Sunday, April 02, 2006

Giving Duress Its Due

There's a very good reason why, in the American legal system, there is a heavy presumption against contracts formed, statements made and agreements entered into where one party is under a state of "duress." What's more, duress can also be an exculpatory defense for criminal acts (all except homicide). The lack of free will in these matters is taken very seriously - and rightfully so. By way of background, "duress" generally involves, "the use of force, false imprisonment or threats (and possibly psychological torture or "brainwashing") to compel someone to act contrary to his/her wishes or interests."

In Jill Carroll's case, all elements of duress were present. Yet, as I noted below, that didn't prevent many on the Right from indicting her character for statements she made while held in captivity by groups threatening her life. Then again, many of those same voices had already condemned Carroll prior to her release for what, to them, was an inappropriate level of compassion for Iraqi civilians and interest in Arab culture. So her recent statements - despite the obvious influence or her surroundings - fit the preconceived stereotypes. Oh, and she was wearing a head scarf. Which is prima facie suspect I guess.

Now released from her captivity, and removed from the immediacy of those threats, Carroll has issued a statement through the Boston Globe explaining her actions and positions on the relevant matters. Directly from Carroll's statement:

During my last night of captivity, my captors forced me to participate in a propaganda video. They told me I would be released if I cooperated. I was living in a threatening environment, under their control, and I wanted to go home alive. So I agreed.

Things that I was forced to say while captive are now being taken by some as an accurate reflection of my personal views. They are not. The people who kidnapped me and murdered Alan Enwiya are criminals at best. They robbed Alan of his life and devastated his family. They put me, my family, and my friends -- all those around the world -- who have prayed so fervently for my release -- through a horrific experience. I was, and remain, deeply angry with the people who did this.

I also gave a TV interview to the Iraqi Islamic Party shortly after my release. The party had promised me the interview would never be broadcast or aired on television, and they broke their word. At any rate, fearing retribution from my captors, I did not speak freely. Out of fear I said I wasn't threatened. In fact, I was threatened many times.

Also, at least two false statements about me have been widely aired: One, that I refused to travel and cooperate with the US military, and two, that I refused to discuss my captivity with US officials. Again, neither statement is true.[...]

"But let me be clear: I abhor all who kidnap and murder civilians, and my captors are clearly guilty of both crimes.

One thing that Carroll mentions in this statement that has received far too little attention is her murdered translator, Alan Enwiya. Generally, Alan Enwiya has been treated as the nameless, faceless, semi-anonymous figure in this story - pointed to as evidence of the perfidy of Carroll's captors when convenient or to highlight the stakes of Carroll's dilemma. I understand the tendency of people to focus on their immediate group, ethnicity or nation in matters such as these, but in allowing Carroll to overshadow those around her, we fail to appreciate the full story. This microcosm is all too typical of our appreciation of this conflict in general.

On the other hand, one of the truly remarkable things about the blogosphere is the ease with which it enables peoples separated by vast geographical and cultural expanses to provide first hand perspective, in real time, as events are unfolding. Riverbend, at Baghdad's Burning, penned a deeply moving remembrance of Alan Enwiya - adding flesh, bone and the depth of humanity to a person who was otherwise treated as a footnote in the larger drama. Though it is impossible to treat each of the many thousands of Iraqi deaths with such specificity, they were also, like Alan Enwiya, people with meaningful friendships, close-knit families, dreams, desires and above all else, a fundamental worth.

It sickens me on many levels to read accusations from prominent Right wing voices about how the Left is rooting for failure in Iraq. And then to be accused of racism by many who don't seem to place such a high value on the lives of the people they are supposedly trying to help. To the extent that they mock concern shown for the torture or deaths of innocent Iraqi civilians, or are enraged when someone like Carroll engages Iraqis with respect and curiosity. Normally I shrug this slander off as a cheap political ploy, but recently I've felt provoked to a little righteous outrage.

Because it was not a lack of concern for the suffering of Iraqis that led the Left to oppose this war in the first place, and no matter how potent the desire to win an argument may be, nobody rejoices to read about the many thousands of tragedies like Alan Enwiya's. The argument about the wisdom of this war should not be reduced to a battle of abstract ideas and a clash of think tank egos. War is not so neat and tidy nor so bloodless, no matter what euphemisms we choose to describe the carnage or how we censor and police the images that return from the war zone. Debates about using military force should be conducted with a full appreciation of what war looks like in the first person.

Milan Kundera said this about history's ability to distort perception: "For how can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit. In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine." But it's not just history that obscures the harshness of reality - in war, it is also the geographical and conceptual distance from the scene of the bloodshed that conceals the tragedy.

But now, we have voices like Riverbend to remind us of the cruel purpose of the guillotine.

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