Going over to the Dark Side

In the first half-hour or so of Batman Begins, young Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) treks up a mountain in what we are probably supposed to imagine is Tibet (in reality, I suspect, it’s an as-yet-unmelted part of Alaska), in order to join a group of vigilante ninjas known as the League of Shadows, led by Liam Neeson. For a while it seems like a good fit. They hate crime; he hates crime. They like wearing black; he likes wearing black. They enjoy alternating swordplay with sonorous apothegms about civilization, guilt, and corruption, and by the look on his face, he enjoys it, too. He even seems to believe it doubles as a kind of psychotherapy.

But there’s a hitch. (Spoiler alert.) It turns out that the League of Shadows are fond of kidnapping a person, putting him in a cage, and cutting off his head, if they feel relatively sure that they’ve correctly identified a criminal. Bruce, square thing, protests that even criminals are entitled to a trial. He and the League of Shadows must, therefore, part ways. And this, according to movie convention, requires that Christian Bale have with Liam Neeson the Conversation about Civilization vs. Evil, punctuated by a lot of close-cut whams and pows.

Liberals among the audience breathe a sigh of relief. Phew! So he didn’t believe that fascist mumbo-jumbo after all. And it’s very timely, this Conversation, since our politicians have been having it, too. Is Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay an exercise in lawlessness that bears analogy to historical outrages like the Holocaust? Or is it merely the force necessary to check evildoers, who would take advantage of such liberal weaknesses as a jury, the right to confront your accuser, and due process. Liam Neeson explains that the League of Shadows has cleansed corrupt societies before, and he cites Rome, Constantinople, and London. Not sure why he omits the ghettos of Germany and Poland from his resume. Perhaps his advisers warned him that it would get him in trouble with Karl Rove, who, after all, shares his belief that mealy-mouthed liberals are so spineless in their approach to evil that they might even offer evildoers psychotherapy. Psychotherapy without benefit of swordplay, even.

But before we take too much solace in Bruce Wayne’s refusal to join the brown shirts, let’s recall that Anakin Skywalker didn’t prove so politically correct. All is not well in the symbolic unconscious of American popular culture, I don’t think. And why should it be? Yesterday the New York Times added significantly to our knowledge of the complicity of psychiatrists and psychologists at Guantanamo Bay. Evidently they have advised interrogators on, say, how to exploit a detainee’s fear of the dark or his longing for his mother. Not sure how this squares with “First, do no harm.” Arkham Asylum, anyone?

And then, this morning, the Times reports that Chiara Nobili, a judge in Milan, Italy, has ordered the arrest of thirteen C.I.A. agents for the kidnapping of a suspected Al Qaeda sympathizer named Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr. Nasr was seized on 17 February 2003 in Milan. He was sprayed in the face and thrown into a white van. The Italians identified the American agents as his kidnapers by tracking cell phone activity where he was taken—a number of calls to northern Virginia were dispositive. The spies took Nasr to an American-Italian air force base in Aviano. From there, he was flown to Ramstein, Germany, on a U.S. Air Force jet, and then, on a private jet rented by the C.I.A., to Cairo. In April 2004, fourteen months later, Nasr resurfaced long enough to call his wife. He told her that he had been tortured with electric shock and that “he could barely walk.” Soon after, the Egyptian police re-arrested him. His whereabouts are now unknown.

An unnamed “senior Italian official” explained why the Italians are risking the wrath of the United States, which is not likely to take calmly the potential unmasking of thirteen field agents: “Our belief is that terrorist suspects should be investigated through legal channels and brought to a court of law — not kidnapped and spirited away to be tortured in some secret prison.” The Italians, you may recall, aren’t real fond of kidnaping as a form of politics; cf. Aldo Moro. After they cross-referenced credit card numbers to the C.I.A.’s cell phone accounts, the Italians discovered that the American agents stayed in five-star hotels in Milan, where they spent $144,984 in hotel bills during the abduction. After they successfully “rendered” Nasr to the Egyptians, two of the agents rewarded themselves with “a few days’ holiday at five-star hotels in Venice, Tuscany and South Tyrol.”

It’s so Bruce Wayne! Playboys with secret identities, who kidnap bad guys and arrange for their torture and lynching, then bask in luxury in southern Europe as part of their cover story! Or rather, it’s what Bruce Wayne would have been, if he’d joined the League of Shadows. But he didn’t, right? Tell me he didn’t.

Fortunately, we’re bound to be hearing a lot about this case. Just as we’ve heard so much about the case of Khaled el-Masri, the German citizen who was kidnapped at the Macedonian border on New Year’s Eve 2003, flown to Afghanistan, beaten, stripped, shackled, hooded, photographed nude, injected with drugs, and then dropped at the Albanian border in May 2004. American agents had evidently confused him with a suspected 9/11 conspirator named Khalid al-Masri. Oops. The Germans considered legal action, but unlike the Italians, they could identify no individual kidnapers. The United States refused to own up to the mistake until April 2005, when U.S. government officials revealed that Condoleezza Rice had personally ordered el-Masri released, though she had to issue the order several times before it was put into effect. As I say, you’ve heard a lot about the el-Masri case, right? And he’s still alive and has a lawyer. So you’re bound to hear at least as much about this one.