Monday, April 30, 2007

At Her Majesty's Pleasure (Must read!)

Very visceral and highly entertaining. Also, be sure to read the section towards the end, about "a young man named Nassar"..

After a nightmare flight from New York to London, I was thrown into a Victorian hellhole of a prison alongside drug smugglers and rapists. This is my story.

By Peter Kurth

May 1, 2007 | The following diary is excerpted from a journal I kept while incarcerated in December 2006 and January 2007 at Her Majesty's Prison at Wormwood Scrubs, London. Until December, I had never before been in a prison of any kind, for any reason, let alone such a filthy, decrepit, Victorian heap of stone and sadism as the Scrubs. That I found myself there at all may be put down to a collision of intractable forces -- first, my own loudmouth pigheadedness, which has landed me in trouble before; second, a humorless and probably exhausted flight attendant; and, third, the heightened tension now common to air travel, thanks to real and imagined threats to public safety resulting from the worldwide "war on terror." What follows is my story alone, though I have no reason to suspect that under like circumstances, other hapless saps would not find themselves in similar straits. And so, I offer my reflections on the experience here more or less as a cautionary tale.

On Dec. 6 of last year, I boarded a British Airways flight from JFK in New York on what was meant to be a four-day research trip to London, to examine documents recently released by Scotland Yard relating to a book I'm writing. I left the states on the spur of the moment, after I noticed that I had only seven days left on my passport before it expired. That's why I went when I did -- to take advantage of the time remaining. I expected to be back home in Vermont within a week -- not knowing, or having forgotten, about a law in Britain that demands that you have at least six months' time on your passport in order to be admitted into the country. This law has been on the books for ages, apparently, but, to my knowledge, it was rarely enforced. No longer: Travel documents and other identification papers are now screened in Britain with all the watchfulness of the doomed.

My flight was delayed by a couple of hours; it was nearly midnight when we boarded. By that time, I'd had a couple of scotches and a full dinner at one of the airport's generic bars, but I can state for sure that I was not "intoxicated." I certainly wasn't "plainly intoxicated," as the airline staff later told the courts, because if I had been, they wouldn't have let me on board. (I also feel safe in assuming that they wouldn't have offered me free bottles of wine after we took off: The last time I'd flown from London to New York, "security" actually canvassed people in the bars at Heathrow, interrogating passengers to see if they were "fit to fly.") Everything might have worked out fine if a) I hadn't discovered that my laptop was missing after about an hour in the air; and b) I'd been given a seat that wasn't tailor-made to form blood clots in my legs. I've been HIV-positive since the AIDS epidemic began -- I'm what they call a long-term survivor -- and I've got peripheral neuropathy in both my legs: It's impossible for me to sit shoved up against a wall for six hours, unable to move or lean back while the person in front of me reclines.

I should have told the airline upfront about the HIV situation, my "no longer invariably fatal but still miserably complicated chronic manageable disease." Indeed, when interrogated later by the police, I was asked why I hadn't done this, and could only reply that I'm not accustomed to blaring the news around in public. It's one thing to be "out" about your HIV status. It's quite another to trumpet the news openly before 400 people who are already in a state of anxiety. So I didn't explain that part of things when it might have helped. Neither did I bear in mind (since I was plenty anxious myself) that one of the medications I'm on -- ritonavir, which has especially terrible side effects -- is administered as part of the AIDS cocktail precisely because of its ability to inhibit a metabolic pathway and help the front-line antivirals circulate longer in the bloodstream.

Unfortunately, ritonavir has -- or can have, depending on who you ask -- the same effect with alcohol, so that "a couple of scotches" at the bar and a bottle of wine at 35,000 feet might easily send you to Cloud Cuckoo Land before you can say, "Fasten your seat belts." I mention this not as an excuse, but as a possible explanation for the fact that I completely lost my mind on that plane. I hadn't conceivably had enough alcohol to account for the reaction that ultimately led me to the clink.

My sins, in brief: When the cabin crew refused to radio JFK to see if I'd left my laptop at the gate and also declined to move me to another seat, "an altercation ensued" -- not physical, but verbal, with the flight attendants becoming snootier by the minute and me becoming, well, let's say, more American. I behaved badly in-flight, yelling at the crew, "I am an American citizen! You are our lapdog ally!" and other remarks of a vulgar and unhelpful nature. Very vulgar, I'm afraid: At one point I called that tired stewardess the worst thing you can call a woman -- you all know what it is -- but by then I was in full-blown air rage, something the airlines used to understand but, on the evidence, no longer do.

Finally, I went back to the galley and sat on what is called the "bustle," which is where they keep those rubber slides should a plane go down in water and where, over many years of these flights, I've seen lots of people sitting and children playing without anyone making a fuss about it. But times have changed, and now parking your ass on the bustle constitutes "endangering an aircraft," which is a very high crime under Britain's new anti-terrorism laws, and can get you sent to prison for a minimum of two years. I was warned about this (so they tell me), but I still refused to move; and when we finally landed at Heathrow the next morning I was escorted off the plane by two of London's finest -- not the sort of "bobby" I remember from many years in London, but fully outfitted SWAT-team types, bristling with munitions and in no mood for smart alecks. They dragged me past customs straight to police headquarters at Uxbridge, an indescribably dreary, prefabricated suburb and corporate-operations center west of London, where "incidents" originating at Heathrow are all referred for jurisdiction.

It wasn't until I got to the police station that I began to realize, slowly, the nature of the trouble I was in. A solicitor -- in my case, the English version of a public defender -- was rustled up from somewhere, and seemed to think that I'd probably get off with a slap on the wrist for "disturbing the peace" and be sent home. But I had no idea of the depth of modern Britain's terror paranoia, and I was amazed to discover, after I was "cautioned" and formally "interviewed," that the Uxbridge constabulary knew all kinds of things about me that I hadn't told them. Evidently, the "suspicious" passport and the last-minute ticket purchase, not to mention the bustle business, had resulted in a call to Interpol or some other surveillance outfit. I'm guessing here (because the police aren't obliged to tell you anything), but in the eyes of British law I apparently bore all the marks of a jihadi-in-waiting. Most surprising to me was the fact that the police had information about my family -- specifically, that my father is a convert to Islam, married to a Moroccan woman; that I have two Moroccan half-sisters; that I have spent long periods in the Middle East. I was appalled to find out that such details are available "at the click of a mouse" to any squirt with a badge, and I must have indicated as much to the squirts in question, because their notes about my "attitude and behavior" boiled down to one word: "obnoxious."

After a day and a night in isolation at Uxbridge, I was hauled the next morning, a Friday, to Magistrate's Court, where I was formally charged with "endangerment" and ... something else. I'm looking through legal papers to see what it was, but I can't find any record of it. It had something to do with "bad behaviour," a point I'd pass over if the British, under Tony Blair, hadn't made "behaviour," with or without damage to third parties, a crime in itself when it suits them. Did I know that "verbal abuse" was a criminal offense in Britain, the police had asked -- I didn't -- and that the laws of Britain also apply on board a British aircraft?

At my first court appearance, bail was instantly denied, owing to the "gravity" of the charge, and that night I was bundled off to Wormwood Scrubs, to what they call the "First Night Centre." This is, essentially, an induction wing, and fairly comfortable, all things considered -- though I think it's kept that way only to trick newcomers into thinking that the prison itself will be the same once they get there. A sad delusion: Wormwood Scrubs is a perfect shit-hole, as I would learn soon enough.

Please note that "bail" in the U.K. isn't the same thing as it is here (nothing about British judicial procedure is the same as it is in the U.S.). In Britain, bail doesn't necessarily involve money. It merely demands that you have "a fixed address" and that someone be willing to guarantee that you won't "abscond" if you're let loose on the streets. I'd been planning to stay with a friend in London during my ill-fated trip, but, helpful as he tried to be when he learned of my plight, he was scheduled to leave the country before the case could be resolved and was thus unable to provide the kind of assurance the court required. I know a lot of people in London, and I might have phoned any one of them, I suppose, except for two obstacles: First, their phone numbers were all recorded in my missing computer and, second, I wasn't able to make a phone call at any time. While prisoners are assigned calling-card numbers for use on prison phones, mine never worked -- and though I repeatedly requested to have it fixed, the matter was never resolved. In fact, until I was released in January, every bit of communication I had with the outside world was conducted through my lawyer and embassy. The whole matter might have been settled quickly had it not been Christmastime -- what the British call "the festive season" -- when everything in England shuts up tight like a drum and no court could deal with me until after the New Year.

So, that's how I wound up in the most notorious prison in London, with some of the most dangerous criminals in the city, many of whom are black and Islamic. Be advised that I use the term "black" the way the English do, to designate anyone with dark skin -- and I choose it to reflect the prevailing attitude in the U.K. right now toward "immigrants" in general and Muslims in particular. Believe me, the Brits are as nasty as we are, and just as hypocritical. At one point, even, a guard at the Scrubs advised me not to refer to "Britain" any longer. "We are English, Welsh, Scots, Irish and an awful lot of Muslims," he said. "Please remember that." Certainly one of the most horrifying moments of my incarceration came on the day of Saddam Hussein's execution, when I heard one of the guards (female) talking to another about what she called "a double standard." She wasn't sayin', mind, that she was "in fay-vuh of the death penalty," but she'd "'ad it up to 'ere" with the Muslim prisoners, "'oo'd 'ave their bloody 'ands cut off if they was in their own countries. But just listen to 'em squeal when we take away their tellies!"

To that I say: It was the Muslim prisoners in custody who taught me the most about British justice as it currently functions, and who treated me more kindly, on the whole, than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. Britain has the highest rate of drug abuse in the EU and the highest rate of incarceration. At one point last month, there were only "four prison beds" remaining in the whole of the United Kingdom. The home secretary, John Reid, has proposed putting criminals onto ships, like they did in the good old days, when Britannia ruled the waves.

There's a lot more to the diary I kept in prison than you'll read in the excerpts below, and a lot that I didn't write down at the time, not knowing from minute to minute when the guards might burst into the cell and confiscate anything they thought was "subversive." The unutterable tedium of prison life is itself a brutality, and can scarcely be rendered in words. I assure you, you have no idea what boredom is until you find yourself in the slammer, with only mealtimes, twice a day, guaranteed to get you out of your cell for a few precious minutes.

Another thing you won't read about here -- with one notable exception -- is the nature of sexual activity in prison, which is more or less constant, if also, always, nasty, brutish and short. Words are not wanted or required, although, obviously, sex among men is a perfectly natural occurrence in a place like the Scrubs. For me, however, as an "openly gay" man, it presented certain quandaries. The inviolable law is that everything is kept under wraps, and that anyone who presents himself as overtly homosexual will be beaten to a pulp. Thus do "straight" men preserve their manhood while never shunning an opportunity to get their rocks off. This required that I go underground, that I become closeted again for the first time in years, while quietly submitting to the whims of thugs -- and if a certain "passivity" emerges in my writing here, I'd put it down to that. It's difficult in prison to know the difference between "rape" and "coercion," just as it's difficult to know the truth from a lie. Everyone in prison lies all the time, whether they're prisoners or guards. Worse, you begin lying yourself, seeking some advantage, avoiding some explanation. All you know is that you don't want to get hurt, and you'll do anything to avoid it. You become complicit in your own abuse. As Oscar Wilde remarked in "De Profundis," commenting on his own imprisonment for "unnatural" acts: "I could be patient, for patience is a virtue. It is not patience, but apathy you want here, and apathy is a vice."

Strangely, despite all this, a kind of solidarity ensues -- to the point that, when the time came for my release from the Scrubs, I was afraid to leave. For what it's worth, I think I understand the so-called Stockholm syndrome a bit better than I did, although it wasn't my captors I began to identify with -- rather, my fellow captives.

Writing this introduction several months later, I find myself eager to make jokes about the experience and pass it off as just another wayward adventure in a crazy writer's life. But the truth is it wasn't like that. It wasn't funny, and it wasn't needed, either. It was degrading, dehumanizing, debilitating, terrifying, wasteful and ultimately damaging to my physical and mental health. It's true, I think, that keeping a diary -- in fact, being a writer, whose "third eye" never closed during the weeks I spent at the Scrubs -- allowed me to preserve some measure of my sanity. Even so, on my return to the United States, the people I employ to keep my head together diagnosed me with "acute stress disorder," which differs from the "post-traumatic" kind only insofar as it's immediate, not delayed. Even now, I keep wondering if it is better or worse to be imprisoned unjustly or unnecessarily, but I still have no answer.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

12/12/06: "B-Wing" -- First "full" day here after landing, arrest, night at Uxbridge police station, Magistrate's Court and three nights in the "First Night Centre." Before today I did not have a proper notebook in which to write.
No HIV meds as yet -- this is my greatest worry. I try not to think about the future. Try not to worry about home or anyone there, since I can do nothing. Trying not to look anyone in the eyes or at them in the "wrong" way (although you don't know which way that would be). Shower tomorrow -- first in a week. I stink.

Cigarettes -- you have no idea of their value until you're here. People are willing to trade anything for them (I suppose drugs would be worse). I gave away too many at first, to anyone who asked. I'll have to quit, I guess -- but how in this place?

Meantime, Pinochet has died & Thatcher regrets the loss of a dear friend. Somebody announces that a terrorist attack on London is "almost certain" around Christmas. William and Harry have announced plans for a 10th anniversary "bash" for Diana -- bad choice of words, I'd say, but lots of pop stars are already lined up. Everyone denounces and despises Bush, including the police. The Baker report was apparently very firm in its conclusions, and very gloomy. I haven't seen a newspaper in a week, just television.

My roommate, Mick, cannot sit still. He literally stands at the TV and constantly switches the channel, as if he had a remote, which he doesn't. He drinks endless cups of tea, all day and all night -- and shits a lot in the open toilet, which has only a sheet strung across it.

I am praying, literally -- at first this was just a response to anxiety -- to quiet my mind. I try to be calm, I work at it. I behave myself. I show no impatience or reaction of any kind -- those are deadly directions to go in.

14/12/06: No further court hearings until January 5 (and then merely procedural), as the case is to be bumped up from Magistrate's to Crown Court, which doesn't sit again until after the New Year. Pure absurdity, as the Crown has already agreed that the "endangerment" charge will undoubtedly be dropped. So I'm to be held indefinitely for something they know I didn't do. Mick is going to court tomorrow, so probably I'll have a new "mate."

All is OK with the meds. Doctor today -- the first one I've seen (out of four) who was decent and competent and knew what to do. Apparently the police at Uxbridge, knowing my HIV status, have scrawled "CONTAGIOUS" on my chart ... I am urgently warned by the guards to let no one know about this, although plainly I can't be the only one here in that condition. If anyone asks about the pills, I'm to say they're for "high blood pressure" or "cholesterol" or both. "Just make it up."

Things to be glad about:

1) Imprisonment gets me out of Christmas and New Year's (and for all I know Easter)
2) A temporary but huge relief from financial worries
3) Plenty of time to write
4) Plenty of time to think
5) Plenty of time to read
6) Plenty of time to sleep
7) Great material
8) Character building -- are you a man or a mouse? Or, as Alan Bennett says (I'm reading Alan Bennett's "Writing Home"), "You must learn to take it like a man. That is, like a woman, without complaint"
9) I am snapped out of ritual and routine -- only what is here is real
10) There may be more, but I don't know what they are

Finished Bennett. I'm going to read "The Da Vinci Code" finally.

15/12/06: I think if I ever publish this, I should call it "At Her Majesty's Pleasure -- And a Few Other People's." Let's not be coy. Subtitle: "Yes, Every Prison Story You've Ever Heard Is True."

Mick left this morning, hoping for release -- and once they leave, you never see them again. I thought I'd have a day alone and was looking forward to it -- but no, suddenly the keys turn: "Kurth! You have a legal visit!" I think it must be the solicitor, but it's a woman from the embassy. I sign a release forbidding any information about my case or situation to be given to the press, but that our congressional delegation be informed. Also get passport renewal papers, which I can't complete because there's no way to get photos made in here. And I can't get the expired passport number because they won't give me the expired passport, which is down "at reception." Then on return: I'm being moved "farther in," to C-Wing.

17/12/06: I can't think of the outside -- what I know is going on just over these walls. The TV is mostly a help, as it's Christmas season, so it's all unreal to begin with. But if you think about people right here in Hammersmith who might be on their way to or from work, popping into a Starbuck's for a cappuccino or something -- well, don't.

There is no comfortable or relaxing position in which to read -- but I'm reading anyway, "The Da Vinci Code," as pledged. And what the hell's with that? How did it become such a giant success? It's not that it's "bad" -- it's just not good enough -- pedestrian -- everything is explained to you instead of revealed -- not a moment's tension in it, or any doubt about the outcome, even though I couldn't have sworn before now that the Holy Grail was actually Mary Magdalene's vagina.

19/12/06: So, a new roommate -- surnamed Stanton. He's in for "conspiring to rob" -- part of a street gang, "snitched on" by one of the others. ("Well," he says, "he's a dead man, anyway, yeah?") He's 25 -- pumped up, black and Islamic -- he arrives carrying a whole shitload, bags and bags' worth, of his things -- food and clothes and electronics and whatnot. He's clean, anyway -- very -- rubs everything down with toilet paper before he touches it. We both slept well, in the end -- I think I'm getting the hang of this.

Stanton was already here once for more than a year, just two doors down in No. 12 -- he can't believe he's back, but there's a kind of cheerfulness to him, as there is to a lot of the inmates: "Nothing to be done about it. Might as well enjoy yourself, know what I mean?" "Know what I mean" is one word: "No-wha 'ahmeen?"

Smoking -- well, plainly I have no interest in not smoking. When I go out for my medical "treatments" in the mornings I find myself scrounging the floors for discarded cigarette butts. (There are no filters, and anyway it's a good place to keep your eyes -- on the ground -- it also gives you something very real to concentrate on.) Every now and then someone sees me doing this and pops out to say, "Aw, mate -- c'mon!" and pushes a wad of tobacco in my hand, usually without the papers to go with it. Or they'll give me the papers without tobacco so I can squeeze out the remains of the fag-ends I've found and roll up some "fresh" ones. I suppose you can't get more disgusting or pathetic than this (well, yes you can), but to me it's like nothing. Health? I've risked more, with worse.

[Note: there are signs all over about the risks of hepatitis B, but only one -- way inside the nurses' station where no one can see it -- warning about HIV infection: "A Condom Every Time!" or something like that. As if they'd give you a condom if you asked for one: "And what would you need that for?" Ostriches. There's a clinic here that offers HIV counseling and testing, but nobody speaks of it and I've never seen anyone enter or leave it when I've been downstairs with the doctor. It is open only on Thursdays. Imagine what can happen between a Friday and a Thursday.]

Now, suddenly, a discussion with Stanton about Islam. I suspect he's Islamic for the sake of protest, but he does have a prayer rug, with a mihrab, and he does pray, not five times a day but sometimes. (There are also signs posted on every floor, with arrows pointing toward Mecca. It's interesting that Stanton says off the bat, "Democracy can't work under Islam. Everything in Islam is structured for good -- there is one God and no need for anything else, no need for an intermediary." "How can God have a son?" he asks. "He might as well have an uncle or an aunt, yeah?"

I tell Stanton about my father, who is a convert to Islam, and his wife, Najat, who is Moroccan -- and their daughters are Islamic from the cradle. Stanton is very impressed -- I remind myself that this story might come in handy. He completely understands about the family structure when I say, "I assure you, in the home, my father's wife rules the roost." He says, yes, this is what everyone doesn't get. This is why marriage is so important: "It is half of Islam." In this regard, a man must marry, otherwise "all is temptation and fucks up your head." We speak of the television. He says it's all temptation -- "all those birds wrigglin' their bums -- it's all sin." This sounds completely bogus coming from a career criminal and whoremaster, until you realize that Stanton does not regard himself as "a sinner," as a Christian might, but as being led into sin. There is no original sin in Islam -- there is only temptation. Says Stanton: "One day, you will stand before Allah, and He will ask you questions, and you had better have some good answers, yeah? Because He didn't do it -- you did."

20/12/06: Dreary, dreary, dreary day -- depressed -- last (half) cigarette smoked already. Stanton says prison makes him "angry and violent." Says, "I'm not really like that, yeah? But it fuckin' makes me angry, yeah? Prison screws up your head. I feel like killing someone." Terrific.

21/12/06: Stanton is having some remorse today over "two things" he's done in his life, only one of which he specifies. When he left prison last time he went to live on "an estate" [that is, a "council estate," what we would call "the projects"]. Everyone loved him there. Then he got "talked into" robbing his friends "of their drugs." "Weren't worth it, yeah? ... as it was only a couple thousand pounds, yeah?" He feels badly about it, but doesn't know what he can do. He asks me if he should pray for forgiveness. I stammer something back, like, "Well, I should think praying would do for now, until the way of making amends becomes clear." He says, "Shit, man, you're takin' the piss on me. They'll kill me first."

Saw the doctor again -- Stanton, too -- he has some kind of STD, but can't remember which -- "It begins with an 'm,'" he says. [What the hell would that be?]

Apparently I am known prisonwide as "the airline geezer." There's another title if you need one.

22/12/06: -- Friday: No more Stanton. He "had court" today, and while he asked me to try to save his place in this room, it was no go: "We aren't saving anything for anybody." So now I've got Phil. He's "of an age" (mine, probably a little older), whom they've put in here, as he explains, because they told him he and I are "both intelligent and first-time offenders and you ought to get along." Phil is a white South African, from Johannesburg, in for drug smuggling -- some huge amount of cocaine -- which he brought in from Boston by way of Trinidad, having picked up the stuff in Venezuela (Caracas). He says he begged "them" (he means the cartel) not to send him through Trinidad, as it would be (and was) a flag for customs at Heathrow. But I suppose these drug lords always make sure that a certain number of their "mules" get caught, otherwise it would look suspicious. Anyhow, Phil is really up the creek -- facing 10 years. He did it because he's been unemployed for five years -- he's some kind of geologist or metallurgical engineer, used to work for De Beers, but can't get work in South Africa anymore "because I'm white." His wife has recently run off with some other man and he has kids to support -- who now don't know where he is or what's happened to him. He seems OK, just resigned. "Stunned" is a better word.

I was called to "Education" class today around 1:30: It seems my application for a prison job was very well received and I'm to be put to work on all kinds of things -- tutoring someone here on C-wing who can't read, working on the prison magazine, helping in creative writing classes and "English as a second language." One of the teachers asks me how long I'll be "in," and when I say I don't know, she says, "Well, with your qualifications and my luck, you'll be gone in three days." Somehow, I doubt it. The sheaf of legal papers sent over by the solicitors this morning was frightening in terms of a) its size and b) the potentially lengthy sentence -- two years -- if they do decide to go with the "endangerment" charge. Let's not think about that.

24/12/06: Christmas Eve. I have absolutely NO emotion about Christmas -- in fact it's better than usual. I haven't enjoyed Christmas in years, and now I just want to get through it without a lot of "carols" and recycled sermons about "peace," since it's nothing but commercial now -- nothing.

Curiously, they don't allow you any visits for a few days before and after Christmas, when you'd think they would -- but I suppose it would overwhelm everybody: the staff (half of whom are "on holiday" now), and both the prisoners and their families. It'll be interesting to see how the mates react to this -- whether depression and anger increase. Elizabeth, my niece, has sent a card saying, "Hey, Uncle Pete -- hope this Christmas suits you better than most." Later, a card from Mother -- trying to seem calm, when I know she's not.

Have touched based with "Jack," the inmate I'm supposed to be tutoring now, and brought him the books he needs to have (little "Dick and Jane" things). Having been very growly and sulky with me before -- he works in the kitchen, serving meals, also sweeps up and hauls trash -- Jack was ultra-friendly and apparently grateful.

25/12/06: Christmas Day.

A Christmas gift from -- ? I never got his name -- a wild Iranian who is kept in a cell by himself. Wears one of those little hats, the Muslim version of a yarmulke. While I'm waiting for my meds, he peeps out of his cell window and sees me fishing butts off the floor. He bangs on the door -- "No, no, wait!" he cries. Apparently he wants to give me some tobacco, no strings -- but his door is locked. He wraps some of it up in TP and slides it under. I say loudly, "I'll pay you back!" but he says no, it's a gift. He asks what I'm here for (all of this is shouted) & can't believe it when I tell him. Later, I see him outside at exercise. He's chatting with the guard ("Chico") and gives me another roll-up -- "Happy Christmas!" It's amazing. He says he's in for two and a half years, owing to his previous association with "wrongdoers." Later, still in the yard, I walk around warming up -- he's with some of his mates, chatting away in Farsi or whatever and kicking cans. Suddenly he says, "Hey, America! New York man! Next time, blow up the fucking plane. Don't pull out your knife unless you're willing to put it back with blood on it." Then he calls me "Bush" and everyone bursts out laughing. Finally, as I grin and wave, he yells out, "I AM NOT THE TALIBAN!"

26/12/06: A dangerous and frightening experience in Jack's cell -- the inmate I'm supposed to be tutoring. I went in after treatments to see if Jack has made any progress with the reading. There is someone asleep in the upper bunk, whom I take to be Jack. But suddenly, a total stranger leaps from the top bunk -- someone I've only seen before in the kitchen -- I don't know his name, but apparently he is Jack's roommate, and he pushes me against the wall, slams the door, tells me I'm in there to rob them. I'm quite amazed at how stoutly I answer that I'm not, that I'm only there to see Jack. "You're takin' the piss out of me, faggot, I saw you! I caught you!" Suddenly Jack emerges from the bathroom and ... how to put this? ... they take turns. I am stunned, shoved against the wall, but what can I do? I didn't knock. "Wing-wise," these are powerful people, with extra privileges and "out" time because of their jobs, and I am warned that henceforth I "belong" to them. Boy-o from the top bunk smacks me across the face and heaves me out of the cell. You can't afford to piss off people like this -- at the least, they control the food, and might spit in your dinner on top of everything else. We were told at induction that "bullying will not be tolerated at Wormwood Scrubs" and that it must be reported to the screws, but the old hands all doubled over laughing on hearing this, saying, "Right, Miss! And get your fuckin' 'ead bashed in!"

Oh, this is a bad day -- a bad day. Now I really am frightened -- this place suddenly seems utterly hostile. At dinner, Jack's "mate" made a point of glowering at me and drawing his finger across his throat. As he handed me my "breakfast pack," I again told him that he had made a mistake -- in fact, that he was "full of shit" -- but this is dangerous. I spoke immediately to one of the guards, leaving out the "taking turns" part of it, but simply saying I was being threatened. She said she'd "have a word with him," which will probably make things worse, of course.

27/12/06: Gerry Ford has evidently died at 93. They're going to hang Saddam Hussein within 30 days.

28/12/06: My parents' 60th wedding anniversary (would have been, anyway). Slept very well, oddly enough. Tried to shake hands with my enemy downstairs this morning at treatments (the roommate, that is, Boy-o -- I'm not bothering with Jack, who can learn to read by himself, if you don't mind). Boy-o was having none of it: "I saw you! I caught you!" I answered effectively, "Suit yourself." I stared him hard in the eyes, remembering my mother's advice about standing up to bullies: "They will always back down." I think I managed to convey to this creep that, however much power he thinks he has on the wing, I've got more, or can get more -- I can summon the fucking American embassy! -- and that he had better back off. He skulked away, of course. I can't appear to be cowed.

Something is frozen inside me.

30/12/06: The death (I should say the murder) of Saddam Hussein. Obviously they wanted something public and symbolic, and if that's so, they've certainly got it.

Hard to describe the silence here today -- it's eerie. I doubt if you managed to interview any of the prison's Muslim population individually -- and provided they told you the truth -- that you'd find many "Saddam supporters" among them. But that isn't the point -- it's the way it was done, and when -- on the eve of Eid-al-Adha, yet another in what seem to be innumerable "holiest days in Islam," a feast of self-sacrifice, commitment and obedience to Allah.

There are fliers all over the wing today instructing Muslims how to make their preparations for Eid in such a way that it can actually be done. I quote:


1) Wake up early
2) Offer Salaatul Fajr
3) Prepare for personal cleanliness, take care of details of clothing, etc.
4) Take a Ghusl (bath) after Fajr (in prison, the day before)
5) Brush your teeth (using Miswak)
6) Dress up, putting on the best clothes available, whether new or cleaned old ones.
7) Use Itr -- religious perfume
8) On Eid-al-Adha, eat breakfast after Salaah or after sacrifice if you are doing a sacrifice
9) Go to prayer ground early.
10) Offer Salaat-ul-Eid in congregation in an open place, except when weather is not permitting, like rain, snow, etc.
11) Use two separate routes to and from the prayer ground. (In prison, left and right side of corridors)
12) Recite Takbeer (softly in prison) on the way to Salaah and until the beginning of Salaat-ul-Eid.
13) On Eid-al-Adha, Takbeer starts from Fajr on the 9th Dhil Hijjah and lasts until the Asr on the 12th Dhil Hijjah.
14) Takbeer: Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar. La ilaha il lallahu Wallahu Akbar. Allahu Akbar Wa-lillah hill Hamd.

The question of a "prayer ground" for Muslim prisoners has not been resolved. They want their own place of worship (as they want their own showers), but in the meantime, when lined up and marched off to prayer, they are obliged to do it in the courtyard chapel -- which also doubles as a church for both Roman Catholics and Anglicans. Questions about your religion are among the first you're asked when you get to the "First Night Centre" -- some kind of generic "chaplain" comes around (I suppose Church of England), with a weary air, but trying to be reassuring about "your opportunities for worship here." You are asked to check a box on one of the inevitable "forms" designating your religious choice -- C. of E., RC, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish [I have met only one Jewish prisoner], Jehovah's Witness, Quaker and Muslim (which they put last, even though there are more Muslims here than anything else). There is naturally no box for Unitarian-Universalist, so I checked "N/A" and was off the hook entirely. Again, I think a lot of these people go to the services only because it gets them out of their cells. But I wonder: Might it help?

No, I think those days are gone -- I don't trust religious feeling in myself, having experienced it before as a kind of cult hysteria and knowing that it isn't really about "feelings" at all. It's about actions or it's about nothing. When I stand before Allah, Stanton, and He asks me all those questions, He's going to get the answers I've got, yeah? Whether "good" or not.

31/12/06: I wake feeling low, sad, sick of all this. I notice, however, that for some reason I'm not half so agitated, cranky, crabby, up-and-down or tired as I normally am at home. I don't feel that I'm constantly dodging tasks and obligations and invitations and irritations, all of which, as I always say, are getting in the way of my work! This needs looking at. Thinking again that in a way I've obtained just what I many times have thought and said that I wanted -- relief, release from my own life, a new place, new company, no past, no established ties -- in this place I am anyone and no one. But the price is a total abdication.

1/1/07: 2007 -- Well, well, well. It dawns bright and sunny, for a change. Lots of banging noise in the night, both inside and out, and the ones who regularly yell and scream were doing more of it.

"Legal visit" tomorrow night at 6 p.m. What is this about? The embassy? It'll be something to do, anyway.

02/01/07: I awake agitated and anxious, worried about the multiplicity of tasks today. An interesting dilemma here is that everything happens at once (that is, when anything happens at all). You're out for "treatments" and "education" and you need to talk to the landing staff and take a shower and it's "kit change" and you want to get to the library for the 10 minutes they allow, etc. And if you miss something, well, you've missed it. Everything is designed to make you feel as small and harried as possible -- and you can't really argue, can you, because if it weren't for your own mistakes, you wouldn't be here at all. So you haven't got a leg to stand on.

03/01/07: No one turned up at the "legal visit." It was supposed to be the barristers, whom I've never met and still haven't. And as fate would have it, the only other person called over with me to the "visits" place was Jack the Rapist, who asked how I was doing, at least, which I suppose is a good sign; of course we were with a guard. I sat for two and a half hours in that horrid, fluorescent-lit room, wearing the yellow nylon vest you have to put on if you're expecting a visitor, for no reason. A couple of the screws (both women) came out and chatted a bit -- they could tell it was "something of a disappointment" for me. But then they had to go home, so I just sat there ... and sat there. Jack finally came out saying, "It doesn't look good. The DNA results are back." He'd mentioned earlier that he was in for drug dealing, and I gather now that "the DNA" has something to do with traces of his saliva, or snot, discovered on 20-pound notes -- something that mysteriously will add a few years to his sentence (as if anyone should ever let him out -- they shouldn't).

05/01/07: Had court date. Just notes now -- I am too tired. You need to understand what "going to court" is like. First, they rouse you around 6 a.m. Then they come back for you alphabetically and by landing -- you may or may not have had time to brush your teeth. In any case, you must take all of your belongings with you -- you don't know if you'll be returned to your own cell, or even if you'll be returned to the same prison. So it's always a goodbye. Naturally, you can't sleep the night before. Phil was snoring, which gave me comfort -- his life may be over, but he's peaceful right now.

"KURTH! COURT!" You have to go through the whole process of "exit," everything checked, searched, an anal probe to make sure there aren't any drugs hiding there -- frankly, I think the screws like this part of it, not for "sexual" reasons, necessarily, but because it humiliates you so completely. I really do not believe that anyone could be "one of the screws" without being a sadist.

I don't even know what I pleaded to, finally. I didn't think I was going there today to "plead." But so it worked out -- I pleaded to something in exchange for the dropping of the "endangerment" charge -- very important: You don't want to get mixed up with "endangerment" at such a critical moment in history! Was it "disruption" that I admitted? "Disturbing the peace?" "Vile language?" "Verbal abuse of a flight attendant?" "Drunk on an aircraft?" Probably it was that, although there is no evidence that I was drunk -- no tests were taken, no "breathalyzers" hauled out.

Well, it's over, it's done, and the fine is 950 pounds -- twice the cost of the airline ticket. "Well," says the solicitor, when he comes downstairs afterward to meet me in the police cell, "that went well, didn't it?"

"Oh, yeah," I say, "terrific. Where do you think I'm going to get 950 pounds?"

"Oh" -- he seems genuinely bewildered -- "you don't have to pay that, you know."


"No. You can serve it in time."

"How much time?"

"Well, they can't let a person out of prison on the weekends, so..." -- he counts on his fingers -- "I'd say, probably nine days?"

"Oh ... well ... nine days. What's the difference? Can you get me back to the Scrubs?"

Of course it's not as easy as that. The solicitor has many other derelicts to attend to, and I need to wait, and wait, and wait, and wait, and wait. Hours and hours and hours until there are finally enough people to warrant the departure of a bus. These buses are the most horrible things you have ever taken a ride in. Big white vans, like ice-cream trucks, only with tiny compartments, like telephone booths, where each prisoner, having been escorted thence in handcuffs, sits alone. It's impossible to sit comfortably or even stably as these ghastly vehicles rock around London, tossing your body (and especially your head) into walls and windows. You think you're going to die -- you really do -- and it's made worse by the fact that most of the others are shouting and screaming, and demanding that the radio be turned up so they can hear Beyoncé. It takes an hour, minimum, for this van to go two miles.

I find myself thinking about Empress Alexandra of Russia, in 1918, being dragged from Tobolsk in a farmer's cart to Ekaterinburg, where she met her death, and complaining in letters to her daughters that "the ride was rather bumpy."

There were two really nice policemen at court. I told them what I'd done on the airplane and they said, "Not very clever of you." Agreed. Then: "You know, you can bomb us, you can kill us, you can drag us into useless wars, you can rip us off -- "

I said: "Take the piss out of you, you mean."

"Yeah. But you aren't permitted to call us names. That is a crime!"

Great laughter. They said, "Shit, mate, get out of that stupid cell. Come on out and 'ave a cuppa with us!" As I did -- who wouldn't? And we sat there for two or three hours waiting for that damned bus to get loaded up. They knew I was not a criminal, and not a "danger" to anyone but myself. Every now and then they had to clap the handcuffs on, if somebody "official" walked by, but it was far and away the nicest and most relaxing time I have had since I boarded that plane at JFK.

06/01/07: Interesting, I suppose, but not surprising, that as soon as a date of release is given, and a limit is set (a short limit, at that), the mind kicks up again in high gear -- internal excitement and impatience. I will need to guard against this carefully over the next week. Tunes are running through my head again -- this morning it's the "Alleluja!" from Mozart's "Exultate, Jubilate." I think it's going to be a tough week, with so much to do and no way to do it until I'm out.

The policeman at court yesterday confirmed to me what everyone knows -- that "90 percent" of all the prisoners in the U.K. are banged up for something to do with drugs -- using them, possessing them, dealing them, smuggling them and committing crimes in order to get them. Here, as at home, there is now a permanent class of people, not just "career criminals," but "professional prisoners" (my phrase).

"Xiang," a young Chinese man who wept on my shoulder in the shower one of my first mornings (which seems so long ago), finally tells me today that he's here for trying to get out of the U.K., not for trying to stay there. He's been in London for three years already, "studying English" (well, OK) -- trouble was that he tried to leave the country on a forged passport. He is indignant and bewildered -- facing six months, minimum -- and says, "They're always moaning and groaning about 'illegal immigration,' so the sensible thing would have been just to allow me to get home!"

Many things to solve: Money, ticket home, passport, pills...

OK -- saw Xiang in the shower again today. He has the body of a god and the face of an angel, a sort of blurring mix of B.D. Wong and Joan Chen. I like to think that he took all of his clothes off because I had done it (most of them don't, and Xiang didn't the first time) -- well, who showers in his underwear?

Answer: "the brothers," the Muslims do. The physical modesty of Islamic males has been somewhat exaggerated, if you ask me, but there is a religious element to it, if they want -- "cleanliness rituals" and so forth -- and I realize, too, that probably a lot of them are just trying to get their shorts clean at the same time that they soap themselves (I do mine in the sink!). Stanton, who's now across the hall, is of course his usual charming self. In the showers he's singing "On the Street Where You Live."

"I have often walked down this street before
But the pavement always stayed beneath my feet before...

08/01/07: After a while, as always with a "diary," there's nothing to say. I'm thinking about Nicholas II and all those Edwardian types who were trained to keep their journeaux intimes from earliest childhood, whether they had anything to report or not. So, Nicky: "Weather fine. Two degrees of frost. Shot 60 crow. Mama to tea," etc. It was all about the discipline. My anxiety is much lessened, I slept well, woke only once or twice. Everyone on staff agrees that Friday will probably be the day -- "Our prisons are very overcrowded."

A young man named Nassar in my writing class entertains us -- he is so talented you can barely believe it. Before we go in, he asks me, "They really put you up here for something like that?" -- then launches into explanations about its sheer idiocy, "Imagine locking you up with a lot of criminals like me." I say, "How criminal are you?" and he grins and says he's here "for six to nine," but doesn't tell me why -- later, that he's in a "single" on "the Fours" for "everyone else's protection." He naturally starts to talk about "Islam" and what we call "jihad." He says, "Look, when was the last time you saw a Nigerian suicide bomber? We'll kill you, sure, but we're not going to kill ourselves. How dumb do you think we are?" I have no answer for this. He gets quiet, then says, "Well, now you know what it's like to be a black man."

09/01/07: "Last day at Wormwood Scrubs." Yesterday there was a dramatic escape from the prison -- some "lifer" who faked an epileptic attack, and when the ambulance came to take him to the hospital, just 400 yards down the road, he'd arranged for several people on the outside, wearing masks and carrying A-47s, to overwhelm the guards and spring him free. Apparently this is his third escape [and they will catch him soon enough -- it seems to be the natural instinct of escaped prisoners to go directly back to wherever they came from -- usually a girlfriend -- the first place the police would look]. Anyway, everyone here is thrilled by it (including me), and now we know why they clamped us all down last night. HUGE noise in Britain about "the failure of the prison system," but nobody has an answer.

Everything is going very fast. All kinds of official people appeared with forms, telling me that I will be released on Wednesday -- not Friday, not next Monday -- I guess once they're through with you, they want you out. It is a shock. "Wednesday?! But I've just begun to get prepared..." Pills and the money I had sent to the bank ... where are they? No one can say. It's not that I don't want to leave, it's just that I don't know how.

Tonight at treatments, a young, heavenly beautiful man, with dark hair, beard and gorgeous eyes, stares me straight in the face and says, "American. You're American. I can tell just by looking at your face." I have never seen him before and have not said a word, so he can't tell by my accent. I figure German would be the best language to answer in, so I try it -- "Na, Mensch, Du bist verrückt!" -- but he says, "Oh, please, you are American and I know it." I say, "Well, yes, then -- and you? What are you doing here waiting for pills? What kind are they?" There is a long pause. Then he says: "Your enemy. I am your enemy." All German leaves my head, and I say very loudly, "Not my enemy! Not mine!" He says, "Your country's enemy, then. I am from Iran." I am still in high heat: "Well, fine, but I have nothing to do with that -- nothing to do with it!" He knows this and laughs: "Ah, but your Mr. Bush..."

I am terribly upset: "I had nothing to do with that either! I was one of Bush's earliest critics, I write about this," and he says, "Oh, come on. I am just teasing you. I know it is not you. The people of Iran love the people of America. The people of America love the people of Iran." I say, "I hope you're right. I hope it's true on both sides, and ours in particular." Then I launch in again to the story of my father and his Islamic wife -- "Islam is in my family." It's amazing the effect this has on the Muslims, I really ought to write about it seriously someday.

For now, I get my pills, he gets his, and we never see each other again.

Gulag-google to counteract net censorship?

The custodian of five major public pension funds in New York City will formally request next month that Google take steps to counteract internet censorship in foreign countries with authoritarian government such as China, Egypt and Iran, according to Google's proxy statement for its annual meeting of stockholders on May 10.

The New York City Comptroller will submit the proposal. The comptroller acts as investment advisor for the five city public pension funds, which include the retirement plans for city employees, teachers, NYPD, NYFD and board of education employees. Together, the funds own 486,617 shares of Google's Class A stock.

I deserve my own soundtrack

If anyone does, it's me. I'd like to be able to walk into a room, with my own theme music blaring for all to behold. And if I could have my own theme song, this would be it: Disco Down by Shed Seven. You know you love it..


So I'm kind of in the midst of a brand new experience, you might be able to say. I'm with this girl who, for some Godforsaken reason, actually likes me and by like, I don't mean thinks I'm funny or wants to jump my sexy bones (yep, there are a couple of those blind masochists floating around) or anxious to put an exotic Egyptian on her dating resume. And if you think I'm splitting hairs, please bear in mind that funny people are funny even to those who don't like them, who you're physically attracted to is something beyond our control and as for exotic boyfriends for the dating resume, let's just say that my former cube-mate was on the phone with a friend of hers once, when she inadvertently blabbed to her that she's always wanted to date an ethnic guy "before I settle down", apparently neglecting that one such ethnic guy was approximately four feet from her and could hear everything.

No, this girls likes me in the fuller sense of the word: she thinks I'm funny but asks questions to make sure she understands the things that I say; she wants to sleep with me but she also wants to sleep with me (you know: Zzzzz) and wants to wake up and nap with me, as well. Plus, the fact that I'm Egyptian seems to baffle her immensely, not that she's ever said anything. At least, not with her mouth: she has this look which she gives me, whenever anything to do with my Egyptian-ness is ever raised. Sort of a wide doe-eyed look that says 'How can you be Egyptian if I get you and you get me so well?'. Bear in mind she's never left the US and doesn't even possess a passport. She's a sweet soul, but not a very well-travelled one.

And I do these things back to her. I think she's funny (albeit, inadvertently so), I want to jump her sexy bones (which hasn't precluded me from wanting to jump everybody else's sexy bones, as well), plus I think she's just a swell problems. Not that it's all satanism and willing virgins (that's good, in case you're wondering): she doesn't want to have kids and I still want to move to England.

The kids is a bit of a problem, not that they're high on my list at the moment. It's just that it would be nice to eventually have a little clone of me who burns through my money up to and including expensive therapy sessions where he or she ends up blaming it all on me. And the moving to England? Call that my practical side. I don't believe you should change your plans for anyone, especially if you're not certain they'd change their plans for you. It might be early in the game to expect someone to change their plans for me...but then it's also early to expect myself to do the same, no?

I'm scared of proximity and with this girl, things are no different. I'm essentially a loner, also known as a miserable, cynical bastard, but I'm also smart enough to know when something good is happening to me. And that's what she is: a good thing. I may not be ready to change my plans for her, but maybe I'm ready to change.

Beyond the Multiplex

A movie about the Bush-Cheney policy of torture that will make you shake with rage. Plus: Alec Baldwin's unintended laugh lines.

By Andrew O'Hehir

April 30, 2007 | NEW YORK -- We'll get to the really important news from the Tribeca Film Festival shortly (i.e., Baldwin, Alec; inadvertently humorous dialogue spoken by). But first some lighter fare: Exactly how and when did the United States of America become a police state?

Even Alex Gibney's elegant and terrifying documentary "Taxi to the Dark Side" can't exactly answer that question. But it sure gives some clues. After the explosive Saturday night premiere of this film, which offers a thoroughly researched history lesson on the recent development of torture as U.S. policy, from the Afghanistan invasion through Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, I stumbled out into a mild spring night on West 23rd Street feeling as if I needed to vomit. When an audience member asked Gibney, during the post-screening Q&A, about his hopes for the film, the director replied, "I hope it provokes some rage." Well, it worked on me.

In the long haul, you hope that this movie's account of how the Bush-Cheney administration has eviscerated the Constitution, and abandoned basic tenets of human rights and human dignity, provokes some constructive rage. But right there on the sidewalk, my rage was not constructive. I wanted to get stinking drunk in some dead-end bar (not the actual ones available on 23rd Street, where the drinks come in funny colors and cost $14) and scream at strangers, tell them that if this country had any fucking stones we would drag these people out of Washington, strip them of their citizenship and their clothes, and drive them white-baby naked across the Rio Grande to fend for themselves in the Sonora desert.

It's not that there's any truly startling new information in "Taxi to the Dark Side." Gibney makes clear how much of his film rests on the reporting of Carlotta Gall and Tim Golden of the New York Times, among various others. If you've been reading the best investigative reporting on the subject since the Abu Ghraib scandal first broke, in fact, you've gotten the main points already: The abuse and beatings and torture and murder (yes, murder) of detainees in U.S. custody have not been the result of a few undisciplined "bad apples" in the military. Rather, they have resulted from a deliberately murky policy set at the Defense Department and in the White House, whose true goals are to claim far-reaching, extra-constitutional powers for the president; to establish that Muslim detainees from other countries have no inherent human rights or legal rights at all; and to condition the American people to the belief that torture will stop terrorism, and that to think otherwise is to be a pantywaist Osama lover.

As he did in his influential "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," Gibney illustrates the news in compelling human detail, and broadens and deepens both the reporting and the argumentation. He coaxes several former Abu Ghraib interrogators and military police to speak on camera, and there are photographs and grainy video images -- some of them pretty hard to take -- that haven't been seen by the public before. Among his interviewees are many of the star figures in this sordid drama: British-born detainee Moazzam Begg, who spent almost three years in U.S. custody; Damien Corsetti, a hulking former Army intelligence specialist who served both at Abu Ghraib and at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan; and Alberto Mora, former general counsel to the Navy and the Bush administration's leading legal whistle-blower on these issues.

Furthermore, Gibney makes movies. It would be discordant on various levels to call "Taxi to the Dark Side" an entertainment, but it's certainly an artful construction of many different visual and sonic elements, which moves from a personal, intimate focus to a more global and historical view and then back again. His title itself connects two people widely separated by power and geography, but linked by history. The first is an Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar, a peasant from a penniless and illiterate rural family who was killed by U.S. soldiers after being detained at Bagram in December 2002. His death was the first certified homicide of a detainee in U.S. custody, or at least the first to get anybody's attention. (There have been at least 36 more since then, Gibney says, not including controversial, ambiguous or unresolved cases.)

Gibney suggests that Dilawar's death, and all the "harsh treatment" -- still profoundly upsetting, when you see it all again -- that followed at Bagram and Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo and other places whose names we don't know, grew out of Dick Cheney's famous pronouncement shortly after 9/11 that in order to fight the war against terrorism, "we have to work the dark side." Some might argue that Cheney has never worked on any other side, but the ramifications of his argument go beyond personal evil.

With the tide of public opinion running strongly against the Bush administration on so many issues, it seems likely that the next president, whether Republican or Democratic, will seek to dissociate himself (or herself) from the Bush-Cheney mode of autocratic secrecy. But if we've already swallowed the central Bushian premise that anything goes in the so-called war against so-called terror, that the president has limitless power to decide who our enemies are and how they will be treated, and that all that high-sounding language in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence is full of asterisks and loopholes when it comes to Dilawar from Whereveristan -- well, then we'll have lost something much bigger than an election.

Gibney never pretends that his work is apolitical or neutral in tone. This is a contentious and angry film, designed to drag one of the most pressing and distressing issues facing this country before the widest possible audience. (Sidney Blumenthal, a Salon columnist and former editor, was one of the film's executive producers, but Salon itself was not involved.) I can only hope that right-wingers spend as much time attacking and debunking "Taxi to the Dark Side" as they did "Fahrenheit 9/11"; that would mean that it has found something like the attention it deserves.

As I've complained repeatedly in this space, Americans don't seem interested in films about the Iraq conflict. This one may be an exception, because "Taxi to the Dark Side" is not after all about America at war in Iraq or Afghanistan but America at war with itself; it's about what we have done (or at least allowed to be done in our name), why we should be ashamed and angry, and whether we have the honor and decency to stop it. If America still has a soul, Alex Gibney is trying to save it. ("Taxi to the Dark Side" has no distribution in place at the moment; stay tuned for more news.)

Moving from the soul of America to the soul of Alec Baldwin, we come to Marc Klein's directing debut, "Suburban Girl," adapted from Melissa Bank's chick-lit classic, "The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing." To absolutely no one's surprise, Baldwin didn't show on Friday night for the premiere of this uneven but pleasantly acrid romantic comedy, in which he stars opposite Sarah Michelle Gellar. Before the film started, Klein was clearly nervous about the possibility that his entire movie was about to become a tabloid footnote. "Anything I say here is likely to end up on Page Six," he told the audience, thanking Baldwin in absentia for his willingness "to go somewhere very personal" in the role of Archie Knox, a 50-ish New York publishing lion who romances Brett (Gellar), a junior editor half his age.

Personal how? Does Alec, like the sleazy but oddly appealing Archie, like 'em ever younger? Not quite -- Klein was preparing us for the film's series of unfortunate laugh lines. (She: "Did you call your daughter?" He: "I left her a message.") You see, Archie the character has an embittered ex-wife and an estranged daughter who doesn't talk to him, and he feels as if he's probably a crappy father. I don't imagine this material was meant to be funny, and when we weren't all howling at the cosmic synchronicities, "Suburban Girl" tasted like a moderately sophisticated, not-too-sweet cocktail.

If the coupling of Baldwin and Gellar seems startling at first, it's meant to be. Baldwin actually does take the dry, self-mocking manner of his recent career into more dangerous territory; Archie is a frustrated author, a supercilious drunk and an incurable philanderer. Since he's Alec Baldwin, he's also a calming and charming presence, and we can see why straightforward, ambitious Brett is intrigued by everything he represents. The film is visually undistinguished but played with delicacy by both actors, and the chemistry that eventually develops between the young striver and the aging Lothario leads to some surprisingly affecting moments.

I have a cunning plan

I just haven't thought of what it is yet. Watch this space.

On the Staircase, with the Neocons

In his book and on TV, former CIA Director George Tenet remembers all the things he should've said before we invaded Iraq but didn't.

By Juan Cole

April 30, 2007 | The French call it "the spirit of the staircase" (l'esprit d'escalier), the clever reply to someone who comes to you on your way up to the bedroom after a cocktail party. In his new book, released Monday, former CIA Director George Tenet has delivered himself of hundreds of pages on the staircase, imagining what he should have said or could have said to Richard Perle, Dick Cheney, Condi Rice and the other neoconservatives who marched the country to war in Iraq using the pretext of Sept. 11. In his April 29 interview with "60 Minutes" touting the book, Tenet came across as a spectacularly tragic Walter Mitty, daydreaming about how things would have been different if only he had spoken up, if he'd only been a James Bond-style spymaster instead of a timid, fawning bureaucrat. But of course, when it really mattered, at the critical juncture of his seven-year tenure as CIA chief, Tenet said nothing.

Tenet has revealed for the first time that he encountered Pentagon advisor Richard Perle on the day after the Sept. 11 attacks. As Tenet recounted the story on "60 Minutes," Perle "said to me, 'Iraq has to pay a price for what happened yesterday; they bear responsibility.'" Tenet told interviewer Scott Pelley that he was startled at the allegation. "It's September the 12th," said Tenet. "I've got the manifest with me that tells me al-Qaida did this. Nothing in my head that says there is any Iraqi involvement in this in any way, shape or form, and I remember thinking to myself, as I'm about to go brief the president, 'What the hell is he talking about?'"

Is that really what Tenet should have been thinking to himself? Just, "What the hell is he talking about?" Perle was then the chairman of the civilian Defense Policy Board, which had great influence over Pentagon policy, and he was intimately linked to Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, the No. 2 and 3 men at the Department of Defense. He was also close to Cheney and to the latter's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Perle had coauthored with Feith and others a 1996 white paper for Israeli politician Bibi Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud Party, advocating a war against Iraq. Perle believed that the Saddam Hussein regime posed a dire threat to Israel and that overthrowing it would enhance Israel's security. If Tenet had been as street savvy as he likes to pretend -- what with being a Greek from Queens and all -- he should have been thinking, "Aha! So that is how the neoconservatives are going to play this thing. How can I head them off at the pass?"

Tenet's experience was nearly identical to that of former terrorism czar Richard Clarke. In his own "60 Minutes" interview three years ago, and in his 2004 book, "Against All Enemies," Clarke said that he met Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Sept. 12, 2001, and Rumsfeld was pushing for an attack on Iraq in response: "We have to bomb Iraq," he is alleged to have said. Clarke was so surprised that he said he at first thought Rumsfeld was joking.

Tenet encountered the same skepticism or unconcern about al-Qaida in high Bush administration officials as had Clarke. He confirmed that the CIA had ongoing covert operations in Afghanistan from 1999, but that he could not get the go-ahead from either President Clinton or President Bush to attempt to overthrow the Taliban and kill or capture Osama bin Laden. He maintains that in the summer of 2001, he sought a meeting with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice at which he presented a briefing. As he recalled to "60 Minutes," "Essentially, the briefing says, there are gonna be multiple spectacular attacks against the United States. We believe these attacks are imminent. Mass casualties are a likelihood." He told "60 Minutes" that his message to her was: "We need to consider immediate action inside Afghanistan now. We need to move to the offensive." Rice has denied that she received any such specific information or suggestions from Tenet.

In his interview on April 29, Tenet alleged that Rice delegated the issue of immediate action in Afghanistan to "third-tier officials." When pressed as to why he did not go straight to the president, Tenet implied that he did not have the ability to put things on Bush's agenda, while Rice did. In the cliquish Bush White House, he was perhaps not the insider he had thought he was. Or perhaps he did not want to risk Bush's ire and was pressing Rice to take the heat for urging on the lackadaisical Bush a covert operation he had already once refused to consider.

CBS's Pelley implicitly criticized the ex-CIA chief for not pressing Bush on his innuendo about Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida's being in cahoots. Pelley read Tenet a passage from a Bush speech: "The president, in October of 2002, quote: 'We need to think about Saddam Hussein using al-Qaida to do his dirty work.' Is that what you're telling the president?" Tenet shot back, "Well, we didn't believe al-Qaida was gonna do Saddam Hussein's dirty work."

Pelley pressed the point: "January '03, the president again, [said] quote: 'Imagine those 19 hijackers this time armed by Saddam Hussein.' Is that what you're telling the president?" Tenet denied ever suggesting a link between 9/11 and Iraq to Bush, and said the connection was nonexistent. "In terms of complicity with 9/11, absolutely none," insisted Tenet. "It never made any sense. We could never verify that there was any Iraqi authority, direction and control, complicity with al-Qaida for 9/11 or any operational act against America. Period."

Among Tenet's major targets is Vice President Dick Cheney. Three years after leaving the CIA, Tenet finally seems eager to take on the stovepiper of intelligence, now that he is a widely disliked lame duck. Cheney, of course, was among the major proponents of alleged links between al-Qaida and Saddam. Now Tenet complains that Cheney kept alleging things for which there was no good evidence.

Prior to the invasion of Iraq, in his speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars' 103rd National Convention on Aug. 26, 2002, Cheney said, "We now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons ... Many of us are convinced that Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon." In fact, Tenet says now, the CIA estimate was that even if Saddam had such a program, it was years away from success. Cheney concluded, "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction."

Tenet reports having been deeply disturbed by the speech, which went substantially beyond what the CIA could certify as factual. But he does not appear to have weighed in at that time. Bush administration officials were allowed to invoke the phantasmagoric mushroom cloud again and again, and members of Congress have repeatedly said that the threat of Saddam's nukes persuaded them to vote for the war. Six months after Cheney's speech to the VFW, on the eve of the invasion itself, Tenet finally was able to intervene. The New York Times, which got hold of an advance copy of Tenet's book, revealed on April 27 that Tenet nixed a Cheney speech "because its claims of links between al-Qaida and Iraq went 'way beyond what the intelligence shows.'" Tenet said that he went to Bush on the issue, saying, "Mr. President, we cannot support the speech and it should not be given."

On that occasion, Tenet won and Cheney was reined in. Surely, however, it hardly mattered at that point, since Cheney's propaganda technique of linking Saddam to bin Laden had been intended to foment a war with Iraq and the war was on. It is rather pitiful that Tenet must now dredge up this minor victory, as he daydreams on the staircase about stopping the Iraq war in its tracks by shooting down Cheney's lies.

In that same speech to the VFW, Cheney addressed criticisms of the looming Iraq war: "Another argument holds that opposing Saddam Hussein would cause even greater troubles in that part of the world, and interfere with the larger war against terror. I believe the opposite is true. Regime change in Iraq would bring about a number of benefits to the region. When the gravest of threats are eliminated, the freedom-loving peoples of the region will have a chance to promote the values that can bring lasting peace. As for the reaction of the Arab 'street,' the Middle East expert Professor Fouad Ajami predicts that after liberation, the streets in Basra and Baghdad are 'sure to erupt in joy in the same way the throngs in Kabul greeted the Americans.' Extremists in the region would have to rethink their strategy of Jihad. Moderates throughout the region would take heart. And our ability to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process would be enhanced, just as it was following the liberation of Kuwait in 1991."

No longer concatenation of illogical, wishful thinking, appeals to false authority, inappropriate analogies and arrogant ebullience has been enunciated since the mass political movements of the 1940s.

Tenet reveals that the CIA voiced substantial dissents from Cheney's "end of history" utopia. On April 27, the Associated Press reported that the book describes how CIA analysts prepared a briefing book with some worst-case scenarios for the invasion of Iraq. The books were distributed to high-ranking Bush officials in early September 2002, seven months before the invasion, and reviewed at Camp David. The scenarios included "a surge of global terrorism against U.S. interests fueled by deepening Islamic antipathy toward the United States"; "regime-threatening instability in key Arab states"; and "major oil supply disruptions and severe strains in the Atlantic alliance." Tenet, with his typical refusal to be confrontational, will not call these utterly prescient and perfectly correct scenarios "predictions" and will not say the obvious, that they proved the CIA right. Could he not just quote Cheney's VFW speech and point to the contrast between the vice president's fantasy world and the real one that his analysts inhabited?

Tenet comes across as a toady who could never stand up to the powerful. But he could order people less powerful than himself, like the helpless prisoners of his war on terror, to be tortured. His subsequent pitiful denial that he ever commanded torture, at the same time that he clearly was attempting to justify it, recalls all the worst excesses of the administration he enabled. Some elements of petty revenge on the perpetrators for having so humiliated Tenet with their sneak attack peek out from the edges of his righteous anger. There are times when the would-be James Bond seems more like Goldfinger, he of the laser between the legs.

Even John McCain, among the few remaining Iraq hawks, is now lambasting Tenet for his willingness to "waterboard" his captives. The senator told Fox News on April 29, "I don't care what George Tenet says. I know what's right. I know what's morally right as far as America's behavior." He observed, "Look at the war in Algeria. Look, the fact is if you torture someone, they're going to tell you anything they think you want to know. It is an affront to everything we stand for and believe in ... We cannot torture people and maintain our moral superiority in the world." All you have to do is listen to that voice, the voice of a former POW who was himself tortured, to hear the real America and to realize how mealy-mouthed Tenet's performance really was.

Much of the reporting about the book and the interview has focused on Tenet's feeling of betrayal over the use to which Cheney and Rice later put his comment that presenting the case for an Iraq war to the American public would be a "slam-dunk." He resented the White House leaks that made it appear that he had urged a war on the grounds that the war itself would be a cinch, and the implication that his "slam-dunk" comment is what finally decided the president on his course of action. Tenet's outrage is outrageous. Why was he alleging that a good case could be made for a war that he now says he did not believe in? Why was he selling a war that, all these years later, he claims he believed was a distraction from the important struggle against al-Qaida?

In the end, Tenet exhibits all the symptoms of an abused spouse. He praises Bush and even has good things to say about Cheney. He never could pick up the phone and call the police in the midst of being beaten up. He never cared enough about the fate of the country to stand up and say that the country was being driven to war on the basis of obvious falsehoods and a tissue of lies. Even now, his high dudgeon concerns affronts to his own reputation, and that of his agency, rather than the deaths of more than 3,300 U.S. troops and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Some of his last words in the "60 Minutes" interview were among the most revealing, but not in the way he implied. "You know, at the end of the day, the only thing you have is trust and honor in this world. It's all you have. All you have is your reputation built on trust and your personal honor. And when you don't have that anymore, well, there you go." You can imagine him mumbling those words over and over again as he walks up the stairs to go to bed.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Friday, April 27, 2007

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Dog owners 'fleeced' in poodle scam

By FAR my favorite story of the year (and in a year of diaper-wearing jealous astronauts, that takes some doing).

Is it a lamb? Is it a poodle? Can you spot the difference?

Thousands of people have been 'fleeced' into buying neatly coiffured lambs they thought were poodles.

Entire flocks of lambs were shipped over from the UK and Australia to Japan by an internet company and marketed as the latest 'must have' accessory.

But the scam was only spotted after a leading Japanese actress said her 'poodle' didn't bark and refused to eat dog food.

Maiko Kawakami, who starred in the Japanese thriller Violent Cop, showed photographs of her pet on a television talk show only to be told it wasn't a dog - but was in fact a lamb.

The discovery prompted hundreds of women to contact the police with similar problems and the authorities believe as many as 2,000 people have been conned.

'We launched an investigation after we were made aware that a company was selling sheep as poodles,' a police spokesman told The Sun.

'Sadly, we think there is more than one company operating in this way.

'The sheep are believed to have been imported from overseas - Britain and Australia.'

Poodles are famously used by the rich and glamourous on the continent but are extremely rare in Japan, with many people having little idea what they look like.

The company, which translates as Poodles as Pets, sold the 'poodles' for £630, about half the cost of a normal poodle but is now understood to have been shut down.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

City noise causes robins to sing at night

I don't know why this saddened me; I think it's because they're basically robins who are singing to find a mate (or for sex like, say, the Rolling Stones) and the noise of the city is drowning out their best efforts. There's a metaphor there for where we are.

University of Sheffield researchers have determined that British robins around the UK city have recently started singing at night because the urban noise drowns out their mating calls in the day. Apparently, the background noise in locations where the robins sing at night is on average ten decibel louder than elsewhere. From New Scientist:

"There are two ways of looking at these results," says (scientist Richard) Fuller, who admits he does not know if the birds that sing at night are vocal in the daytime too. "On one hand, you could conclude that these birds are highly adaptable to the urban environment. On the other, it could be that they are suffering from the poor-quality habitat and having trouble attracting a mate."

If this is the case, says Fuller, the night-time singers could be sacrificing other activities such as feeding and preening in order to maximise their singing time.

Fascist America, in 10 easy steps

From Hitler to Pinochet and beyond, history shows there are certain steps that any would-be dictator must take to destroy constitutional freedoms. And, argues Naomi Wolf, George Bush and his administration seem to be taking them all

Tuesday April 24, 2007
The Guardian

Last autumn, there was a military coup in Thailand. The leaders of the coup took a number of steps, rather systematically, as if they had a shopping list. In a sense, they did. Within a matter of days, democracy had been closed down: the coup leaders declared martial law, sent armed soldiers into residential areas, took over radio and TV stations, issued restrictions on the press, tightened some limits on travel, and took certain activists into custody.

They were not figuring these things out as they went along. If you look at history, you can see that there is essentially a blueprint for turning an open society into a dictatorship. That blueprint has been used again and again in more and less bloody, more and less terrifying ways. But it is always effective. It is very difficult and arduous to create and sustain a democracy - but history shows that closing one down is much simpler. You simply have to be willing to take the 10 steps.
As difficult as this is to contemplate, it is clear, if you are willing to look, that each of these 10 steps has already been initiated today in the United States by the Bush administration.

Because Americans like me were born in freedom, we have a hard time even considering that it is possible for us to become as unfree - domestically - as many other nations. Because we no longer learn much about our rights or our system of government - the task of being aware of the constitution has been outsourced from citizens' ownership to being the domain of professionals such as lawyers and professors - we scarcely recognise the checks and balances that the founders put in place, even as they are being systematically dismantled. Because we don't learn much about European history, the setting up of a department of "homeland" security - remember who else was keen on the word "homeland" - didn't raise the alarm bells it might have.

It is my argument that, beneath our very noses, George Bush and his administration are using time-tested tactics to close down an open society. It is time for us to be willing to think the unthinkable - as the author and political journalist Joe Conason, has put it, that it can happen here. And that we are further along than we realise.

Conason eloquently warned of the danger of American authoritarianism. I am arguing that we need also to look at the lessons of European and other kinds of fascism to understand the potential seriousness of the events we see unfolding in the US.

1. Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy

After we were hit on September 11 2001, we were in a state of national shock. Less than six weeks later, on October 26 2001, the USA Patriot Act was passed by a Congress that had little chance to debate it; many said that they scarcely had time to read it. We were told we were now on a "war footing"; we were in a "global war" against a "global caliphate" intending to "wipe out civilisation". There have been other times of crisis in which the US accepted limits on civil liberties, such as during the civil war, when Lincoln declared martial law, and the second world war, when thousands of Japanese-American citizens were interned. But this situation, as Bruce Fein of the American Freedom Agenda notes, is unprecedented: all our other wars had an endpoint, so the pendulum was able to swing back toward freedom; this war is defined as open-ended in time and without national boundaries in space - the globe itself is the battlefield. "This time," Fein says, "there will be no defined end."

Creating a terrifying threat - hydra-like, secretive, evil - is an old trick. It can, like Hitler's invocation of a communist threat to the nation's security, be based on actual events (one Wisconsin academic has faced calls for his dismissal because he noted, among other things, that the alleged communist arson, the Reichstag fire of February 1933, was swiftly followed in Nazi Germany by passage of the Enabling Act, which replaced constitutional law with an open-ended state of emergency). Or the terrifying threat can be based, like the National Socialist evocation of the "global conspiracy of world Jewry", on myth.

It is not that global Islamist terrorism is not a severe danger; of course it is. I am arguing rather that the language used to convey the nature of the threat is different in a country such as Spain - which has also suffered violent terrorist attacks - than it is in America. Spanish citizens know that they face a grave security threat; what we as American citizens believe is that we are potentially threatened with the end of civilisation as we know it. Of course, this makes us more willing to accept restrictions on our freedoms.

2. Create a gulag

Once you have got everyone scared, the next step is to create a prison system outside the rule of law (as Bush put it, he wanted the American detention centre at Guantánamo Bay to be situated in legal "outer space") - where torture takes place.

At first, the people who are sent there are seen by citizens as outsiders: troublemakers, spies, "enemies of the people" or "criminals". Initially, citizens tend to support the secret prison system; it makes them feel safer and they do not identify with the prisoners. But soon enough, civil society leaders - opposition members, labour activists, clergy and journalists - are arrested and sent there as well.

This process took place in fascist shifts or anti-democracy crackdowns ranging from Italy and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s to the Latin American coups of the 1970s and beyond. It is standard practice for closing down an open society or crushing a pro-democracy uprising.

With its jails in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, of course, Guantánamo in Cuba, where detainees are abused, and kept indefinitely without trial and without access to the due process of the law, America certainly has its gulag now. Bush and his allies in Congress recently announced they would issue no information about the secret CIA "black site" prisons throughout the world, which are used to incarcerate people who have been seized off the street.

Gulags in history tend to metastasise, becoming ever larger and more secretive, ever more deadly and formalised. We know from first-hand accounts, photographs, videos and government documents that people, innocent and guilty, have been tortured in the US-run prisons we are aware of and those we can't investigate adequately.

But Americans still assume this system and detainee abuses involve only scary brown people with whom they don't generally identify. It was brave of the conservative pundit William Safire to quote the anti-Nazi pastor Martin Niemöller, who had been seized as a political prisoner: "First they came for the Jews." Most Americans don't understand yet that the destruction of the rule of law at Guantánamo set a dangerous precedent for them, too.

By the way, the establishment of military tribunals that deny prisoners due process tends to come early on in a fascist shift. Mussolini and Stalin set up such tribunals. On April 24 1934, the Nazis, too, set up the People's Court, which also bypassed the judicial system: prisoners were held indefinitely, often in isolation, and tortured, without being charged with offences, and were subjected to show trials. Eventually, the Special Courts became a parallel system that put pressure on the regular courts to abandon the rule of law in favour of Nazi ideology when making decisions.

3. Develop a thug caste

When leaders who seek what I call a "fascist shift" want to close down an open society, they send paramilitary groups of scary young men out to terrorise citizens. The Blackshirts roamed the Italian countryside beating up communists; the Brownshirts staged violent rallies throughout Germany. This paramilitary force is especially important in a democracy: you need citizens to fear thug violence and so you need thugs who are free from prosecution.

The years following 9/11 have proved a bonanza for America's security contractors, with the Bush administration outsourcing areas of work that traditionally fell to the US military. In the process, contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars have been issued for security work by mercenaries at home and abroad. In Iraq, some of these contract operatives have been accused of involvement in torturing prisoners, harassing journalists and firing on Iraqi civilians. Under Order 17, issued to regulate contractors in Iraq by the one-time US administrator in Baghdad, Paul Bremer, these contractors are immune from prosecution

Yes, but that is in Iraq, you could argue; however, after Hurricane Katrina, the Department of Homeland Security hired and deployed hundreds of armed private security guards in New Orleans. The investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill interviewed one unnamed guard who reported having fired on unarmed civilians in the city. It was a natural disaster that underlay that episode - but the administration's endless war on terror means ongoing scope for what are in effect privately contracted armies to take on crisis and emergency management at home in US cities.

Thugs in America? Groups of angry young Republican men, dressed in identical shirts and trousers, menaced poll workers counting the votes in Florida in 2000. If you are reading history, you can imagine that there can be a need for "public order" on the next election day. Say there are protests, or a threat, on the day of an election; history would not rule out the presence of a private security firm at a polling station "to restore public order".

4. Set up an internal surveillance system

In Mussolini's Italy, in Nazi Germany, in communist East Germany, in communist China - in every closed society - secret police spy on ordinary people and encourage neighbours to spy on neighbours. The Stasi needed to keep only a minority of East Germans under surveillance to convince a majority that they themselves were being watched.

In 2005 and 2006, when James Risen and Eric Lichtblau wrote in the New York Times about a secret state programme to wiretap citizens' phones, read their emails and follow international financial transactions, it became clear to ordinary Americans that they, too, could be under state scrutiny.

In closed societies, this surveillance is cast as being about "national security"; the true function is to keep citizens docile and inhibit their activism and dissent.

5. Harass citizens' groups

The fifth thing you do is related to step four - you infiltrate and harass citizens' groups. It can be trivial: a church in Pasadena, whose minister preached that Jesus was in favour of peace, found itself being investigated by the Internal Revenue Service, while churches that got Republicans out to vote, which is equally illegal under US tax law, have been left alone.

Other harassment is more serious: the American Civil Liberties Union reports that thousands of ordinary American anti-war, environmental and other groups have been infiltrated by agents: a secret Pentagon database includes more than four dozen peaceful anti-war meetings, rallies or marches by American citizens in its category of 1,500 "suspicious incidents". The equally secret Counterintelligence Field Activity (Cifa) agency of the Department of Defense has been gathering information about domestic organisations engaged in peaceful political activities: Cifa is supposed to track "potential terrorist threats" as it watches ordinary US citizen activists. A little-noticed new law has redefined activism such as animal rights protests as "terrorism". So the definition of "terrorist" slowly expands to include the opposition.

6. Engage in arbitrary detention and release

This scares people. It is a kind of cat-and-mouse game. Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, the investigative reporters who wrote China Wakes: the Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power, describe pro-democracy activists in China, such as Wei Jingsheng, being arrested and released many times. In a closing or closed society there is a "list" of dissidents and opposition leaders: you are targeted in this way once you are on the list, and it is hard to get off the list.

In 2004, America's Transportation Security Administration confirmed that it had a list of passengers who were targeted for security searches or worse if they tried to fly. People who have found themselves on the list? Two middle-aged women peace activists in San Francisco; liberal Senator Edward Kennedy; a member of Venezuela's government - after Venezuela's president had criticised Bush; and thousands of ordinary US citizens.

Professor Walter F Murphy is emeritus of Princeton University; he is one of the foremost constitutional scholars in the nation and author of the classic Constitutional Democracy. Murphy is also a decorated former marine, and he is not even especially politically liberal. But on March 1 this year, he was denied a boarding pass at Newark, "because I was on the Terrorist Watch list".

"Have you been in any peace marches? We ban a lot of people from flying because of that," asked the airline employee.

"I explained," said Murphy, "that I had not so marched but had, in September 2006, given a lecture at Princeton, televised and put on the web, highly critical of George Bush for his many violations of the constitution."

"That'll do it," the man said.

Anti-war marcher? Potential terrorist. Support the constitution? Potential terrorist. History shows that the categories of "enemy of the people" tend to expand ever deeper into civil life.

James Yee, a US citizen, was the Muslim chaplain at Guantánamo who was accused of mishandling classified documents. He was harassed by the US military before the charges against him were dropped. Yee has been detained and released several times. He is still of interest.

Brandon Mayfield, a US citizen and lawyer in Oregon, was mistakenly identified as a possible terrorist. His house was secretly broken into and his computer seized. Though he is innocent of the accusation against him, he is still on the list.

It is a standard practice of fascist societies that once you are on the list, you can't get off.

7. Target key individuals

Threaten civil servants, artists and academics with job loss if they don't toe the line. Mussolini went after the rectors of state universities who did not conform to the fascist line; so did Joseph Goebbels, who purged academics who were not pro-Nazi; so did Chile's Augusto Pinochet; so does the Chinese communist Politburo in punishing pro-democracy students and professors.

Academe is a tinderbox of activism, so those seeking a fascist shift punish academics and students with professional loss if they do not "coordinate", in Goebbels' term, ideologically. Since civil servants are the sector of society most vulnerable to being fired by a given regime, they are also a group that fascists typically "coordinate" early on: the Reich Law for the Re-establishment of a Professional Civil Service was passed on April 7 1933.

Bush supporters in state legislatures in several states put pressure on regents at state universities to penalise or fire academics who have been critical of the administration. As for civil servants, the Bush administration has derailed the career of one military lawyer who spoke up for fair trials for detainees, while an administration official publicly intimidated the law firms that represent detainees pro bono by threatening to call for their major corporate clients to boycott them.

Elsewhere, a CIA contract worker who said in a closed blog that "waterboarding is torture" was stripped of the security clearance she needed in order to do her job.

Most recently, the administration purged eight US attorneys for what looks like insufficient political loyalty. When Goebbels purged the civil service in April 1933, attorneys were "coordinated" too, a step that eased the way of the increasingly brutal laws to follow.

8. Control the press

Italy in the 1920s, Germany in the 30s, East Germany in the 50s, Czechoslovakia in the 60s, the Latin American dictatorships in the 70s, China in the 80s and 90s - all dictatorships and would-be dictators target newspapers and journalists. They threaten and harass them in more open societies that they are seeking to close, and they arrest them and worse in societies that have been closed already.

The Committee to Protect Journalists says arrests of US journalists are at an all-time high: Josh Wolf (no relation), a blogger in San Francisco, has been put in jail for a year for refusing to turn over video of an anti-war demonstration; Homeland Security brought a criminal complaint against reporter Greg Palast, claiming he threatened "critical infrastructure" when he and a TV producer were filming victims of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana. Palast had written a bestseller critical of the Bush administration.

Other reporters and writers have been punished in other ways. Joseph C Wilson accused Bush, in a New York Times op-ed, of leading the country to war on the basis of a false charge that Saddam Hussein had acquired yellowcake uranium in Niger. His wife, Valerie Plame, was outed as a CIA spy - a form of retaliation that ended her career.

Prosecution and job loss are nothing, though, compared with how the US is treating journalists seeking to cover the conflict in Iraq in an unbiased way. The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented multiple accounts of the US military in Iraq firing upon or threatening to fire upon unembedded (meaning independent) reporters and camera operators from organisations ranging from al-Jazeera to the BBC. While westerners may question the accounts by al-Jazeera, they should pay attention to the accounts of reporters such as the BBC's Kate Adie. In some cases reporters have been wounded or killed, including ITN's Terry Lloyd in 2003. Both CBS and the Associated Press in Iraq had staff members seized by the US military and taken to violent prisons; the news organisations were unable to see the evidence against their staffers.

Over time in closing societies, real news is supplanted by fake news and false documents. Pinochet showed Chilean citizens falsified documents to back up his claim that terrorists had been about to attack the nation. The yellowcake charge, too, was based on forged papers.

You won't have a shutdown of news in modern America - it is not possible. But you can have, as Frank Rich and Sidney Blumenthal have pointed out, a steady stream of lies polluting the news well. What you already have is a White House directing a stream of false information that is so relentless that it is increasingly hard to sort out truth from untruth. In a fascist system, it's not the lies that count but the muddying. When citizens can't tell real news from fake, they give up their demands for accountability bit by bit.

9. Dissent equals treason

Cast dissent as "treason" and criticism as "espionage'. Every closing society does this, just as it elaborates laws that increasingly criminalise certain kinds of speech and expand the definition of "spy" and "traitor". When Bill Keller, the publisher of the New York Times, ran the Lichtblau/Risen stories, Bush called the Times' leaking of classified information "disgraceful", while Republicans in Congress called for Keller to be charged with treason, and rightwing commentators and news outlets kept up the "treason" drumbeat. Some commentators, as Conason noted, reminded readers smugly that one penalty for violating the Espionage Act is execution.

Conason is right to note how serious a threat that attack represented. It is also important to recall that the 1938 Moscow show trial accused the editor of Izvestia, Nikolai Bukharin, of treason; Bukharin was, in fact, executed. And it is important to remind Americans that when the 1917 Espionage Act was last widely invoked, during the infamous 1919 Palmer Raids, leftist activists were arrested without warrants in sweeping roundups, kept in jail for up to five months, and "beaten, starved, suffocated, tortured and threatened with death", according to the historian Myra MacPherson. After that, dissent was muted in America for a decade.

In Stalin's Soviet Union, dissidents were "enemies of the people". National Socialists called those who supported Weimar democracy "November traitors".

And here is where the circle closes: most Americans do not realise that since September of last year - when Congress wrongly, foolishly, passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006 - the president has the power to call any US citizen an "enemy combatant". He has the power to define what "enemy combatant" means. The president can also delegate to anyone he chooses in the executive branch the right to define "enemy combatant" any way he or she wants and then seize Americans accordingly.

Even if you or I are American citizens, even if we turn out to be completely innocent of what he has accused us of doing, he has the power to have us seized as we are changing planes at Newark tomorrow, or have us taken with a knock on the door; ship you or me to a navy brig; and keep you or me in isolation, possibly for months, while awaiting trial. (Prolonged isolation, as psychiatrists know, triggers psychosis in otherwise mentally healthy prisoners. That is why Stalin's gulag had an isolation cell, like Guantánamo's, in every satellite prison. Camp 6, the newest, most brutal facility at Guantánamo, is all isolation cells.)

We US citizens will get a trial eventually - for now. But legal rights activists at the Center for Constitutional Rights say that the Bush administration is trying increasingly aggressively to find ways to get around giving even US citizens fair trials. "Enemy combatant" is a status offence - it is not even something you have to have done. "We have absolutely moved over into a preventive detention model - you look like you could do something bad, you might do something bad, so we're going to hold you," says a spokeswoman of the CCR.

Most Americans surely do not get this yet. No wonder: it is hard to believe, even though it is true. In every closing society, at a certain point there are some high-profile arrests - usually of opposition leaders, clergy and journalists. Then everything goes quiet. After those arrests, there are still newspapers, courts, TV and radio, and the facades of a civil society. There just isn't real dissent. There just isn't freedom. If you look at history, just before those arrests is where we are now.

10. Suspend the rule of law

The John Warner Defense Authorization Act of 2007 gave the president new powers over the national guard. This means that in a national emergency - which the president now has enhanced powers to declare - he can send Michigan's militia to enforce a state of emergency that he has declared in Oregon, over the objections of the state's governor and its citizens.

Even as Americans were focused on Britney Spears's meltdown and the question of who fathered Anna Nicole's baby, the New York Times editorialised about this shift: "A disturbing recent phenomenon in Washington is that laws that strike to the heart of American democracy have been passed in the dead of night ... Beyond actual insurrection, the president may now use military troops as a domestic police force in response to a natural disaster, a disease outbreak, terrorist attack or any 'other condition'."

Critics see this as a clear violation of the Posse Comitatus Act - which was meant to restrain the federal government from using the military for domestic law enforcement. The Democratic senator Patrick Leahy says the bill encourages a president to declare federal martial law. It also violates the very reason the founders set up our system of government as they did: having seen citizens bullied by a monarch's soldiers, the founders were terrified of exactly this kind of concentration of militias' power over American people in the hands of an oppressive executive or faction.

Of course, the United States is not vulnerable to the violent, total closing-down of the system that followed Mussolini's march on Rome or Hitler's roundup of political prisoners. Our democratic habits are too resilient, and our military and judiciary too independent, for any kind of scenario like that.

Rather, as other critics are noting, our experiment in democracy could be closed down by a process of erosion.

It is a mistake to think that early in a fascist shift you see the profile of barbed wire against the sky. In the early days, things look normal on the surface; peasants were celebrating harvest festivals in Calabria in 1922; people were shopping and going to the movies in Berlin in 1931. Early on, as WH Auden put it, the horror is always elsewhere - while someone is being tortured, children are skating, ships are sailing: "dogs go on with their doggy life ... How everything turns away/ Quite leisurely from the disaster."

As Americans turn away quite leisurely, keeping tuned to internet shopping and American Idol, the foundations of democracy are being fatally corroded. Something has changed profoundly that weakens us unprecedentedly: our democratic traditions, independent judiciary and free press do their work today in a context in which we are "at war" in a "long war" - a war without end, on a battlefield described as the globe, in a context that gives the president - without US citizens realising it yet - the power over US citizens of freedom or long solitary incarceration, on his say-so alone.

That means a hollowness has been expanding under the foundation of all these still- free-looking institutions - and this foundation can give way under certain kinds of pressure. To prevent such an outcome, we have to think about the "what ifs".

What if, in a year and a half, there is another attack - say, God forbid, a dirty bomb? The executive can declare a state of emergency. History shows that any leader, of any party, will be tempted to maintain emergency powers after the crisis has passed. With the gutting of traditional checks and balances, we are no less endangered by a President Hillary than by a President Giuliani - because any executive will be tempted to enforce his or her will through edict rather than the arduous, uncertain process of democratic negotiation and compromise.

What if the publisher of a major US newspaper were charged with treason or espionage, as a rightwing effort seemed to threaten Keller with last year? What if he or she got 10 years in jail? What would the newspapers look like the next day? Judging from history, they would not cease publishing; but they would suddenly be very polite.

Right now, only a handful of patriots are trying to hold back the tide of tyranny for the rest of us - staff at the Center for Constitutional Rights, who faced death threats for representing the detainees yet persisted all the way to the Supreme Court; activists at the American Civil Liberties Union; and prominent conservatives trying to roll back the corrosive new laws, under the banner of a new group called the American Freedom Agenda. This small, disparate collection of people needs everybody's help, including that of Europeans and others internationally who are willing to put pressure on the administration because they can see what a US unrestrained by real democracy at home can mean for the rest of the world.

We need to look at history and face the "what ifs". For if we keep going down this road, the "end of America" could come for each of us in a different way, at a different moment; each of us might have a different moment when we feel forced to look back and think: that is how it was before - and this is the way it is now.

"The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands ... is the definition of tyranny," wrote James Madison. We still have the choice to stop going down this road; we can stand our ground and fight for our nation, and take up the banner the founders asked us to carry.

· Naomi Wolf's The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot will be published by Chelsea Green in September.