Sunday 12 May 2024

Card Counter Coda: Major Gordo and the Vanishing Israelis


When I write this blog, I often turn up things during research that are interesting, but which I have to leave out because they complicate the main thrust of my argument or just represent a tangent that I don't have time to go down. In the case of my essay on The Card Counter, there were quite a few such things, mainly to do with the technical aspects of making the movie. For example, one of the reasons the film feels so claustrophobic is that Schrader and his Director of Photography, Alexander Dynan, used an unusual focal length for most of the shots, to leave out as much of the background as possible. That's an interesting thing to know from a technical standpoint, and if I was writing a piece where questions of technique were more relevant (as with Zone of Interest, say), I would have included it, but that essay was more focused on the writing of the movie than how it was filmed, so it gets left out. 

Sometimes, though, things come up which mean you have to return to the material you left out. One such thing, this week, was the revelations from Israeli whistleblowers and former Palestinian detainees at Sde Temain detention centre, as reported by CNN. The tortures described in the report will be familiar to anyone who's seen Schrader's film, or is familiar with the Abu Ghraib case: detainees kept for hours in stress positions, menaced by dogs, subjected to sonic bombardment and physical beatings, piled semi-naked on top of each other...The torturers in this case at least seem to have avoided being photographed giving thumbs-up gestures beside naked prisoners, though. Perhaps some of them still have a sense of shame. 

This pinged something I'd read while looking into the background of Janis Karpinski, the officer in charge of all Iraqi detention facilities at the time of the atrocities who, I wrote in the essay, also got gender-swapped by Schrader, into the extravagantly-moustached John Gordo, played by Willem Dafoe. Like everyone else in the film, though, this isn't a one-for-one correspondence: for one thing, Gordo is only ever presented as having been in charge of one prison, rather than the three Karpinski was responsible for; for another, and more crucially, in The Card Counter Gordo escapes prosecution by virtue of being a so-called 'independent contractor', while Karpinski, being part of the chain of command, was prosecuted. 

Such are the exigencies of creating drama out of history, of course: you collapse a number of real life figures into one person to create an Aristotelian unity; you fudge some facts and leave out others - it's not verbatim theatre. Gordo's getting off scot-free is the primary driver of Schrader's plot, after all: it's why Cirk wants to get revenge on him for what his father was ordered to do, and why he feels Tillich should help with his scheme. The thing is, though, that there's a little bit of Karpinski's testimony which maybe - maybe - gives us a better analogue for the mercurial Gordo. 

In an interview with the BBC, Karpinski claims to have met an Israeli individual at Abu Ghraib, who told her he did 'some of the interrogation here'. Which Israeli organisation, if any, that this guy belonged to, Karpinski never specified; the journalist Seymour Hersh, corroborating Karpinski's story by reference to his own sources, believes he would most likely have been with Israeli intelligence, who were interested in accessing Iraqi detainees to find and interrogate Iraqi intelligence agents who specialised in spying on Israel. Here we have a figure, not part of the official chain of command, like Gordo, who, also like Gordo, is employed to 'assist' with the interrogations and who, again like Gordo, slips out of the story discreetly and is never prosecuted. Officially, this guy was never there. 

Just as, officially, Derek Chauvin never learned the specific choke he used to kill George Floyd during an official 'seminar with Israeli secret services', as claimed by Maxine Peake in an interview with the Independent. Rebecca Long-Bailey's enthusiastic sharing of this interview - off the back of other comments Peake made in it about socialism, rather than this alleged collusion between Israeli secret services and racist US cops - was seized on by Kier Starmer's media outriders as an excuse to force one of Kieth's only major challengers out of the Labour Leadership race; while others in the media ran cover for the Israeli regime by focusing on the nice distinction that Chauvin personally could never have been told about that particular choking technique officially. The denial presented to the Indie by an Israeli spokesperson is actually quite revealing in this regard: 'there is no tactic or protocol that calls to put pressure on the neck or airway'. There was no tactic or protocol which called for detainees at Abu Ghraib to be smeared in human faeces and forced to masturbate in front of US soldiers, but it still happened.

However, as Antony Loewenstein points out in his book The Palestine Laboratory: How Israel Exports the Technology of Occupation Around the World, 'the IDF routinely uses this suffocating move on Palestinians' regardless of whether any official protocol 'calls for it', and it is a matter of record that the ADL runs a program to send US police officers to Israel, where they can learn about the techniques that country's authorities have pioneered in how to oppress a rebellious population. While the ADL's stated aim in facilitating this exchange is to build support for Zionism among US cops who, as Loewenstein points out, hardly 'need Israeli training to make [them] violent or racist', the interest in these programs from the police themselves is far more about learning about tactics and techniques than it is about gaining an insight into Zionist ideology. Revealingly, despite the official line that there was no connection between these programs and Derek Chauvin's knee, the ADL themselves discussed the possibility of ending them in response to the death of George Floyd, writing in an internal memo that 'we must ask ourselves...whether we are contributing to the problem...We must ask ourselves if, upon returning home, those we train are more likely to use force.' Don't worry, though - they kept the programs going. No force on earth can stop pigs enjoying a junket. 

Pace Hersh, this perceived expertise is probably the real reason an Israeli intelligence agent might have been at Abu Ghraib. As Loewenstein documents meticulously, for repressive Western security forces Palestine serves a role similar to that which Northern Ireland served for the British police and army during the years of the Troubles - a place at the imperial periphery where troops and cops could be sent to get a taste of the mindset and tactics they could then bring back home to use in suppressing internal dissent. One wonders if, in a few years, we'll learn that techniques like those in use at Sde Temain are also being used on the Bibby Stockholm, or the camps our government wants to set up in Rwanda, or the ones they'll probably eventually get around to sending all of us queers to. 

No comments:

Post a Comment