"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." (Mark Twain)

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

No Thugs In Our House 

Years ago, there was a nightclub here in Seattle called Astor Park. I played there one night, to an audience of perhaps a dozen (counting the cocktail waitress and the guy passed out at the front table). Other famous people played there as well, including Tom Petty, the Replacements, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and U2. They probably drew somewhat larger crowds than our band did.

Astor Park was a great venue, in terms of the main room - it had good acoustics and great sightlines - but it was a real rathole otherwise. The restrooms, for instance, were revolting; women would frequently use the men's room because it was supposedly less disgusting than the women's, in spite of having a constant half-inch layer of what we all hoped was water on the floor at all times.

It also had the most notorious bouncer in town. The guy was a real swine - he would hit on all the women, and harass guys he didn't like. When the place closed down unexpectedly, the rumor on the street was that it was because the bouncer had assaulted a state liquor inspector who had objected to his being drunk on the job. I don't know if that's true, but it certainly fit.

The guy had kept his job for years before that incident, however, because in some sense he was good at it. He tolerated no troublemakers (himself excepted, of course), and ran the door with an iron fist. In some ways, he was exactly what one would want in a bouncer. There are times when thugs are useful.

I was reminded of Astor Park and that simian bouncer when I read this story in my paper this morning:
She was rushing her son to school. She was eight months pregnant. And she was about to get a speeding ticket she didn't think she deserved.

So when a Seattle police officer presented the ticket to Malaika Brooks, she refused to sign it. In the ensuing confrontation, she suffered burns from a police Taser, an electric stun device that delivers 50,000 volts.

"Probably the worst thing that ever happened to me," Brooks said, in describing that morning during her criminal trial last week on charges of refusing to obey an officer and resisting arrest.

She was found guilty of the first charge because she never signed the ticket, but the Seattle Municipal Court jury could not decide whether she resisted arrest, the reason the Taser was applied.

Few of us actually like thugs, but we all recognize that there are times when it is convenient to have one on the payroll. It's only when things get out of hand - a predictable, if unfortunate, development - that we make a show of wringing our hands. Remember that scene in A Clockwork Orange where Alex realizes that the cops who are beating him senseless are his former droogs? Did anyone really think it was unrealistic? And did anyone really feel all that bad for Alex? I thought not.

Which brings me to the other story from this morning's paper (originally, from the New York Times) that caught my eye:
In a military courtroom in Texas last week was a spectacle worthy of "As the World Turns": Pfc. Lynndie England, the defendant, holding her 7-month-old baby; the imprisoned father, Pvt. Charles Graner Jr., giving testimony that ruined what lawyers said was her best shot at leniency; and waiting outside, another defendant from the notorious abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, Megan M. Ambuhl, who had recently wed Graner -- a marriage England learned about only days before.

To some, the grave misdeeds at Abu Ghraib, where the three soldiers worked for six months in 2003, have become a twisted symbol of the American military occupation of Iraq. But it is also a scandal rooted in the behavior of military reservists working at the prison, an environment that testimony has portrayed as more frat house than military prison, a place where inmates were routinely left naked and soldiers took pictures of one another simulating sex with fruit.

The reservists' treatment of Iraqi prisoners and their entanglements with one another -- pieced together from documents, court testimony, e-mail and interviews -- have produced a dark soap opera, one whose episodes culminated in the Texas courtroom last week....

A hell-raising young woman from West Virginia, England, now 22, was married at 19 on a whim, she told friends -- and violated her parents' wishes when she joined the Reserve in high school to make money for college.

Graner, 36, a Pennsylvania prison guard and a former Marine, had rejoined the military in a burst of patriotism after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

He was fresh from an ugly divorce in 2000. His ex-wife, Staci Morris, had taken out three protective orders against him, and after he was arrested for harassing her in 2001, admitted that he had dragged her around by her hair....

One night in October, [Graner] told [England] to pose for photographs holding a leash tied around the neck of a naked and crawling detainee. He e-mailed one home: "Look what I made Lynndie do." The now infamous pictures of detainees masturbating, he said, were a birthday gift for her.

Ambuhl, who has been discharged from the Army, was Graner's partner on the night shift. If he and England were loud and bawdy -- they made a video of themselves having sex -- Ambuhl was soft-spoken and serious.

She had worked as a technician in a medical lab in Virginia, where she grew up, and, like Graner, signed up to defend the nation after Sept. 11.

She had been involved with another soldier in the unit. But by late December 2003, she had ended that relationship and started one with Graner. In e-mail messages, the two dreamily recalled their nights stolen away in the crowded prison cells where the military police lived.

But Graner had not completely cut off relations with England. On Jan. 2, 2004, he was caught sleeping in England's quarters and demoted....

England heard about [Graner and Ambuhl's] wedding from her lawyers, who heard about it from a reporter the Friday before her trial was to begin. She had worked out a plea agreement that limited her time in prison to 30 months, and the jury could have given her less time. She planned to have her son live with her mother while she was in prison.

Prosecutors advised defense lawyers against putting Graner on the stand, but they did it anyway.

Graner testified that he had ordered England to remove a prisoner from a cell by a leash and that it was a legitimate military exercise. This presented an apparent contradiction -- a defendant pleading guilty but presenting a witness who testified that she was innocent. The military judge threw out her plea agreement and ordered the court-martial process to start over.

"It's nothing you did," the judge, Col. James Pohl, told her, "It's what he did."

Charles Graner is a man who calls himself a Christian, but admits that he feels satisfaction in making a man piss himself. His ex-wife alleges that Graner threatened to slash her throat with a knife; he denies it, but does not deny dragging her by her hair. He's a dangerous psychopath who should be put away until he's old and feeble. But, in some sense, we need men like Charles Graner - or, at least, we think we do. He's a monster, but he's our monster.

Please don't misunderstand me - I do not mean to suggest that all corrections officers, all police officers, all soldiers - even all bouncers - are animals. Most are decent, professional men and women who do the best they can at difficult jobs. But we all know about the crazy ones, and yet we look the other way because we really don't mind having dangerous people on our side. And then, when it turns out that we really can't control them after all, we act surprised and superior.

But we are not really surprised. And we're not really all that superior, either.




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