Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Authentic Cruelty of a Synthetic Man

by William Norman Grigg

AUTONS from Dr. Who
Mitt Romney, a polymer-based life form of nearly limitless pliability, is as long on cash as he is short on genuine convictions. For the Power Elite's political brokers, few traits are more endearing in a potential president than malleability. Romney's suppleness of spine helps explain how he was able to soak up $10 million in promised campaign donations from politically connected oligarchs during a day-long marathon fundraiser in Las Vegas.

Seeking an issue on which Romney takes a binding, definitive stand often seems like trying to overtake the horizon. Clayton Holden, a wheelchair-bound man and long-time medical marijuana patient, may be the only person who has ever seen Romney perform a plausible impression of Martin Luther ("Here I stand, I can do no other") regarding any subject.

Holden suffers from Duchene Muscular Dystrophy, an affliction that has left him with a twisted spine, inflamed nerve bundles, and unremitting chronic pain. When Holden was 16, his suffering was compounded when he was hit by a car while crossing the street in his wheelchair.

Like many others who suffer from debilitating pain, Holden has found that marijuana offers him relief while inflicting none of the side-effects that accompany many government-approved drugs. On at least ten occasions, Holden has been confronted by police, who – to their credit – have been willing to flout what they are required to call "the law" in favor of elemental decency. It’s only a matter of time before some armed functionary will be found who is sufficiently vicious to throw Holden in a cage. That’s the outcome that Mitt Romney would favor.

During an October 7, 2007 Republican presidential forum in New Hampshire, Holden politely but forcefully confronted Romney to ask him the same question he had posed to other candidates (only one of whom – no extra credit for guessing which one – actually gave him an unequivocal answer): Since Holden has to use marijuana to treat his affliction, would Romney be willing to see him and his doctors arrested and carried off to jail?

Romney, as is his habit, tried to take refuge in persiflage, insisting – on the basis of what qualifications, he didn’t say – that synthetic marijuana would work just as well. He then sought to ooze his way out of the question by quipping that he doesn’t "arrest anyone."

The most remarkable aspect of Romney’s encounter with Holden is that he displayed none of his characteristic equivocation in defending drug prohibition. He yielded not so much as a millimeter in his insistence that medical marijuana is a "gateway drug"; this means that Holden and other patients who use it either have to settle for useless or harmful government-approved treatments or endure the punitive wrath of the divine State. The Mittster didn't even seek to palliate the feelings of this powerless, suffering individual by deploying a sympathetic platitude.

Owing to the influence of big-money campaign donation "bundlers," and dubious bookkeeping of the sort that that is common among the politically protected Wall Street denizens who favor he ardently courts, Romney has emerged as the fundraising front-runner among GOP presidential aspirants. As Romney campaign minion Chris Slick memorably put it during the day-long grovel-fest in Vegas: "Today we demonstrate our ability to raise excessive and ungodly amounts of cash while other candidates are still pattering about in bumf*ck, Iowa somewhere. No one can come close to what our machine can do. No one."

By "our machine," Slick wasn't just talking about Romney's political campaign; he was referring to an interlocking network of pressure groups, lobbyists, and political criminals who support, sustain, and profit from the Warfare State.

Slick himself is director of online operations for
"ACT! for America," an anti-Muslim pressure group whose founder and chief spokesperson, Lebanon-born Brigette Gabriel (nee Nour Saman), tirelessly evangelizes on behalf of a war of annihilation against Islam. In a 2007 address at Rev. John Hagee's mega-church, Gabriel insisted that Muslims "have no soul". This which would mean, of course, that Muslims aren't merely mistaken or sinful, but that they aren't genuinely human.

There are many pressure groups who promote various elements of the War Party agenda ala carte. Gabriel's group will settle for nothing less than the Full Cheney combo meal: Permanent war abroad, unlimited regimentation at home, indefinite detention of suspected terrorists, institutionalization of torture, and so on.

It's worth pointing out that during the 1980s, Gabriel – under her birth name – was a correspondent/propagandist for a television network affiliated with the South Lebanon Army (SLA). During the horrific Lebanese civil war – a multi-sided conflict in which no belligerent had a monopoly on
unspeakable acts – the SLA was an Israeli-supported militia that ran a notorious torture dungeon called Al Khiam Prison. Many of the methods now employed by Washington's Homeland Security State – those not devised by the CIA, or reverse-engineered from Soviet sources, that is – were field-tested on detainees in the Al Khiam prison.

While Romney is connected to all of this by the only most tenuous of threads, it's important to remember that
he has spoken of the supposed need to "double Guantanamo" – that is, to expand the use of indefinite detention and the application of torture techniques that have been cloaked in the Gestapo-derived euphemism "enhanced interrogation."

Whatever transgressions Romney has committed against the current GOP line, the hints of calculated cruelty behind his smarmy demeanor make him irresistible to at least some of those who want to make war against Islam the central organizing principle of American life.

It is in
Romney's profitable relationship with former U.S. Ambassador to Italy Mel  Sembler that these separate strands of cruelty are woven together like the braids of a torturer's whip. In 2008, Romney appointed Sembler to serve as one of his ten national campaign fund-raisers. Sembler, a retired shopping mall magnate from Florida, also served as chairman for the legal defense fund established on behalf of convicted felon Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Dick Cheney's former chief of staff.

In addition to being an architect of the war in Iraq, Libby helped devise the legal framework for the globe-straddling archipelago of CIA torture facilities. In 2007, Libby was found guilty of perjury and obstruction in the case of outed CIA operative Valerie Plame; his prison term was commuted by George W. Bush, who – like Romney – is someone whose sympathy for the powerful and corrupt is inexhaustible.

Long before the administration of Bush the Dumber made torture an official federal policy, Mel Sembler and his wife were promoting the use of torture and indefinite detention in the "war on drugs." In the early 1970s,
they created a behavioral modification program called "Straight" that targeted youngsters who either had drug or alcohol addictions, or were considered to be "at risk" of falling prey to addiction. Many of the teenagers put into Sembler's program complained of physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse.Straight grew out of a federally funded pilot program called "The Seed," which according to a 1974 Senate Judiciary Committee investigation used methods similar to the "highly refined `brainwashing' techniques employed by the North Koreans" against US prisoners of war.

Thus Sembler's "Straight" program was, in a sense, a progenitor of the Bush-Cheney "enhanced interrogation" regime.

"The Seed" was shut down in the mid-1970s, but Sembler's network (nine clinics in seven states) continued to receive funding from the same federal agencies that had underwritten the Communist-derived initiative. "Straight" was closed down in 1993, but by this time it had planted seeds of its own that sprouted up across the U.S. and abroad, where "drug rehabilitation" facilities employed "treatment" techniques that were indistinguishable from the criminal abuses carried out in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.

In her valuable book
Help at Any Cost, investigative journalist Maia Szalavitz documented how programs constructed from Sembler's template had employed "punishments banned for use on criminals and by the Geneva Convention."

"Beatings, extended isolation and restraint, public humiliation, food deprivation, sleep deprivation, forced exercise to the point of exhaustion, sensory deprivation, and lengthy maintenance of stress positions are common," continued Szalavitz.

Some teenagers selected for forced enrollment in BM programs have been treated exactly like terrorist suspects –
snatched from their homes or the streets by rented thugs and then sent by way of "extraordinary rendition" to isolated detention facilities, often in foreign countries. The best-known professional child-napper is Rick Strawn, a retired Atlanta police officer whose personal history includes alcoholism and domestic abuse, as well as repeated accusations of child sexual exploitation.

The very model of authoritarian piety, Strawn conspicuously wears his "What Would Jesus Do?" wristband
as he places handcuffs on the wrists of a teenager being forcibly conveyed to a distant, inaccessible dungeon. Often this is done with the knowing consent of criminally credulous parents following a "hard sell" by a pitchman for a behavior modification (BM) program, which is usually portrayed as an enhanced summer camp intended to impart "respect for authority" in a beautiful natural setting.

More than a few of the teenagers consigned to those facilities – which have been uncovered in several states, as well as Mexico, Jamaica, American Samoa, the Czech Republic, and elsewhere – had no documentable problem with drugs or alcohol, or any other self-destructive behaviors. But just as we're told that practically any development justifies "expanded vigilance" against terrorism, just about any adolescent problem or behavior can be depicted as an indication that the youngster is "at risk," and thus needs to be confined in a BM facility to get "straightened out" through means that include unambiguous torture.

At one BM facility in Puerto Rico, "teens were found bound and gagged with nooses around their necks," reports Szalavitz. At "High Impact," a Mexico-based facility run by the Utah-based
World-Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools (WWASPS), teenage detainees were locked in dog cages. One survivor of that gulag was nearly drowned to death by a group of older kids who – having been made feral through prolonged mistreatment – hoped that a murder would shut the program down.

Amberly Knight, former director of the WWASPS-affiliated Dundee Ranch in Costa Rica, testifies that food deprivation was commonly used to punish inmates, and particularly rebellious kids were taken to a tiny isolation room and forced to kneel on concrete for up to 14 hours a day.

Inmates at a WWASPS program in Samoa were sometimes held for hours in an "ISO Box," a three-foot by three-foot box akin to a North Vietnamese "tiger cage." Others were hog-tied with duct tape or beaten by staffers. When the Samoan government began a child abuse inquiry, WWASPS hastily shut down the facility.

WWASPS's Spring Creek Lodge in Montana featured a tiny disciplinary cubicle called "The Hobbit" in which some inmates were confined for weeks or months at a time and fed nothing but beans and bananas. One counselor at Spring Creek was charged with sexually molesting two boys who had been imprisoned in The Hobbit.

In 2006,
more than two-dozen families filed a lawsuit against WWASPS, alleging that inmates of the residential programs were "subjected to physical abuse, emotional abuse and sexual abuse." Many of them had been directed to the program through Teen Help, a business operated by Utah businessman Robert Lichfield that served as a processing center for WWASPS.

As it happens, Lichfield was co-chairman of WWASPS, and as of 2006 he was pulling in an estimated $90 million a year by funneling teens into a globe-spanning network of detention camps. At least some of that money used to fuel Romney's presidential ambitions.

During the 2008 campaign, Lichfield was appointed by Romney to head his fundraising efforts in Utah. In that capacity he helped raise $2.7 million for Romney, including $300,000 at a single event in St. George. All of this happened after Richfield's role in WWASPS was known. Romney dismissed Richfield in late Summer 2007 after a second lawsuit was filed on behalf of more than one hundred of the organization's victims. At about the same time, a "counselor" at a WWASPS facility was found guilty of assault and false imprisonment.

The lawsuit against WWASPS coincided with the housing bust. Like many other criminal enterprises that prospered during the bubble, WWASPS has gone out of business, even as the attorneys for Lichfield and his cohorts have employed every dilatory maneuver in their arsenal to hold the lawsuit in abeyance.

In spite of all this, there still seems to be a market for a business specializing in teen "rehabilitation" through torture: Narvin Lichfield, Robert's brother and partner in crime, recently re-opened a WWASPS-inspired facility in South Carolina that had been shut down amid a
n avalanche of civil lawsuits and criminal charges.

Apparently, there are still people who can scrounge up nearly $3,000 a month to purchase the services of people who specialize in "therapeutic" child abuse, and state officials willing to countenance such operations as an adjunct to the "war on drugs." There is a lot of ambient cruelty in late-imperial America, and Mitt Romney's presidential aspirations will depend on his ability to catalyze that cruelty into hard cash.

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