This is a very important and a very strange book. Sands, a professor of international law at University College London, takes up the unenviable task of tracing the legal and bureaucratic paths traveled by the Bush administration as it moved to redefine and recharacterize international law so as to attempt to justify such illegal practices as suspension of habeas corpus, extraordinary rendition, and torture. It’s a whodunnit, but instead of daggers and moonlight, the drama here is conducted via memoranda, faxes, and voicemails. This is an important work because Sands somehow gets interviews with many of the most important players, and because he is very good at systematically and thoroughly connecting the dots of the administration’s legal maneuvers. It’s a weird book for two reasons. First because it actually manages not to be boring, and second, Sands has this crazy proclivity for including gouts of what journalists call “color.” He’ll just have finished some long methodical analysis of the organizational chart of the Department of Defense’s legal staff, and then he’ll be like, “General Soandso is a tall man with a candid handshake and an open-collared shirt,” or some crazy ass thing like that. The sum impression is that Sands is an extraordinarily good legal analyst who harbors a secret desire to be Rick Bragg. Thankfully, he here mainly sticks to the former and only allows the latter to burble occasionally to the surface.
The message here, in short, is that unqualified and inexperienced legal personnel were pressured from above to make decisions they knew were wrong. Which should certainly remind us of the National Guard troops at Abu Ghraib. You know who should get together and compare notes? Sabrina Harman and Diane Beaver. Two women put in impossible positions against their will, and then punished for being there. This is not to say either of them should be excused for their crimes any more than the guards at Auschwitz should have been. But Harman and Beaver’s superiors–Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Cheney, and George W. Bush–face no Nuremberg. No, I am not equating Guantanamo with Auschwitz. I am simply making an analogy.
If you’ve heard anything about this book you’ve probably already heard this, but just in case, this is the book where senior military personnel admit (or boast — it’s hard to tell) that the staff at Guantanamo literally got ideas for interrogation techniques by watching Jack Bauer on 24. What can you say to that. I try not to be cynical. What can you say to that?
The most useful insight I took away from this book is one which I guess I already knew, but which was brought home to me very strongly here. Nearly all of the missteps the United States has made in its reaction to 9/11 have been caused by its inability or unwillingness to decide whether 9/11 was a crime or an act of war. In the aftermath of a crime, you invoke order. You seek to gather evidence, apprehend suspects, build cases, have trials, issue sentences. In the aftermath of an act of war, you invoke chaos. You seek to retaliate, overpower, vanquish, occupy, pacify, and dictate terms. You can’t follow both these paths simultaneously; they are fundamentally incompatible. But that’s exactly what we’ve done, and that’s why there is no way out of Guantanamo for the prisoners there, whether they’re guilty or not, or enemies or not.