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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Neocon MacGuffin

[We] have a name in the studio, and we call it the 'MacGuffin.' It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is most always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers.
--Alfred Hitchcock

I guess one of the perks of being a giant of western cinema is that you get to make up your own words and can expect others to start using them. Hitchcock's MacGuffin is a plot device that motivates the characters in a story. Since stories are about people, not objects, the MacGuffin is basically an excuse for action. It's that briefcase full of glowing stuff in Pulp Fiction, it's the big game in any sports movie, it's the obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey, it's the Maltese Falcon. In Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, it's actually other characters -- the haunted children.

The MacGuffin could be called the fiction under the fiction -- it's an excuse for all the shooting or running around or freaking out or obsessing -- in Pulp Fiction, it could just as easily have been drugs, money, jewels, gold bars, etc. Tarantino didn't define his MacGuffin because it didn't matter what it was, it was just a pretense and he wanted his audience to know it. It was a post-modern jab at conventional storytelling.

Guantanamo detaineesOur time is defined by a MacGuffin -- The War on Terror. The story we're living is about the people, not the terrorism. The storytellers are also the actors, using their MacGuffin to bolster their historical importance, to consolidate their power, and to advance their sick ideals. Terrorism is the pretense, the story is the people.

And not all people. Those locked down in our oubliettes or blown up on our battlefields are just the backdrop, the stuff going on outside the window while the main characters plot. It's only history's movers and shakers we're supposed to be paying attention to. We're supposed to applaud the Greatness of Bush, the Brilliance of Cheney. But the story is so unbelievable, the characters so bizarre, and their motivations so crazy that our attention is drawn to those details we're supposed to ignore -- the locked down and blown up. The story being told is just too ridiculous to pay much attention to and the MacGuffin is looking more and more like what it is -- the tool of a hamhanded fiction writer.

If you're reading this, there's a good chance that someone, at some time, has accused you of having a "pre-9/11 mindset." I know my audience. Give it a try once. Pretend that 9/11 either never happened or hasn't happened yet. If someone described a nation that used torture, secret prisons, detention without trial, widespread spying on its own citizens, concentration camps, and unprovoked war, who would you assume they were describing? The Soviet Union? Nazi Germany? It doesn't really matter, since no matter who popped into your mind, I can guarantee it wouldn't be someone you thought of as "the good guys."

Yet this is where our neocon storytellers have brought our nation. They've added the USA to history's Hall of Shame amd that list of states that come to people's minds when they think of injustice and abuse. The US has become a rogue nation, with a MacGuffin leading the rampage.

Clive Stafford Smith, of the british legal charity Reprieve, shows us one place where we've let our leaders -- under the flag of their MacGuffin -- lead us. Guantanamo Bay.

Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

I had a morning meeting scheduled with Sami Haj, the Al-Jazeera journalist, no more a terrorist than my grandmother. Sami's original arrest in Pakistan in late 2001 was perhaps understandable because the U.S. military thought he had filmed an interview with Osama bin Laden. To track down the criminal behind the Sept. 11, 2001 , attacks many people would accept a little trampled due process. Unfortunately, as has often been the case, the intelligence turned out to be wrong. Yet Sami remained in custody. On the fifth anniversary of his detention without trial, his patience wore thin and he went on a hunger strike, the age-old peaceful protest against injustice.

After crossing the bay on the 8 a.m. ferry, an escort drove me down Recreation Road, past the golf course. I noticed a yellow sign. The soldiers were admonished that their value of the week should be "Compassion."

Sami's strike began 271 days ago as of this writing. Medical ethics tell us that you cannot force-feed a mentally competent hunger striker, as he has the right to complain about his mistreatment, even unto death. But the Pentagon knows that a prisoner starving himself to death would be abysmal PR, so they force-feed Sami. As if that were not enough, when Gen. Bantz J. Craddock headed up the U.S. Southern Command, he announced that soldiers had started making hunger strikes less "convenient." Rather than leave a feeding tube in place, they insert and remove it twice a day. Have you ever pushed a 43-inch tube up your nostril and down into your throat? Tonight, Sami will suffer that for the 479th time.

I wish I could reprint the whole piece here, but copyright's a bitch. Go read it. Smith tells us about another client, Shaker Aamer. Aamer has been on a hunger strike for nearly a year and the twice daily force feeding has messed him up pretty thoroughly. Smith describes him as "floridly psychotic." The guards at gitmo exploit his paranoia, by telling him that Smith is a jewish plant. Smith's client believes his lawyer works for the CIA. You've got to wonder what encouraging one man's madness is supposed to accomplish, who it can possibly help. It seems arbitrary, sadistic, and pointless.

While I'm writing this, another example catches my attention.

Associated Press:

The Supreme Court on Tuesday terminated a lawsuit from a man who claims he was abducted and tortured by the CIA, effectively endorsing Bush administration arguments that state secrets would be revealed if the case were allowed to proceed.

Khaled el-Masri, 44, alleged that he was kidnapped by CIA agents in Europe and held in an Afghan prison for four months in a case of mistaken identity.

How's that for a goddam ridiculous argument? What magic keeps el-Masri from talking about this anywhere but in court? As a german citizen, the US can do jack to shut him up. He could make a living going from venue to venue and spilling these "state secrets" -- here's hoping he does.

Even the law fails at justice, opting for the absurd.

The only real consolation is that the story's a flop. The neocons tried to use their MacGuffin to cement their place in history as great men, visionary worldbuilders, and the founders of a new tomorrow. They've failed miserably and proven themselves incompetent boobs, ridiculous idealogues, and among history's greatest fools. Their legacy is one of idiotic mistakes, hollow patriotism, and pointless violence. Given Bush's current popularity, betting that his name will be a warning and a shame, like Nixon or McCarthy, isn't a very risky gamble. At this point, history seems pretty solidly set. The neocons are one of America's occasional fits of madness.

Their MacGuffin won't take their story to the end. History and reality will.


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