When a war breaks out people say, “It’s too stupid; it can’t last long.” But though a war may well be “too stupid,” that doesn’t prevent its lasting. Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves.

— Albert Camus, The Plague

Early in 1945, a community analyst for the War Relocation Authority, the US government agency responsible for Japanese internment during World War II, published a rather opportunistic, if bizarrely sensitive article in the Journal of American Folklore on the poetry of the Tule Lake internment camp. Life in the camps was never normal, and at Tule Lake it was the most difficult. Hemmed in by “tall, man-proof fences,” watched over by armed guards and floodlight towers, fingerprinted and interrogated again and again, camp residents endured a mixture of monotony and terror over their fate. One must imagine that the residents — inmates, really – felt as if they existed somehow outside of both time and space, that they had been jettisoned from history and geography as they waited in their makeshift desert barracks. The article tells us that all the residents except the children were “embittered and disaffected.” [1]

Among the many activities of adult camp residents were the poetry clubs, and the authors of the article catalogue the products of the Tule Lake Senryu circle. Senryu is a traditional poetic form similar to haiku and, according to the article, is composed by two people in turn. One of the Tule Lake Senryu poems lamented:

In the place of exile
Is the temperature

Today, this sad and lapidary verse reminds us of a regrettable chapter in American history. But it is striking that one can imagine the exact same lines being written today to describe life in another camp, lost somewhere in a land of scorching heat, seemingly outside of both time and place. This camp began operation in January 2002 and, according to the Department of Defense, housed some 595 residents as of May 2004. The captors boast of the fact, as US officials did during Japanese internment, that the residents are permitted to observe their cultural practices. Interrogations are frequent here, and suicide attempts, a grave sin in Islam, are not uncommon. The camp was built by a subsidiary of the notorious Halliburton Corporation for $9.7 million, and, even though there is already room for 350 additional prisoners, the contractor is building another wing with capacity for 100 more. [3] Ocean surrounds the camp, which in turn is encircled by green mesh so that the inmates cannot see the water. Cooperation with interrogators is rewarded with handfuls of dates or McDonald’s Happy Meals or ice cream sandwiches. All but 100 or so detainees are caged in cells measuring eight by seven feet; they are let out only twice a week for showers and exercise. Spray-painted on the floor in each cell is an arrow with the information, “MAKKAH 12793 km,” indicating the direction of Muslim prayer and constantly reminding the detainees of their exile from their world. This facility’s name is Camp Delta, and it is on the island of Cuba, but it might as well be on Mars.


Camp Delta, one of several locations where the United States is holding those it labels as “unlawful enemy combatants” in its self-described “war on terror,” exemplifies the strange new geographies of empire in the twenty-first century. Although the phrase “enemy combatant” has now entered the journalistic lexicon, it has no precedent in US or international law. Whoever is designated an “enemy combatant” by the executive branch sits in a legal netherworld, the threat of indefinite detention swinging overhead like a sword of Damocles. In fact, a senior Defense Department official has said that the Pentagon is planning on keeping “a large portion of the detainees…[at Camp Delta] for many years, perhaps indefinitely” [4] — a logically consistent position, since the “war on terror,” almost by definition, has no foreseeable end.

The camp’s Cuban location is significant, not only because of its reverberations with American imperial history, but also because the US government argues that captives housed outside of US territory are not entitled to constitutional protections. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently disagreed with this position, pointing out that the US exercises “complete jurisdiction and control” over the base at Guantánamo Bay, where the detention facilities were built. [5] If it is not Cuban (they own it but do not run it) and not American (they run it but do not own it), then where in the world is Guantánamo Bay? The Supreme Court heard arguments about the jurisdictional address of the Camp Delta prisoners in April, and is due to rule in the summer. In the meantime, the detainees linger day by day in their changeless place of exile.

Press reports indicate that the US is now routinely threatening captives on other battlefronts, as well as suspected “enemy combatants,” with indefinite detention (or, sometimes, transfer to Guantánamo Bay) if they do not cooperate sufficiently with American authorities. Coercion and torture have taken place in Iraq, where at one point the US was holding some 13,000 people in the now infamous Abu Ghraib prison without legal recourse. Torture has also been reported at the Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, where hundreds of others are held. In various terrorism-related prosecutions in the United States, such as in the case known as the Lackawanna Six, the government also threatened indefinite detention. [6] Two US citizens, José Padilla and Yasser Hamdi, their access to counsel circumscribed, sit in the strange geography of a Navy brig as they also await the summer verdict of the Supreme Court. As when the Hirabayashi, Yasui and Korematsu cases challenged the constitutionality of Japanese internment, the judiciary will delineate the legal boundaries of the prosecution of war.

The Scale

What is the connection between the painful history of Japanese internment and the machinations of the contemporary war on terror? The similarities are legion, yet when one considers the examples above, the differences are also very apparent. If, as Edward Said has written, “the task of criticism is to make distinctions, to produce differences, where at present there are none,” [7] then the critic’s other obligation must surely be to connect disparate moments through their affinities in order to understand the historically constituted nature of power.

Japanese internment affected close to 120,000 people, over 70,000 of them American-born citizens. (Those who were not American-born were not eligible for citizenship, owing to the naturalization laws of the time, which excluded Asians.) As of 2004, of course, the scale of liberties lost to internment during the “war on terror” is much lower. Internment of Japanese and Japanese Americans sent an entire civilian population to prison, though they were innocent of any crime. The bald truth of the contemporary confinements is that, without competent systems of adjudication, we have no way of knowing how many innocent civilians are being held captive. Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that many of the Guantánamo detainees are hardly the “most dangerous, best trained, vicious killers on the face of the earth,” as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has described them. [8] In February 2004, the US repatriated three Camp Delta residents who ranged from 13 to 15 years of age. Earlier repatriations have included a 78 year-old deaf man who couldn’t understand his interrogation, a taciturn 105 year-old man, several kidnapped taxi drivers, confused farmers and a man with so serious a head wound he was known to his captors as Half-Head Bob. Despite the 100 or so repatriations, the number of captives at Guantánamo has not diminished. [9]

Other comparisons between Japanese internment and the contemporary war find more common ground, but not true symmetry. Hundreds of thousands of lives were disrupted by Japanese internment, due not only to the loss of liberty, but also by bank seizures, lost homes, assailed dignity and other costs that are difficult to measure. Outside US borders, such disruption is almost impossible to quantify. But in the domestic sphere, the Council on American Islamic Relations has stated that US government actions against Muslims have affected the lives of over 60,000 people. [10] Dozens of Muslim charities have had their assets seized or are under investigation, and money transfers from the US to the Middle East and Africa have become extraordinarily burdensome. Muslims in the US have threatened to sue Western Union for discriminatory practices; in several documented instances, the company refused to wire money for people with Muslim-sounding names, reportedly out of fear of prosecution under the USA PATRIOT Act. According to the New York magazine City Limits, American Express had been arbitrarily canceling the accounts of American Muslims for the same reason. [11]

By far the biggest difference between Japanese internment and the contemporary war on terror is that, out of racist fears and vengeance, Japanese internment uprooted and denied due process to people who were US citizens. As historian Peter Irons has shown, the War Department promoted the fears even when it knew them to be groundless. Irons documents the astonishing deception and suppression of evidence practiced by the War Department and the Justice Department, and illustrates the degree to which the Supreme Court itself deliberately misconstrued the arguments before it in order to render a judgment on internment in favor of the executive branch. “The war power of the national government is ‘the power to wage war successfully,’” reads the Hirabayashi decision (quoting Charles Evan Hughes, a justice during the interwar period). [12] According to Irons, Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone was intent on achieving this outcome, regardless of the cost to Japanese Americans or the Constitution or the idea of citizenship itself. [13] The Court even argued, through twisted logic of its own, that people of Japanese descent could reasonably be thought to be disloyal since they had suffered so much discrimination throughout American history, which had only “intensified their solidarity and…prevented their assimilation as an integral part of the white population.” [14] Intern them we must, the Court said, because historically they are our victims.

Neither questions of loyalty nor intimations of internment are absent from contemporary discussions surrounding the “war on terror.” In February 2004, New York Congressman Peter King claimed that “85 percent of the mosques have extremist leadership in this country,” and that “most Muslims, the overwhelming majority of Muslims, are loyal Americans, but they seem unwilling to come forward [to cooperate with law enforcement].” King, who is writing a pulp novel where Muslim extremists and warrior remnants of the Irish Republican Army plan a united attack on American soil, made his comments after hearing Muslims criticize the imbalance in US foreign policy. [15] Similarly, less than a year after the September 11, 2001 attacks, Peter Kirsanow, a civil rights commissioner appointed by George W. Bush, inflamed opinion in a community he had been contracted to defend when he stated that “if there’s another terrorist attack and if it’s from a certain ethnic community or certain ethnicities that the terrorists are from, you can forget about civil rights in this country.” Kirsanow added that such an attack could lead to internment camps, quipping: “Not too many people will be crying in their beer if there are more detentions, more stops, more profiling. There will be a groundswell of public opinion to banish civil rights.” [16] The quasi-official provenance of such ideas, and the frequency with which they circulate, is troubling indeed. As the Israeli historian Tom Segev wrote of talk of “transfer” of Palestinians, “There are ideas that should have black flags over them.” [17]

Thus far, two and a half years into the war on terror, only two American citizens have lost their liberty and been denied the right to defend themselves. A replica of the recognized error of World War II internment is difficult — though not impossible —  to imagine. Yet this is not to say that citizenship rights have been bravely respected. If, during the years of Japanese internment, the government abandoned defense of the rights of American citizens, today the US feels empowered to abandon the rights of everyone else.

Collapsing Citizenship

Consider the immigrant population. After the September 11 attacks, more than 5,000 immigrants were rounded up by early law enforcement sweeps in a systematic effort of selective prosecution. At least one person is still in custody, after having been detained for more than two years without charge. [18] Although the charges against them were minor civil violations, they were brutalized in detention — beaten frequently, deprived of sleep and medical care, forced to eat pork — to the point that even the Justice Department’s internal auditor published a 200-page report criticizing the inhumane treatment. [19]

Next came Special Registration, a Justice Department initiative that juridically turned Islam into a racial category. Special Registration required all visa-holding men from 25 Muslim countries (and North Korea) to undergo an onerous ordeal of fingerprinting, interviewing and photographing upon entry and exit. Complying with the program meant that over 13,800 men with visa problems faced perhaps the largest mass deportation in American history, even though large numbers of them had lived in the US for years, had applied lawfully for adjustment of status and have American-born children. Their lives and their families’ lives were ripped asunder by the fallout of September 11. The sweeps and programs of the government effected a removal of Muslim men from the US based firstly on the sole fact that they came, at some point in their lives, from Muslim countries. [20]

In requiring that “citizens” and “nationals” of those countries suffer its burdens, Special Registration collapsed citizenship, ethnicity and religion into race. Under the Special Registration guidelines, immigration officers were charged with the authority to register whomever they have “reason to believe” should be specially registered. This “reason to believe” extended to non-immigrant aliens who the inspecting officer had “reason to believe are nationals or citizens of a country designated by the Attorney General.” [21] In a September 2002 memorandum to regional directors and patrol agents, the Immigration and Naturalization Service clarified that this discretion included cases such as “a non-immigrant alien who is a dual national and is applying for admission as a national of a country that is not subject to special registration, but the alien’s other nationality would subject him or her to special registration.” Numerous reports have indicated that place of birth has been used by INS agents as the trigger for determining “reason to believe” that an immigrant should be registered. In other words, an immigrant born in one of the listed countries, regardless of his citizenship, would be subject to Special Registration.

Soon after Special Registration began, registration of dual nationals became commonplace, and it sparked a minor international incident. Canada issued a rare travel advisory for its citizens visiting the US, since the US was discriminating between types of Canadian nationality. [22] The US offered Canada assurances that dual citizenship would not “automatically” trigger special registration and Canada withdrew its advisory. Canadian citizens who are nationals from the listed countries, however, continue to complain that birthplace triggers registration automatically. [23] One case, the traumatic story of Maher Arar, is particularly noteworthy. This Canadian citizen landed in the US in transit on his way home to Canada, whereupon the US detained him and shipped him to Syria, his birthplace, where he endured months of torture, presumably at the request of US officials. [24] Canadians are still livid over the Arar case, which proved to them that — US assurances notwithstanding —  citizenship does not matter. Only descent counts.

Nowhere from Anywhere

One must look closely at the aggregate effects of these programs, combined with the geographic spaces where they occur, in order to discern what is going on. We should consider Special Registration through the emptiness of the airport interrogation room, see the weightlessness of the Navy brig holding Hamdi and Padilla, examine the bureaucratic moonscape of the Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, and peer through the chain link cages at the occupied tip of an embargoed Caribbean island. None of these places exist in any meaningful sense of the word. They are empty spaces, because they have become administrative dumping grounds for superfluous bodies in the government’s prosecution of its war. Outside of time and space, yet regulated like a prison, these are not the ends of the earth but more like floating penal colonies for the uncondemned (for even the condemned get a hearing where they are condemned). In these places, there is no means of challenging one’s fate. Rights have evaporated like a kettle whistling itself dry.

Japanese internment and the “war on terror” teach us that citizenship and place are inextricably linked, and when the place is nowhere, the person has been expelled not just from a nation but in a sense from humanity itself. We are perhaps accustomed to thinking about citizenship largely as a marker of identity, as proof of belonging that manifests itself in demands for inclusion in the narrative of history, say, or in the literary canon. There is no doubt of the importance of such enterprises, but something is lost if we consider citizenship as an entry permit into the nation. Citizenship is not just an identity marker. It is a legal condition — and not just any legal condition. Citizenship, in Hannah Arendt’s memorable phrase, is the “right to have rights.” For better or worse, our human rights are premised on us having a nation, territory, a place to make laws and lives, and citizenship is the mechanism by which we can claim being grounded in the world.

Yet again and again, the government declares that citizenship is essentially worthless. In the case of Japanese internment, the consequence was a loss of home and geography. The desert locations of internment, nowhere from anywhere, were not chosen capriciously but were dictated by the logic of a policy of expulsion. The camp is the necessary consequence of the loss of citizenship and the nation because displacement is a necessary consequence of the loss of citizenship. Similarly, Palestinians are a people without rights because they are a people without land, for occupied land too is displaced land, displaced from the functioning of law and the concept of human rights.

When one considers the Japanese internment camps of World War II or Camp Delta on Guantánamo Bay, one cannot escape the disastrous fact that the US government has derogated the guarantees of citizenship with unabashed contempt, and it has effected this policy through a removal of geography from the human world. No one understood this better than Arendt, who in The Origins of Totalitarianism connected the idea of human rights, land and citizenship with extraordinary acumen:

The fundamental deprivation of human rights is manifested first and above all in the deprivation of a place in the world…. We became aware of the existence of a right to have rights (and that means to live in a framework where one is judged by one’s actions and opinion) and a right to belong to some kind of organized community, only when millions of people emerged who had lost and could not regain these rights because of the new global political situation. The trouble is that this calamity arose not from any lack of civilization, backwardness or mere tyranny, but on the contrary, that it could not be repaired, because there was no longer any “uncivilized” spot on earth, because whether we like it or not we have really started to live in One World. Only with a completely organized humanity could the loss of home and political status become identical with expulsion from humanity altogether. [25]

Point of Indistinction

If the location of Camp Delta tells us something about the new geography of the US empire, its purpose reveals something about the empire’s production of knowledge. The Bush administration’s stated rationale for housing inmates at Guantánamo is twofold: security and intelligence gathering. Facing the April 2004 Supreme Court date, the administration began advertising the merits of its penal colony by underlining its intelligence value in particular. A March 21 article in the New York Times, entitled “Guantánamo Detainees Deliver Intelligence Gains,” was oriented expressly around this idea. Steve Rodriguez, the overseer of Guantánamo interrogations, is quoted explaining how, even if the detainees were flown to Cuba in 2002, authorities can still extract valuable information from them. “I thought that when I first came here, there would be little to gain,” says Rodriguez. “But when they talk about what happens in certain operational theaters, the locations of certain pathways, that information doesn’t perish.”

One ought to pause on this remarkable little phrase – information doesn’t perish. This is the kind of phrase that one can venerate, that renders an attitude, and here the orientation revealed is nothing less than the ability of power to force itself to life at the expense of the living. Victory in a potentially never-ending war assumes a relationship of power to the production of knowledge where wisdom has fallen into intelligence and knowledge has lapsed into information. With this phrase, something more than the lives of the detainees is being slowly destroyed.

“The most radical and only secure form of possession is destruction, for only what we have destroyed is safely and forever ours,” writes Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism. [26] Although this insight may seem counterintuitive, one can easily make sense of it by considering how, in the war on terror, people may die but “information doesn’t perish.” What is being possessed through destruction today is not Iraq or Afghanistan but the whole international order. In other words, the stakes are not the blatant violation of the Geneva Convention, but the ability of the all-powerful to claim sovereign exception to the rules, and, thereby, possess the right to determine the rules. The US is taking possession of the law by destroying it.

Guantánamo Bay may be cut off from the world, but it is hardly shrouded in secrecy. In fact, there is ample and growing evidence that Camp Delta houses those captives the US considers least worthwhile, while the higher “intelligence value” subjects are stashed away in more remote climes on the island of Diego Garcia, at the military base in Kandahar and in various undisclosed locations across the globe. [27] Guantánamo may be a ruse to divert attention from the even more heinous detentions and interrogations being carried out elsewhere. But what does it mean when the ruse itself is nothing short of a gross exception to customary and agreed upon standards of behavior among nations and peoples? Such imperious behavior on the part of the US betrays a logic of sovereignty where the sovereign, as Giorgio Agamben argues, “is the point of indistinction between violence and the law, the threshold on which violence passes over into law and law passes into violence.” [28]

Here is a kind of creative destruction not captured by Joseph Schumpeter’s pioneering use of the phrase as an inexorable condition of dynamic capitalism. By destroying the international system of laws and nations, and placing itself as the true sovereign outside of the order because of its power to force its exceptional quality, the US has rendered brute power into the most important meaning-producing activity in the world. This fact alone has implications for the empire and the production of knowledge.

Regimes of Truth

Ever since Edward Said’s groundbreaking study Orientalism, we have become accustomed to considering the relationship between conquest and knowledge through a Foucauldian lens of power. The production of knowledge, Said argues, is never an innocent or timeless enterprise but is always located somewhere in the world and carries with it worldly consequences. “The nexus of knowledge and power creating the ‘Oriental’,” Said writes about Orientalism, “in a sense obliterated him as a human being.” Orientalism, as a discourse, “is produced and exists in an uneven exchange with various kinds of power.” [29]

One can argue over whether Said totalizes the entire enterprise of knowledge of the other, or if he correctly identifies the coercive tendency of knowledge-in-power to treat its subject as a “commodity” and not an “interlocutor.” [30] Yet despite one’s inclination, the pivot upon which the argument turns is a Foucauldian formulation of knowledge and power that we have thoroughly assimilated into notions about the production of knowledge. “We should admit,” writes Foucault, “that power produces knowledge (and not simply by encouraging it because it serves power or by applying it because it is useful); that power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.” [31]

Said’s use of Foucault’s model has served as a critique for area studies for a generation. But during the current war on terror, perhaps there is an entirely different “regime of truth” operating. The knowledge produced out of Orientalism, according to Said, was partisan and racist, it was produced from a position of superiority and it facilitated conquest, but it was still driven by a certain will to knowledge, regardless. Thus, Said can elaborate upon the high-handed and colonial assumptions behind the work of earlier Orientalists, people like H.A.R. Gibb and Louis Massignon, while still pointing to their “erudition” and “extraordinary achievements.” [32] In Said’s narrative, American study of the Arab Middle East has historically been far less impressive than its European counterpart. However, the current “regime of truth,” the one directly promoted by the Bush administration, must be seen as sinking even lower than the field characterized by Said in 1978. This decline is not accidental or de-evolutionary. Rather, it is constitutive of the contemporary configuration of power’s relationship to knowledge, for what we are currently living is likely the overcoming of (or attempts to overcome) Foucault’s power/knowledge paradigm. Until now, a will to knowledge enabled power and that power produced more opportunities for knowledge. Currently, we are witnessing the birth of a pure and simple will to power, without the burden of knowledge, and where more knowledge just creates more complications.

Regime of Stupidity

In other words, perhaps it is time to admit that the “war on terrorism” is not just a stupid war. It is a war designed to make us stupid. How much real inquiry into our present condition, for example, has been stymied by the mesmerizing quality of the word “terrorism”? As international law expert John Whitbeck has argued, the whole world has become “ensnared by a word” — a word that, in Bush’s language certainly, but not his alone, “explain[s] and justifie[s] everything, past, present and future.” [33] If the current configurations of power, knowledge and geography are comprised of a willed stupidity, Bush’s own bumbling speech and folksy simplicity come into sharper relief. This chief executive is not an aberration, but a paradigm of what contemporary imperial politics demands. There have been numbly ideological elements within every administration and behind the prosecution of any war, and anti-intellectualism has a long history in the US, but at no point in history has global political rhetoric been entirely oriented around a single word that has been so emptied of content, its only substance being a shadow on the wall in the figure of a bearded, Muslim man with eyes of burning rage. Such stupidity, furthermore, extends beyond the obvious locations of the White House and the media sphere.

Consider how the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the civilian wing of the American occupation in Iraq, had only 16 Arabic speakers among the 1,600 Americans on its payroll as of June 2003. [34] Such facts are not just mistakes or oversights; they should be seen within a structure of meaning where the remaking of the Middle East has nothing to do with the history or aspirations of the region’s peoples, and everything to do with the region’s political and economic domination by the US. Similarly, one could examine the vaunted Iraqi “interim constitution” signed on March 8, 2004 not at the level of its political arrangements, but simply for its rhetorical imagination. Arabic lends itself well to grandiloquence, but the Transitional Administrative Law, in its lumbering and pedestrian prose, seems immediately foreign, bureaucratic and imposed.

If the global “war on terror” is in fact designed to make us stupid, then the stupidity is fueled by abandonment of the belief that knowledge is power and power produces knowledge. Instead, the current regime of truth, propelled by its own world historical mission, seems to believe in the brutishly simple idea that power is knowledge. Power, when sufficiently supreme, can impose its own realities. So Arabic speakers become almost unnecessary, except for intelligence gathering. With its unrivaled ability to refashion and create, the US needs only to legislate by decree, and the only specialists required are the experts not of the colonized but of the colonizer, those who study the arrangements of royal power. Napoleon’s savants accompanying him on the conquest of the new Egypt are not Denon and his ilk but specialists in American law, brigades of computer aces for complex military hardware and an army corps of public relations engineers. After all, in a world where “information doesn’t perish,” history becomes useless.

Out of Sync

Other recent initiatives stress the uncomfortable fact of the purposeful stupidity in the war on terror. The International Studies in Higher Education Act of 2003, passed by the House of Representatives in October and currently in the Senate, reauthorizes five years of funding for international area studies centers (known as Title VI centers). But the funds come with strings attached. The bill requires international studies programs in US universities to undergo political monitoring by a committee appointed by Congress and demands, among others things, that Title VI centers provide government recruiters (including intelligence agencies) with full access to their students, and that the Secretary of Education initiate a study to scrutinize “foreign language heritage communities” in the US in the interest of national security. The bill, at bottom, seeks to dumb down scholarship by policing it for adequate patriotism. Meanwhile, it promotes the conversion of as much Title VIproduced knowledge as possible directly into intelligence.

Behind this act are right-wing pundits, namely Stanley Kurtz, Daniel Pipes, Martin Kramer and David Horowitz, who energetically seek to silence views on Israel that oppose their own. As with the precedent of the McCarthy hearings prompting anti-Communist purges at universities, one can imagine a growing sense of intimidation developing as Middle East scholarship is put under the direct gaze of lawmakers. More than intimidation, however, the mechanisms behind this attack lower the level of political analysis to a Manichean simplicity: “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” Partisan knowledge that props up the US and Israel lies on one side of the divide. Everything else is rubbish. The International Studies in Higher Education Act attempts not only to legislate away dissent, but to induce scholars of the Middle East to internalize this particular regime of stupidity.

Similarly, the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations have added to their grant agreements “anti-terrorism clauses” so imprecise that universities could lose foundation support simply for sponsoring a lecture on the life of Nelson Mandela or showing a film about the Weathermen. Ford’s grant agreements now state that the foundation will withdraw funding if university expenditures promote “violence, terrorism, bigotry or the destruction of any state,” while the Rockefeller Foundation demands that grantees not “directly or indirectly engage in, promote or support other organizations or individuals who engage in or promote terrorist activity.” Predictably, objections over foundation support for Palestinian organizations precipitated the Ford foundation’srewrite of its grant agreements. Nine elite universities –- including Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia — have protested the clauses by writing letters of objection to the foundations, claiming the new language would “run up against the basic principles of protected speech on our campuses.” [35] Sadly, even our legendary foundations don’t seem immune to the manufactured stupidity of the “war on terror.”

Nor is the stupidity limited to educational institutions. The Bush administration began in February 2004 to promote its still vague Greater Middle Eastern Initiative (GMEI), which is supposed to exhibit a newfound US commitment to the political and social development of the region. [36] But from the beginning, the GMEI has been running into a wall. Like the State Department’s ongoing Middle Eastern Partnership Initiative (MEPI), the GMEI seems to be based primarily on two documents published by the United Nations, the Arab Human Development Reports of 2002 and 2003. Whatever their merits, these documents were compromised since their conclusions could not venture into two realms: criticism of individual Arab states and criticism of Israel. GMEI is organized around the pillars of democracy, knowledge and women’s empowerment. (MEPI is organized around four issues: democracy, education, women and economics.) No one would argue that advances in all three areas are not needed in the region, but the GMEI suffers from its own stubborn insistence on ignoring the fundamental place that the Palestinian issue holds in the Arab world. The initiative calls on countries in its regional purview — the Arab states, Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan – to adopt major economic and political reforms. In exchange, the states will receive greater cooperation from the West in terms of increased aid, security arrangements and access to the World Trade Organization. [37] As the Village Voice put it, the initiative “was conceived as a security document, not a developmental road map”; its blindness to the Palestinian issue is regarded in the Arab world as “demeaning and insulting.” [38]

Even Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor, seemed at wit’s end over this initiative, calling it “out of sync with regional realities.” [39] Brzezinski quotes Dick Cheney as saying that the spread of democracy was “the precondition for peace and stability.” Brzezinski describes how Cheney’s position “appeared to many to be a rationalization for postponing any effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Moreover, it ignored the historical reality that democracy can flourish only in an atmosphere of political dignity. As long as the Palestinians live under Israeli control and are humiliated daily, they will not be attracted by the virtues of democracy. The same is largely true of the Iraqis under the American occupation.” The GMEI is viewed by many Arabs as prescribing a willful forgetting of their Palestinian brethren — in exchange for a promised massage by the hands of imperial power. None of these objections matter to the Bush administration. They matter even less to the government of Ariel Sharon, which seeks to impose its will on the Palestinians regardless of their livelihoods, future or historical claims. The Bush administration’s language is muted and gentler, but the administration shares with the Sharon government the inability to entertain opposing views, the notion of absolute power usurping the need for (even colonial) knowledge of the other and the belief that turning the world stupid will cement the success of their designs. What should be apparent now is the urgent need for a lasting resolution to the Palestinian question that is driven by recognizing their dispossession and by righting it justly. Such a resolution would have an immeasurably greater regional impact than the administration’s chosen tack of forcibly producing a compliant Iraqi nation.

Surely, imagination — and not stupidity — can be marshaled to guarantee rights for two peoples, Jewish and Palestinian Arab, whose histories and futures are fully intertwined. Separation, by barriers or borders, is not a dream, but an unworkable nightmare. In 1968, everyone involved in the conflict knew that the solution to the Palestinian question was an independent Palestinian state because the facts on the ground supported it. Today, considering the deep penetration of Jewish settlement in the West Bank, the persistent cantonment of the Palestinians and the continual dispossession of Palestinian Arabs, including those inside Israel, from land and livelihoods, the only human answer for the conflict lies in the creation of a binational state organized around equality in citizenship with protections of communal and confessional rights. Arab life in general cannot improve without justice for the Palestinians. With justice for the Palestinians, Jewish culture — a great and largely unrecognized loss for Arab and Muslim civilization — could be reintegrated into the region. But such arguments can scarcely be made in most American venues, out of a willful disavowal of wisdom. Dependency on Israeli and US visions for the region has turned us stupid.

Mid-Air Suspension

Despite the madness of floating geographies and blind knowledge, there is cause for optimism, if only for the simple fact that we can refuse to be made stupid. There is a standing imperative for all those who can to expose the inanity of waging war on nouns and the cupidity of pauperizing one of the potentially richest nations on earth. Now, so completely out of the earshot of power, ideas and conscience have the opportunity to emancipate themselves from the status quo. Ideas and conscience must become more directly oppositional and political, not only out of respect for wisdom or a moral obligation, but because the imperial projects of the twenty-first century simply will not work. It is time for US and Israeli governments to recognize that, regardless of descent or faith, all peoples harbor within them that persistent itch to determine their own destiny. Increasingly, the flowers and candy American soldiers were told to expect on the streets of Iraq are improvised explosive devices and rocketpropelled grenades. The US imperial hand is stretched beyond its reach, and large areas of the world are poised to explode as the hand curls into a fist. These are dangerous times. World missions based on the belief that brute power “is” and everything else “is not” do not merely offend our notions of knowledge. They injure our sense of being human.

Goha, the inveterate fool and trickster of Arab folklore, has an instructive tale about stupidity. One day, Goha was arrested for a minor crime. Paraded in front of the judges, he sat and waited for them to determine his fate. The judges, in all their wisdom, decided that the poor man was simply too stupid to live, and they sentenced him to death by hanging. Goha was taken to the death chamber where he met his executioner, while the judges took their seats in the gallery. The rope was slung around Goha’s neck and the executioner pulled the trapdoor lever. But instead of dying, Goha began to flail about as if he had something important to say. The executioner looked to the judges, who nodded to the executioner, and he slowly lowered Goha from mid-air suspension. As soon as his feet touched the ground, Goha screamed at the executioner. “You idiot!” he yelled. “I almost died up there!”

Today, the judges have charged themselves with a world-historical mission. For it to succeed, they must enforce a global regime of stupidity. More than ever before, we cannot afford to be left hanging.




[1] Marvin Opler and F. Obayashi, “Senryu Poetry as Folk Expression,” Journal of American Folklore 58 (January-March 1945), pp. 1, 4.

[2] Ibid., p. 9.

[3] See Nicholas Horrock and Anwar Iqbal, “Waiting for Gitmo,” Mother Jones (January- February 2004), Ted Conover, “In the Land of Guantánamo,” New York Times Magazine, June 29, 2003 and David Rose, “How We Survived Jail Hell,” The Observer, March 14, 2004.

[4] New York Times, February 13, 2004.

[5] New York Times, December 19, 2004.

[6] See New York Times, October 12, 2003, Washington Post, March 29, 2003 and Washington Post, December 26, 2002. In August 2003, Amnesty International reported: “The legal black hole that is Camp Delta has gained such notoriety that US and other authorities have reportedly used it as a threat during interrogation…. Amnesty International has been told by relatives of detainees in Yemen, for example, that…Yemeni security police began frequently to threaten detainees that they would be handed over to US agents to take them to Guantánamo. An Afghan prisoner released from the US air base in Bagram, where he was reportedly held for 18 days in what he described as a regime of 24-hour illumination and sleep deprivation, also alleged that he was threatened with transfer to Guantánamo to try to force cooperation during interrogation. Another released Afghan prisoner said that during interrogation he was threatened with transfer to Guantánamo. He said: ‘One of them brought me 50 small stones and said “count these stones.” When I finished he said, “We will send you there for 50 years”.’ He was not transferred to Cuba.” The report is accessible online at http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGAMR511142003.

[7] Edward W. Said, The Question of Palestine (New York: Vintage, 1980), p. 59.

[8] Newsweek, July 8, 2002.

[9] Horrock and Iqbal.

[10] Council on American Islamic Relations, The Status of Muslim Civil Rights in the United States 2002: Stereotypes and Civil Liberties (Washington, DC, 2002).

[11] Ibid., p. 38. Also see Tri-City Herald (Washington), July 21, 2003 and Hilary Russ, “Leave Home Without It: Credit Card Companies Cancel on Muslim New Yorkers,” City Limits (May 2003).

[12] Hirabayashi vs. United States, 320 US 81 (1943).

[13] Peter Irons, Justice at War: The Story of the Japanese American Internment Cases (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1983), pp. 219-252.

[14] Hirabayashi vs. United States.

[15] Newsday, February 12, 2004.

[16] Detroit Free Press, July 20, 2002.

[17] Haaretz, April 5, 2002.

[18] Buffalo News, April 8, 2004 and Washington Post, November 29, 2003.

[19] Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, The September 11 Detainees: A Review of the Treatment of Aliens Held on Immigration Charges in Connection with the Investigation of the September 11 Attacks (Washington, DC, June 2003). Also see Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, Supplemental Report on September 11 Detainees’ Allegations of Abuse at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York (Washington, DC, September 2003).

[20] Chicago Tribune, November 16, 2003 and Reuters, December 1, 2003.

[21] Federal Register 67/155, August 12, 2002, p. 52592. Special Registration is still in effect, but in 2004 its provisions were altered so that, in practice, it ended for certain categories of non-immigrant visa holders, but not others.

[22] New York Times, November 8, 2002.

[23] Toronto Star, September 11, 2003.

[24] Washington Post, January 23, 2004.

[25] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, 1968), pp. 296- 297.

[26] Ibid., p. 145.

[27] Observer, March 14, 2004.

[28] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 32.

[29] Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1978), pp. 27, 12.

[30] Edward W. Said, Covering Islam (New York: Vintage, 1979), p. 150.

[31] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (New York: Vintage, 1979), p. 27.

[32] Said, Orientalism, pp. 266-267.

[33] John Whitbeck, “‘Terrorism’: A World Ensnared by a Word,” International Herald Tribune, February 17, 2004.

[34] The number was cited by the historian of Iraq Toby Dodge during a speech to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council on November 13, 2003. The speech is online at http://www.lawac.org/speech/dodge%202004.htm.

[35] Wall Street Journal, May 4, 2004.

[36] Washington Post, February 28, 2004.

[37] Christian Science Monitor, April 5, 2004.

[38] Kareem Fahim, “The Middle East: Still Dark in Bush’s Gaze,” Village Voice, March 17-23, 2004.

[39] Zbigniew Brzezinski, “The Wrong Way to Sell Democracy to the Arab World,” New York Times, March 8, 2004.



How to cite this article:

Moustafa Bayoumi "A Bloody Stupid War," Middle East Report 231 (Summer 2004).

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