22 January 2014

When will Obama volunteer to be cavity-searched?

India’s deputy consul general in New York Devyani Khobragade was arrested in New York. She had apparently lied on a visa application and tried to circumvent law designed to protect domestic employees of diplomats from exploitation.  India was livid.  India retaliated by withdrawing security to the US Embassy in Delhi, withdrew import licenses that allowed the commissary at the Embassy to import duty-free alcohol and food, demanded to know the salaries paid to Indian staff in the Embassy and evicted a US diplomat over ‘an insensitive tweet’. 

A US federal prosecutor, Preet Bharara, has responded to this Indian outrage with a valid and unimpeachable observation: ‘One wonders whether any government would not take action regarding false documents being submitted to it in order to bring immigrants into the country.  And one wonders why there is so much outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian national accused of perpetrating these acts, but precious little outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian victim and her spouse?’

Absolutely! The dead silence from India and Indian media on this aspect of the issue is deafening. 
Bharara makes other claims and they warrant comment.  He claims that Khobragade was not handcuffed, restrained or arrested in front of her children as has been claimed.  Khobragade claims she ‘broke down many times as the indignities of repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches, swabbing, in a holdup with common criminals and drug addicts were all being imposed upon me despite my incessant assertions of immunity.’ Her version got credence for a while by cavity-search footage posted on Youtube claiming to be a recording of what US officials did to her.  US officials however state that it is a hoax. That’s not important.

What is important is that while Bharara disputes the handcuffing, he does not deny the other claims.  He says, ‘She was fully searched in private by a female deputy marshal, which is standard safety practice that every defendant, rich or poor, American or not, had to undergo’.  We can infer that she was in fact ‘cavity-searched’. 

What is indisputable is that people are cavity-searched in the USA and Bharara’s reluctance to comment on Khobragade’s charge in this regard indicates that she very well may have been subjected to such treatment.  Khobragade’s ‘violation’ is pinned on improper and/or deceitful documentation.  She is guilty of underpaying an employee.  There’s nothing she could have hidden in any of her cavities that could have aided in these ‘crimes’.  The logic of the need, then, to cavity-search is baffling.  

Whatever Khobragade was subjected to, Bharara says it included to ‘courtesies most Americans would not get such as making phone calls for two hours to arrange childcare and sort out personal matters.  She was also offered coffee and food.  Makes one wonder what kind of privileges US citizens similarly arrested get! More importantly, if cavity searches amount to ‘standard procedure’ and if it was all ‘light’ because Khobragade is a diplomat, need we ask how the US would treat non US citizens who are not diplomats serving in the USA?  Yes, we are talking about those unfortunates captured in military operations, including those terrorist suspects now held in Guantanamo Bay.

The key term here is ‘standard procedure’; standard procedure, let us remember, not in the matter of theft, arson, assault and battery or murder but deception in documentation.  Standard procedure for this includes strip-searches.  It includes checking orifices of suspects. This is standard, folks, for a country that prides itself as the bastion of all things good and wonderful, and wants the entire world to be as civilized as it believes it is, even if it means those other uncivilized countries should be subjected to attack using drones, atom bombs and chemical weapons. 

One question: why on earth are we surprised?

There is enough evidence that the USA and its principal ally, Britain, committed countless crimes against humanity in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.  If we want to go back in time, we could go back to the days of the British Empire or start with all the wars of the 20th Century that the USA has been involved in.  Very little of it could be put on the plate of a soldier who was not disciplined.  It was policy; like cavity-search policy, it was and is ‘standard procedure’. 

And it is this same country whose laws the likes of Bharara finds appropriate and salutary that passes judgment on inconclusive footage and statements trotted out by totally unreliable sources.  We could say, after Mahatma Gandhi, ‘Western Civilization would be a good idea,’ meaning that the West or rather Western Governments could do with a bit of civilizing because civilized they are not. 

Against all this, what could one make of the machinations by the USA and its ally Britain against Sri Lanka?  Covering up the bad news about what they’ve done (not alleged but clearly guilty of)?  Looks like there is a lot stashed in a lot of cavities.  ‘Skeletons in cupboards,’ some might say.  The USA and UK have in no uncertain terms demonstrated that the world should excavate. That’s what happens when you go with sanitized terminology for what are clearly crude practices that are an affront to civilization and are in clear violation of the principle of proportionality.  What if Khobragade did something the likes of Bharara considers ‘worse’?  Would they cut her up and examine if her liver was functioning alright?  

There is another aspect to this cavity-search business, following Bharara’s legitimate query quoted above.  What if other countries adopted the ‘standard practice’ -- laced with coffee, food and phone-call privilege of course? What if Diplomat A in Country X is caught violating some law (and mind you, it need not be something grand, it could be a dodgy entry in some form, ambiguous enough to warrant multiple interpretation and therefore easy to find fault over)?  What if Officer P grabs Diplomat A and does ‘standard procedure’ on the individual? 

It is always good to compare and contrast. Always good to wear someone else’s shoes or stand by his or her window and gaze at the world.  In this instance the Indian diplomat has got caught on the wrong foot. She’s tripped, but then again, in tripping the entire edifice of US morality has taken a fall.  We should not be surprised if Barack Obama himself, being the ‘civilized’ man that he is, voluntarily subjects himself to cavity search, before or after George W Bush, Bill Clinton and George Bush (Snr) are similarly ‘searched’. 

There are lots of cavities that need to be examined here.  And plugged too.  Let us reflect on the unravelling of the metaphor.  It’s good mental exercise for Americans of the US and others, diplomats and non-diplomats.  Human rights advocates too, let’s not forget. 

Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of 'The Nation' and can be contacted at msenevira@gmail.com


Anonymous said...

This is a case of culture shock to be sure, a rude awakening to those not used to it. So how are drug or gold smugglers coming through the airport in Colombo found with drugs and other things in their rectums. I think a body search is needed, no? Not having ever been in jail, I would not know, but body cavities are often used places for smuggling illegal items inside. Doesn't it seem prudent to check? One 'ass' is on the line if dangerous objects or drugs make their way inside a detention cell. Where do you draw the line on who to check or who not to check. The harsh reality of the US lies in its propensity to treat all 'equally' under the law. I just hope I never find myself there.

ViceUnVersa said...

Machan the US won't care. India has no oil.

ViceUnVersa said...

Machan the US won't care. India has no oil. No strategic importance either as they have Pakistan in their pocket.