Presidency of the absurd

By JAMES PARKER  |  August 1, 2007

Insisting that his nonsense was simple entertainment, written for the nursery, Lear was in fact one of the fathers of absurdity, of Kafka, Samuel Beckett, and Eugène Ionesco, unwilling herald of a universe “freed” — in the words of Martin Esslin, scholar of absurd theater — “from the shackles of logic,” where “wish-fulfillment will not be inhibited by considerations of human kindness.” The old man is fed with fruits to stop him screaming: once he’s quiet, the abuse can resume.

The Bush-era analogue to this situation would be the one in which the doctor stands by during the torture session, ensuring that the prisoner doesn’t die. During the course of one interrogation at the detention center in Guantánamo Bay, for example, as reported by Time magazine, prisoner 063 — Mohamed al-Qahtani, the so-called 20th hijacker of 9/11 — grew dangerously dehydrated. Medical corpsmen intervened, and al-Qahtani was pumped with three bags of saline. For the duration of the procedure, however, he remained strapped to his chair, and loud music (possibly Christina Aguilera, which had been used before) was played to keep him awake.

Nonsense is its own insurance. In the unhappy event that a prisoner expires before realizing his full potential as a source of intelligence, his corpse can be kept safely in the realm of meaninglessness — pickled, as it were, in absurdity. Steven H. Miles, in his 2005 book Oath Betrayed: Torture, Medical Complicity, and the War on Terror (Random House) describes the case of the detainee at Camp Cropper, near Baghdad International Airport, who was killed by a blow to the head. Two weeks later his body, complete with pre-prepared death certificate, was dropped at a local hospital. Cause of death: “sudden brainstem compression.” That unfortunate young man of Camp Cropper . . .

Duck, duck, goosed
Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s extraordinary documentary The Prisoner, or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair, which was released on DVD this past month, is a primer in the absurdity of the Iraq war. Elegant, soft-spoken Iraqi journalist Yunis Abbas falls victim to the process known as “cordon and capture” — in which US troops, acting sometimes on mere wisps of intelligence, round up suspects in nighttime sweeps — and is arrested at a wedding party. Somehow he and his brothers have been implicated in a bomb plot against visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and, despite the fact that no bomb-making equipment is found at their house, they are taken into custody.

“They [terrorists] are very good about it,” explains US Lieutenant Colonel Bill Rabena, Commander of the 2/3 Field Artillery Capturing Unit. “They bring the material and they make the bomb there at the house, and then there’s basically not much material to find as evidence.” The cleaner and more harmless-looking the kitchen, in other words, the more likely it is that expert bomb makers have recently been at work in it.

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