Exceptionally American: The uncomfortable relationship with human rights

When he was found by officers of the Canadian military, Shidane Abukar Arone —a Somali citizen— said he was searching for a lost child. It was 1993 and Arone’s country was broken by famine and conflict —circumstances that would lead, seven months later, to a botched U.S. military operation and the deaths of 18 Delta Force rangers.

Detained on suspicion of trespassing, Arone was taken into custody on the evening of March 16, 1993. Sometime that evening, allegedly uttering the words “Canada, Canada, Canada,” Arone succumbed to grievous injuries sustained at the hands of the Canadian military. In the hours prior to Arone’s death, members of a highly-trained commando team subjected him to senseless beatings and, while restrained, sexual abuse. One of the team members, Master Cpl. Giasson, found the badly-beaten detainee semi-conscious and bleeding. “In Canada we cannot do this,” he told a fellow officer. “But here…”

“The Somali Affair” was one of Canada’s most embarrassing and deplorable cases of detainee abuse. From My Lai to Abu Ghraib, however, these stories are disturbingly (historically) common. With such a somber backdrop, yesterday’s US declaration on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is even more damning.

The treaty was designed to extend human rights responsibilities (and protections) to a country’s military and intelligence forces stationed overseas. Previously, both the Clinton and Bush administrations rejected the UN’s interpretation of the treaty’s scope, claiming the covenant only applied to US territories under formal jurisdiction. Yesterday in Geneva, the Obama administration agreed.

Intended to ban arbitrary killings, torture, unfair trials and imprisonments without judicial review, the treaty  —ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1992— continues to create tension between legal advisors who say ignoring global implications of the treaty is  “not legally tenable” and military officers who say the treaty will complicate future U.S. military operations.

The military argument, now, is party line: The United States has too many responsibilities abroad to be subject to such restrictions. Full stop. For others, the treaty is simply unnecessary as American moral fiber remains superior to any document canonized by the United Nations. (This is, I’m afraid, the legacy of American Exceptionalism in a post-9/11 world). But proposing that a military’s expansive scope should be met with the shrinking of its responsibility seems inexcusable. And presuming protection will be guaranteed by enlightened leadership is a most dangerous game.

These positions ignore what we —the public— already know about the military at war and under stress: Traumatic environments alter one’s views of what is right, wrong, and the grey area between. The acts captured in Abu Ghraib’s debasing pictures —taken by men and women who willingly degraded the value of human life— were imagined by Americans committed to their country’s cause. The “War on Terror” carved lines into Middle Eastern sand that eventually obscured the boundaries drawn by law. Sure, there was a failure in leadership, and individual decisions are never a reflection of one’s environment alone, but the soldier’s willingness to take part in abuse is born out of the very fraternity needed to stay alive far from home.

In the end, social psychology might be a blunt tool to explain, exactly, why one Canadian soldier burned Mr. Arone’s genitals with lighted cigarettes. But research does explain why people, who would otherwise object to such treatment, or intervene against such acts, decided —in these cases— not to. That’s why yesterday’s decision by US officials serves as the highest order abdication of responsibility  —it echoes the twisted logic of permissibility: “not at home, but here…” And that, of course, is particularly exceptional.

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Spooking the herd

“A mighty force slumbers in the heat, mighty and —should it explode anywhere near us— deadly. It is the force of a mountain avalanche, only inflamed, frenzied, driven by foaming blood,” wrote Ryszard Kapuściński, the famed Polish journalist, stopped by a herd of buffalo while traveling overland by car between Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and the soon-to-be independent Uganda.

Worried about spooking the large beasts, Kapuściński remembered a discussion with a biologist who noticed that even the sound of their research helicopter failed to stir buffalo grazing alone. But when it flew over a large herd, “it sufficed for there to be among them a single overly sensitive one, a hysteric, a hothouse flower, who at the sound of the engine would start to thrash around waiting to flee. The entire herd would immediately panic and, in terror, begin to move.”

With Kapuściński’s sensitivity for narrative tension, his passage captured not just the potential for danger, but might rightly have rendered the aim of foreign reporters: To be agitated and aware and to move the masses. For Kapuściński, this message would have resonated personally.

In the months after his trip Uganda, Kapuściński suffered with a bout of cerebral malaria which so depressed his immune system he then contracted tuberculosis. As the diagnosis threatened his stay in the region, he told his doctor that “Poland had never before had a permanent correspondent in sub-Saharan Africa.” Kapuściński believed his illness, if ever shared with his editors, would force him back home, “and that thing that had been a lifelong dream… to work in Africa—will vanish forever.”

Taking the buffalo as metaphor, Kapuściński would certainly have been the loner — the “hysteric” — who sought to move his herd (the readers and the reticent) with news from far-off places. And for years, he did just that —drawing out stories that textured a continent, that explored the unknown and that laid the foundation for a generation of journalists.

This is where Pirates, Poachers and Palm Oil comes in.

The project will report, unsurprisingly, on the practice that once threatened those buffalo: poaching. But the goal is also to draw connections between issues well known to residents of Nigeria and Cameroon, and poorly covered from afar. From Faro National Park in Cameroon to that country’s expansive fields of palm, and even to Nigeria’s coast and the boys who could be pirates, Pirates, Poachers and Palm Oil seeks to provoke, through sheer force of reporting, a stir from the masses.

With less than a week left before deadline, though, I need your help. For as little as five dollars, you can pledge your support and join me on the front lines. With updates from the field, original photographs, and behind-the-scenes video, you’ll be closer to the action than ever before.

As Kapuściński knew, “the [African] continent … is a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied, immensely rich cosmos.” With your help, Pirates, Poachers and Palm Oil will provide just a few of its stories. The stoic and stubborn be damned.

**Author’s note: In recent years, the veracity of Kapuściński’s reporting has been questioned. In his 2012 biography of Poland’s most celebrated journalist, author Artur Domoslawski asserts that much of Kapuściński’s nonfiction/reportage was —damningly— imagined. While this post draws on his work (and perhaps even more on his lyricism and knack for literary construction), it is not to be taken as endorsement of practice. There is no substitute for accurate and balanced reporting.**