March 04, 2006

Demonizing "the Other," and Longing for War

Here is an informative review of James Yee's book, For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire. In several central ways, Yee's deeply tragic story is emblematic of the Bush administration's profoundly dangerous approach to the "War on Terror."

The article points out very effectively the larger context in which Yee's fate occurred:
As we approach the fifth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US, the American public is now becoming more aware of the high costs they are paying for the "war in terror". But it's not only the official price tag of US$440 billion (a credible independent estimate pegs the cost in excess of $1 trillion) and the more than 2,000 American dead and 16,000 injured.

There's also the damage done to America's reputation due to: the invalid grounds used to justify the war on Iraq; the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal; the "extraordinary renditions" saga in which suspected terrorists are taken into US custody but delivered to a third-party state; the Valerie Plame/Joe Wilson affair (she was outed as a Central Intelligence Agency operative after her husband dismissed the Bush administration's claim justifying invading Iraq that Saddam Hussein's regime was trying to buy yellowcake, used to make a nuclear weapon, from Niger); the domestic spying scandal in which President George W Bush signed a secret order in 2002 authorizing the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on US citizens and foreign nationals in the United States; and the ongoing issue of Guantanamo Bay and prisoner rights.

Yee's experience at Guantanamo was frightening. Despite exemplary service over many years and nearly 12 months in Cuba under difficult circumstances, he was charged, as he went on leave, with espionage and being part of a terrorist ring of fellow Muslim soldiers. Authorities suggested he took classified and confidential information, such as a map of the base and information about prisoners. But he denied those charges and the prosecution never presented any evidence to support them.

Details of the charges were leaked by US government sources even before he was informed of them or faced trial. They created a huge media storm that reflected badly not only on him but on the American Muslim and Asian-American communities. Numerous critics such as Daniel Pipes had a field day with conjecture about how the charges were symptomatic of even greater threats of disloyalty and danger ("Pentagon jihadis", New York Post, September 29, 2003).

After being in solitary confinement for 76 days, possibly facing the death penalty, the charges were dropped, and instead he was charged with adultery and having pornographic materials on his computer. Those charges were also subsequently dropped, and he was given an honorable discharge from the army. The process not only ruined his career and almost caused his wife to commit suicide, but also put a huge strain on their marriage.
The conclusion of the review summarizes the fundamental problem very well:
Yee's autobiography amply demonstrates the huge gap between the lofty rhetoric of the Bush administration about its "war on terror" and the practical realities that many Muslims are feeling around the world. After September 11, Yee was dedicated to doing everything he could to reduce the gulf of misunderstanding about Islam and Muslims. He was thrown in prison and had his career ruined for his efforts.

The most astounding part of this story is that instead of putting such an exemplary American Muslim on a pedestal to help alleviate misunderstandings about Islam in the West, the authorities tried to destroy him. It seems they are more interested in war than peace.
Of course, Bush and his supporters would vehemently deny that "they are more interested in war than peace." And in many cases, it is not that they consciously prefer conflict -- although it must be stated that far too many of those who support a very militant foreign policy reveal an extremely disturbing degree of bloodlust. But the full truth is subtler and more dangerous than a belief that is held explicitly: it is that the impulse toward war is to be found deep within the general world view held both by certain of our enemies and by the most zealous defenders of our foreign policy. I've analyzed that world view in this piece about the apocalyptic crusader, and in this follow-up: American Apocalypse.

This perspective, which necessarily involves the demonization and dehumanization of "the other" in the mythic reality of war, also arises out of the West's view of itself, and of its place in the world and in history. More recently, we've seen all these dynamics once again in the propagandistic and entirely phony Mohammed cartoon controversy.

Yee's story captures all of these elements, and adds to them the infinite pain of a life that has been largely destroyed. And it is only an indication of the larger horrors that have already been committed, and those that may still lie in wait.