fly" list was none of the Canadian government's business.

"With all due respect to Minister Day ? it's a little presumptuous for him to say who the U.S. can and cannot allow into our country," the ambassador said after a meeting with Ed Stelmach, the Alberta Premier. "Canadian officials would rightly never tolerate any American official dictating to them who they may or may not allow into their country.
What the US doesn't respect, apparently, is the Canadian government, or any obligation to apologize to Mr. Arar. Instead, the gov't stonewalls and insists they had good reason for...well, not for sending him to be tortured in Syria, but for denying him free access to America ever again. Maybe because we sent him to be tortured in Syria, and are now afraid he's pissed off. Who knows?

You have to wonder, in fact, why the US is so vehement on the point:

Liberal MP Dan McTeague said the ambassador's comments were "almost unprecedented."

Mr. McTeague called on Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister, to get involved directly in the case to convince the Americans to change their minds. "The Prime Minister should stand up for his Minister and stand up for Mr. Arar ... this is an issue that transcends partisanship," he said. "It's the least they can do, frankly, for Mr. Arar."

He added if the Americans continue to insist on keeping Mr. Arar on their security list it could damage relations with Canada.

"We're just asking the Americans to right a wrong," Mr. McTeague said. "We're not questioning their sovereignty."

"This has implications that transcend the individual case ... this is a friendly country, an ally in the war on terrorism, making a perfectly reasonable request. It's inconceivable to me why the Americans are refusing to even consider this."
But if you thought this was aberrant government behavior, you were wrong:

Jumah al-Dossari, originally from Bahrain, was seized by Pakistani security forces in late 2001 and turned over to the United States. The U.S. military brought him to the Guantánamo Bay detention facility in Cuba, where, he claims, he was beaten, his life was threatened, and he was isolated from other prisoners for long stretches of time. Dossari, who denies any connection to Al Qaeda or terrorism, and has never been charged with any such crime, has repeatedly attempted to commit suicide while imprisoned. His most recent attempt, according to Amnesty International, was in March 2006, when he tried to slit his throat.

That poem will be included in a collection of poetry by Guantánamo detainees that is being assembled by Marc Falkoff, a law professor at Northern Illinois University and an attorney for seventeen clients at the prison camp. Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak will be published this fall by the University of Iowa Press and will include essays by several prominent literary and cultural figures. Most of the poems were written in Arabic and translated by non-professionals.

Falkoff, who has a doctorate in literature, was intrigued when several of his clients began sending him poems. “I didn't think much of it,” he told me, “until I was reading a terrifically moving volume of poems called Here, Bullet by Brian Turner, an Iraq War vet. I started thinking about the power of topical poetry, and it occurred to me that the public should read the poetry that my clients wrote. I was curious if other lawyers had clients who’d written poetry, so I asked around and learned that there was a lot of it in their files. It hit me that we could pull a lot of this stuff together as a collection so the public could, yes, hear the voices of Guantánamo, and perhaps move [[beyond]] the administration's sloganeering.”

Falkoff won't be able to include all of the works he had hoped to, because the Pentagon has classified some of the poems. In a September 18, 2006 memo, a Pentagon official explained that several poems submitted for declassification had been rejected because poetry “presents a special risk” due to its “content and format.” It was not made clear whether the Pentagon believes the danger lies in the power of words or in the risk that detainees could send coded messages to terrorist operatives through their poems. “As much as I'd like to think it's the former, I presume it's the latter,” Falkoff replied when I asked him about the military's thinking on the matter.
I cannot but reflect ironically on the words of our last great occassional poet, W.H. Auden, when he directed himself to the political and cultural efforts of W.B. Yeats:

You were silly like us: your gift survived it all;
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself; mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its saying where executives
Would never want to tamper; it flows south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
--W.H. Auden

Apparently the Pentagon fears even mouths. Land of the free and home of the brave, indeed. We look more and more like a dictatorship, fearful of criticism, our officals blind to our flaws and deaf to discussion:

[CHENEY]But the biggest problem we face right now, is the danger than the United States will validate the terrorist's strategy, that in fact what will happen here, with all of the debate over whether or not we ought to stay in Iraq, where the pressure is from some quarters to get out of Iraq, if we were to do that, we would simply validate the terrorist's strategy, that says the Americans will not stay to complete the task --

CHENEY: That we don't have the stomach for the fight. That's the biggest threat.
Apparently, like the Pakistani government, what we don't have the stomach for is open government and the truth about what we are doing, and why:

[Former Guantanamo prisoner] Dost's brother, Badruzzaman Badr, was also detained at Guantanamo and later freed (his work, too, will appear in the collection). Both men returned to their home in Peshawar, Pakistan, and last September published The Broken Shackles of Guantanamo, which describes their experiences there. The book is also critical of the ISI, Pakistan's intelligence agency, and its collaboration with the United States in the “war on terror.” On September 29 of last year, Dost was arrested as he left a local mosque; he has thus far not been charged but has been prevented from seeing an attorney or his family. His brother has reportedly gone into hiding.
Mr. Silverstein refers to Eliot's famous poem in the title to his article; an almost reflexive choice, given the subject. But perhaps the conclusion of Auden's poem to Yeats is more appropriate:

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice,
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the framing of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days,
Teach the free man how to praise.
Perhaps poetry makes something happen after all.

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