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Eastwood and an Empty Chair

Commotion surrounding Clint Eastwood’s eccentric and at times erratic “empty chair” speech at the Republican National Convention shows no signs, even now, of stopping. Over a week on, and airwaves are still abuzz with commentary and comedy about the iconic actor-director’s lambasting of our invisible, sedentary Commander-in-Chief. Yet one particular part of this speech – or rather ventriloquized dialogue  – is yet to be discussed on any Television network or by any major publication.

I direct you to this segment of Eastwood’s presentation.

We’ll overlook, for now, Eastwood’s schizophrenia on the issue of Guantanamo (if he believes it should stay open, why is he criticizing Obama for keeping it that way?), and instead focus on a more subtle and much more sinister point that’s being made here.

Let’s try the following thought experiment. You are a high-ranking member of the CIA’s Special Activities Division operating inside Pakistan. One day, while raiding a supposed terrorist compound, you capture several dozen men, one of whom you identify as Ramzi bin al-Shibh, al-Qaeda leader and supposed “20th hijacker” of the 9/11 attacks. What do you propose the United States now do with this man?

One’s answer, it would seem, would have something to do with interrogation for critical intelligence, then a secured detainment and the immediate pressing of criminal charges. One may use words like “justice” or “the rule of law,” and perhaps mention institutions that strive to ensure such ideals, like The Hague or the U.S. Supreme Court.

Or would you, instead, propose that we transfer this detained man to a recently built detention camp on a tiny leased section of communist Cuba, wherein he would be guaranteed to remain safely outside the jurisdiction and judgment of both domestic and international law? (It should be added that this base was only built in 2002, and is located on a section of land secured by the United States through a dubious treaty.)


Sadly, the latter answer is the one devised by the Bush administration, endorsed by President Obama and championed now by a semi-senile Clint Eastwood to a roaring Republican Convention. And so, even more sadly, Ramzi bin al-Shibh has remained, for over a decade, neither charged nor convicted for his heinous crime that killed thousands of American civilians.

On May 11, 1960, Adolf Eichmann was captured near his home in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The leader of the Nazi SS and architect of the Holocaust was then taken to Israel, where the Jerusalem District Court indicted him on him fifteen criminal charges, including crimes against humanity and membership in an outlawed organization. Eichmann was afforded multiple defense lawyers as well as the right to perform cross-examination and adduce evidence in his favor; he was even sat in a booth made of bulletproof glass, in order to protect him from the potential harm of those in the audience, many of whom had daughters, brothers, and mothers tortured and murdered in Eichmann’s death camps. Eichmann was even allowed the right to appeal his eventual death sentence, and his wife given the chance to petition clemency, a plea that Israeli President Yitzak Ben-Zvi eventually answered in one sentence: “1 Samuel 15:33, As your sword bereaved women, so will your mother be bereaved among women.” Eichmann was hanged in Israel on May 31, 1962.

In this example we see the instruments of justice work to convict a guilty man of hideous sins committed on the world stage. Eichmann was not simply placed in a prison to fester for an indefinite future; he was taken to the heart of where his crimes would matter most, taken to trial, and then taken to the gallows. There was no ambiguity, no shadowy government cover-ups or secretive memos worthy of wikileaking. Eastwood sneered at “the stupid idea of trying terrorists in downtown New York City,” but I cannot think of a better place to try the men who, eleven years ago, transformed its two tallest towers into columns of sulfuric smoke. For these murderers to be brought in chains into a robust and rebuilt metropolis – where only death and destruction once were – would be a symbolic triumph almost as powerful as their eventual conviction by our courts of law.

Eichmann in Jerusalem

Still, in addition to a pertinent historical precedent, Eichmann’s trial also gave us the notion of “the banality of evil,” Hannah Arendt’s immortal phrase for the fact that unspeakable crimes are often done, not by maniacal madman, but by ordinary individuals who merely accept the evil premises of their respective states and organizations. Arendt formulated this concept while sitting in the gallery of the Jerusalem district court; had Eichmann been kept without charge, or been tried in a secret show trial, Arendt’s idea — like Eichmann’s guilt — would never have been established.

Now I don’t know if Arendt’s thesis applies to bin al-Shibh and his fellow enemy combatants now in Guantanamo, but I am sure that until we put him and them on trial, in courtrooms with bulletproof booths of our own, their crimes will be left concealed rather than condemned. It’s the only way to address and understand their guilt, and until then, we’ll just be talking to empty chairs.