Amanda Knox may be guilty, or she may not, but at least she has had the opportunity to defend herself in an Italian court of law. The nonstop coverage of her case must reflect considerable interest among viewers in her fate, and tonight’s wrap-up made reference to the ‘judgment’ the Italian system of justice is facing along with Ms Knox given the criticism of its investigative and procedural performance in the case.
Curious, then, that a similar perspective on the U.S. counterpart continues to shine by its absence. There’s a new documentary film here in New York on the case of Omar Khadr, the 15-year-old Canadian picked up in Afghanistan in 2001 and accused of killing a soldier. Aside from the obvious detail that Afghanistan was a theatre of war in which killing is known to occur, we have since learned that this child was tortured by U.S. troops until he confessed and then shipped to the dungeons of Guantánamo where a stream of inquisitors tried to get him to reiterate his confession on videotape—without success.
The film, entitled ‘You Don’t Like the Truth’, is comprised mostly of excerpts from this chilling exercise in police interrogation techniques of a defenseless (and of course lawyerless) minor. Despite New York’s huge film scene where premières with directors present for Q&A are well attended, the crowd at Film Forum was measly. Indeed, the movie is not easy to watch, but then again it must have been a good deal more difficult to live through for Khadr, now in his 20s and still in prison although he’s due to be shipped to Canada for more years of incarceration next month.
What strikes me in observing these two very different legal proceedings with two completely different audiences is the facile racism of the double standards applied: Amanda, the white American girl, should be given a fair shot; Omar, the Muslim kid on a prayer mat, can rot in the Cuban sun because—as the Canadian interrogator says explicitly—an American soldier is dead. It’s pretty clear by the end of the picture that Omar couldn’t have tossed the deadly grenade because pictures from the scene, released to his lawyers years later, show him to be half-dead at the time, face down in a pile of rubble. But the point is not the guilt or innocence of a given prisoner, which does not really concern the jailers, nor their collaborators, nor I do not hesitate to add, us. It’s far simpler than that: the whole exercise is about revenge. Americans got killed on 9/11; Americans got killed in the Afghan firefight; someone has to pay. You’ll do.
A wonderful musical played on Broadway last year about the notorious 1930s Scottsboro Boys case, in which black men riding a freight train were accused of rape by a white woman, which of course in Alabama meant they were guilty or might as well be. Their obviously rigged trials dragged on for years, creating a cause celèbre and a nationwide solidarity movement that kept winning appeals and new trials, which were then rigged again. Eventually, the accused were offered their freedom, but only if they confessed. One refused and died in jail. Even seven decades later the case remains so sensitive that the spectacular production didn’t really catch fire even in liberal New York, and when the cast appeared on the Emmy awards show, they were reduced to performing a jolly-Negro number from Act I completely devoid of any of the play’s discomfiting content.
I think the Emmys producers knew intuitively that Americans today suffer from a gnawing discomfort about the operations of our legal apparatus, even if we remain only vaguely conscious of our anxiety. When political concerns trump the rule of law, the guilt or innocence of individual citizens fades into insignificance. This is a universal phenomenon that no legal system probably ever entirely escapes, but it’s unsettling to realize that the laws we think exist to protect us from unfair treatment, and often do, cannot withstand popular fury or even certain mundane bureaucratic pressures. Take the demented child-molestation-in-nursery-schools witchhunts of the ‘70s and ‘80s when suddenly fundamentalist Christians and liberal feminists alike were discovering anal sex orgies in daycare centers where they in fact had never occurred. Popular passions were assuaged, and many innocent lives were destroyed.
And yet the law is a wonderful thing. Americans, despite our weakness and complicity with the steady deterioration of our citizenship, also intuitively believe in suspects being read their Miranda rights and getting a chance to defend themselves in court. After all, we’ve grown up watching Law & Order, NCIS, CSI and before that The Defenders, Perry Mason and another dozen shows I can’t think of. We love courtroom drama, and we sense that the laborious procedures in place there set a minimum bar for the police and prosecutorial powers that could easily run roughshod over the rest of us as occurs in many countries around the world. It’s taken us at least 500 years to split the roles of judge, jury and executioner so that the high and mighty and their police agents couldn’t peremptorily subject us to the terror of impunity. Now, they say that ‘terror’ is the reason they should get all those roles back.
There is much more to say about the erosion of our precious judicial guarantees that Obama has now endorsed and aggravated. But today’s development merits a quick notice: it is now officially permitted for the president to determine that a U.S. citizen is an enemy of the state and can be targeted for liquidation with a remote-controlled drone. The White House insists Anwar al-Awlaki was guilty of terrorist acts but saw no need to charge him with any before carrying out extra-judicial murder in a foreign country. How long will it be before we discover that it can also be performed right here at home?