Word from the Hood
OK, I know that’s a misleading title, but I hope it got your attention anyway.
The hood I’m referring to is black, was made of cloth, and spent a couple of hours covering my head earlier today. As fashion statements go, it was the dot over the otherwise pumpkin-colored “i” that I resembled in my prisoner’s jumpsuit with the word “DETAINEE” prominently displayed across the back. No such outfit is complete without accessories in coordinated accent colors, so I had a bright yellow nylon rope tied around my waist, with the long ends in front tied around my wrists so I couldn’t move my hands more than about 25 centimetres away from my navel.
I was acting the part of a prisoner in one of several camps being run by our beloved country under the direction of Dear Leader. There were 5 of us “detainees”. Natalie Morrison, the organizer of this bit of street theater, was clad in fatigues and acted as one of our guards, who kept reminding us (and everyone else within earshot) that she was “just following orders”.
We formed up outside Memorial Union on the UW campus around 11 AM and did a 2-hour tour of lower State Street, shuffling slowly much of the time and periodically stopping in a few places where we were “forced” to kneel and bow our heads upon pain of pain.
Since we were just actors, doing this voluntarily, we had many advantages that the actual prisoners whom we were portraying could only dream about. For example, my hood wasn’t completely opaque. It had a panel in front that was black gauze, so I could see (dimly) out of it, much the way I would out of a chador or burka. Real prisoners, of course, are completely blinded by their hoods, which adds to the disorientation that already results from sleep deprivation. (I tried to simulate this effect on several occasions by walking into trees or lampposts, to the guffaws of the “guards”.) Lemme tell ya, it was only in the mid-80s in Madison today, and that gauze allowed a certain amount of airflow, and I was only under the hood for a couple of hours, but it got damn hot in there.
We also got to talk whenever we wanted to (tho the guards kept ordering us to silence or they’d bring back the dogs), and we were exposed to ordinary citizens (unlike the folx at Gitmo, who never see anybody but military personnel). We kept pleading for help, saying that we hadn’t done anything, asking to see a lawyer, begging people to let our families know where we were. I affected an accent and spoke broken English (“please give to drink”), and eventually (to see if having a name to go with my blank face would help) adopted the nom de guerre of Azim al-Hakim. “Please tell my family. They do not know what happened to me. Azim al-Hakim. I was taken in 2004. Please tell my wife. Azim al-Hakim. I have done nothing.”
The guards, meanwhile, kept reminding us that we weren’t prisoners, we were enemy combatants, that we had no rights to lawyers, that the president didn’t need any evidence, that trials would be pointless because they already knew we were guilty, and so on.
Another advantage available to us was water. We had some with us and could actually stop and sneak a drink any time we wanted to. I thot it was out of character to actually carry the water bottle, since one of my lines was “Water, please. So thirsty. No drink water since yesterday. Water, please.”. I tuned this one up particularly as we passed sidewalk restaurants where people were relaxing with cool drinks. When we were approached by people with kids, I’d haul out the “I have not seen my children in 4 years.” line, and I used “Please. I am old man. I cannot hurt anybody.” on senior citizens. First rule of communication: Know your audience!
And now we get to one of the interesting parts of the day. After we’d been kneeling for about 15 minutes on some of those chocolate-rice-krispie terrazo circles that the Madison sidewalk builders are so fond of, we were ordered to stand up so we could move on. And I couldn’t do it. My knees (somewhat arthritic to begin with) had locked up and refused to cooperate. This was all the more interesting given that my hamstrings were also giving out and starting to spasm. I don’t normally spend any time at all kneeling, and my body just wasn’t used to it. (I suppose that’s why Dear Leader and his consigliere euphemistically refer to this sort of thing as “stress positions”.)
Fortunately, my thespian warders were actually compassionate people and helped me to my feet (while simultaneously promising me another visit from the dogs for lack of cooperation), and I was off again. At our next stop, I lasted for about 5 minutes in a kneeling position. After that, I contented myself with shuffling aimlessly about, running into things.
I know that devout Muslims get a lot of practice kneeling and whanging their foreheads on the ground in front of them, so maybe it’s not such a big deal for them, but, man, I couldn’t handle a trivial quarter of an hour. I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like “assuming the position” for hours at a time, day after day, for years.
One of our party, dressed in civvies, was handing out fliers explaining what we were up to. Most of the passersby were willing to take our literature. But they didn’t spend any time looking at us. Part of that was probably because it’s hard to make eye contact with someone whose eyes you can’t see, but I’m sure a good deal of it was just “Oh, Jesus, another cause that somebody wants me to get involved in!”.
There were a couple of exceptions to this general “walk on by” attitude. One was the guy who offered to help cut off our heads. (We said we’d get back to him.) The other was a middle-aged woman who looked startled when I pleaded with her for water and went up to our guard to make sure that we weren’t REALLY being mistreated. Assured that it was all an act, she expressed her sympathy and moved on. (I know -- anyone who’s ever been on stage simply LIVES for moments like that, right?)
Each of us “prisoners” was free to come up with our own bits of dialog. Buzz Davis does a great heart-attack imitation. Dennis Coyier came up with the line “They’re doing this to us in YOUR name.”. One of the women prisoners (whose name I didn’t get) kept saying “I think you broke my arm. Can I please see a doctor?”.
The guards had some snappy comebacks. When we begged for water, they’d pull out a bottle, take a swig, then splash some of the rest on the ground and laff. On another occasion, Natalie said “Water? You want water? Wait till we get back to camp. We’ll put you back on the board and give you all the water you want.”
So, perverse as it may seem, we had kind of a good time doing this as an act. Still, there’s no way in hell I’d ever want to endure that kind of treatment for real. I’d crumple in no time flat if faced with serious sleep deprivation or sunburn.
But it wouldn’t really matter at all if I crumpled, would it? Suppose I really were in a prison camp and on the very first day offered to totally spill my guts. But I don’t know anything. I never did anything. I don’t know anyone else who did anything, or planned to, or even talked about it. What could I say? If I started making things up, I’d eventually get trapped in the web of my own lies. And the more I lied, the more they’d think I knew.
People who are in that very situation are being held captive by our nation right now. There is no evidence against them other than somebody’s say-so or suspicion. Maybe they were denounced by a spiteful nabor or a business rival. Maybe they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe they looked like somebody else. Maybe they really are bad guys. Who knows? How can we tell? There’s no judicial procedure involved. Nobody’s hauling in any evidence. None of the detainees can bring in witnesses in their own defense -- which is actually nicely symmetric with the fact that the equally non-existent prosecution isn’t bringing in any witnesses, either.
And, since Dear Leader has ruled that habeas corpus doesn’t apply, they can’t challenge the fact that they’re being held without charge, indefinitely. Perhaps until the War on Terror is over.
One of the lines I kept using, hoping somewhat optimistically that it might actually be true, was “America is good country. Americans are good people. They would not let you treat me this way if they knew it was happening.”.
Tomorrow: Capitol Square.