Unconventional thinking about the Middle East.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

A Different Angle on Jordan’s Mukhaberat

In a previous life as an Iraqi opposition activist, I had many run-ins with the Jordanian mukhaberat, or secret police. From being arrested in Karak during a Shia festival, to raising all sorts of red flags at Queen Alia airport, I would say that reading Neil MacFarquhar’s important front-page piece in the New York Times on November 14, 2005, was slightly curative for past humiliations. But I also felt that he was being a bit too harsh, and thereby distorting how the Jordanian spooks conduct business.

I never thought that I would be an apologist for the Jordanian mukhaberat, but here goes: they really are sophisticated in facing down the challenges that threaten Jordan, and there is plenty that can be learnt from the kind of balanced relationship they hold vis-à-vis the Islamists. They may not be superb in tradecraft (I should have been deported, often) but they do operate masterfully within the gray scales of Middle Eastern political culture.

Let me explain: once I was being held in the mukhaberat HQ with a large number of people who were carrying similar ‘Show-Up or Else’ slips like the one I was given at the airport. We were all waiting to be individually 'questioned'. I had a bushy beard at the time, and my accent can pass for a regular Levantine. I found myself gravitating to the back-rows with the other misfits, most of whom had bushy beards, who took me for one of their own: a fundamentalist.

And like naughty schoolchildren, we were making a ruckus, thus prompting the ‘hall monitor’ to periodically shout us down. Here is what I gained from this experience: I was happy the Jordanians were monitoring these dangerous elements, who nonchalantly expected to be beaten later on in the evening (many were missing teeth) and get locked-up for a night or two. I believe the rot is so deep that redemption of violent Islamic radicals will not come about by being nice to them; they need to fail in their utopian dreams of an Islamic Empire and to realize that they have failed before they can be defeated. For the time being, I can live with the Jordanians harassing me, as long as they harass and intimidate those other bearded fellows.

And to the mukhaberat’s credit, once they went through the motions of trying to recruit me (for the record, didn’t) and trying to get favors in return for favors (what can I say? I’m a useless scatterbrain that can’t get much done…), they became absolute gentlemen when it turned out that I wasn’t a threat to their national security. I have been very critical of their government’s actions regarding Iraq, and they have been obliging in hearing me out. At no time did I feel I had to dissemble and shudder in their midst since I was not out to destabilize their little country, and they had the unique good sense to realize that, which is much more than can be said about other regional intelligence services.

Jordan is indeed a small country, and its political elite is going to scurry about frantically because of a negative NYT front-page article. Already, heads have begun to roll. But one thing should remain clear: the mukhaberat were doing something right up until last week when the bombings occured. Their failure, I believe, is less an indication of ineptitude, but rather a measure of the growing menace of Zarqawi. See my column this week.

MacFarquhar makes a salient point about the octopus-like influence of the mukhaberat beyond its scope of providing security. But when faced with something like the jihadist nightmare, the myths of brutality and omnipresence can be very useful as deterrents.

But then again, I support torture, so my opinion shouldn't really matter. (We’ll leave further exploration for an upcoming post…)

Oh, one more thing: yours truly—together with an unnamed friend—would like to start-up a Center for Humane Demoralization, which should not be confused with the genre of ‘creative torture’. Anyone interested in being on the Board of Directors? ;)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The best case I've seen in print for conducting torture in certain rare, carefully proscribed cases, was made by Harvard's Alan Dershowitz. In a 2002 article "The Case for Torture Warrants" (see http://www.law.harvard.edu/faculty/dershowitz/Articles/torturewarrants.html) he argues that since torture is impossible to prevent, it should be regulated. And of course he would not permit it for punishment, or to extract a confession, or any of the other usual suspects, but only for the 'ticking bomb' scenario.

The late great William F. Buckley responds in this Jan, 2002 article, "Tortured Thought" (see http://www.nationalreview.com/buckley/buckley012902.shtml).

Buckley points out that the number of cases in which we have enough solid information to know there is a ticking bomb, and we have someone in custody who truly knows something relevant and just won't say it, is vanishingly small. Meanwhile the potential for abuse is enormous. Buckely sums up what I think is my view also:

"We should not torture an al-Qaeda prisoner — general rule; but to torture the one who knows where the hijacked airborne Boeing 737 is headed is an exemption to the rule. But not one we would wish to codify. Some acts of warfare, like some intelligence, are works of art, not articles of war."

Anyone who commits torture should do so knowing that his only recourse would be something like jury nullification, in which the jury finds the defendant not guilty in spite of what the facts and the law state. Our hypothetical torturer's activities should never be formally permitted under law.

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