What I do know is that nothing in the world can justify a man being thus thrown to the dogs.
–Bernard Henri-Levy on the unjust treatment of his friend Dominique Strauss-Kahn
Monday evening, in Manhattan, a private settlement was reached between Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund and one-time French presidential hopeful, and Nafitassou Diallo, a Guinean migrant and part of the housekeeping staff at the NY Sofitel hotel where DSK stayed. There is no word on the amount of the settlement, which marked an acrid public debate about how badly DSK was treated, even though Diallo had charged DSK with sexual assault in March 2011.
In a lame attempt to dilute the gravity of the charges DSK admitted that he had made an “error” and had engaged in a “moral failure,” while avoiding an admission of sexual assault. By contrast, Diallo had her credibility questioned repeatedly and her words recorded and distorted.
While the French newspapers are dutifully reporting the settlement, their tone is in stark contrast to the outrage and shock that the French media and intelligentsia expressed at the horrific treatment received by one of the foremost political elites of Europe. Strauss-Kahn was a player “extraordinaire”: Charming, elegant, eloquent, and capable of holding his own among the world’s power players. Why, my fellow philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy asked, would DSK be treated so badly when the charges were clearly fabricated?
What I do know is that nothing in the world can justify a man being thus thrown to the dogs.
What I know is that nothing, no suspicion whatever (for let’s remind ourselves that, as I write these lines, we are dealing only with suspicions!), permits the entire world to revel in the spectacle, this morning, of this handcuffed figure, his features blurred by 30 hours of detention and questioning, but still proud.
What I know as well is that nothing, no earthly law, should also allow another woman, his wife, admirable in her love and courage, to be exposed to the slime of a public opinion drunk on salacious gossip and driven by who knows what obscure vengeance.
And what I know even more is that the Strauss-Kahn I know, who has been my friend for 20 years and who will remain my friend, bears no resemblance to this monster, this caveman, this insatiable and malevolent beast now being described nearly everywhere.
Poor DSK. The treatment he received was horrible. Here is how they mistreated him: they publicly apprehended DSK at New York’s JFK airport, forced him to do a “perp” walk in front of a gaggle of reporters, required him to stay in a NYC prison over the weekend until he was publicly arraigned at a Manhattan criminal court. He was…treated…as suspects were often treated in the pre-9/11 days: as a suspect who would eventually receive his day in court. And eventually the charges against him were dropped, proving further to the French that he was unjustly treated.
Perhaps the treatment of DSK should be compared to that treatment to that meted to Jose Padilla, deemed an enemy combatant in the early years of the war on terror, as described by the ACLU yesterday, as his mother brings a human rights case at an International human rights tribunal to protest her son’s treatment:
In 2002, President Bush declared Padilla an “enemy combatant” and ordered him to be placed in military custody. U.S. officials seized Padilla from a civilian jail in New York and secretly transported him to the Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, S.C., where they held him for 43 months without charge. Interrogators subjected Padilla to torture and other egregious forms of abuse, including forcing him into stress positions for hours on end, punching him, depriving him of sleep and threatening him with further torture, “extraordinary rendition” and death.
Doesn’t quite seem parallel. Perhaps DSK’s treatment resonates with that of Syrian-Canadian Maher Arar, who was intercepted at JFK on his way back from a family trip to Tunis, and rendered “off-site” for torture. For no apparent reason besides being Middle Eastern:
We went into the basement, and they opened a door, and I looked in. I could not believe what I saw. I asked how long I would be kept in this place. He did not answer, but put me in and closed the door. It was like a grave. It had no light. It was three feet wide. It was six feet deep. It was seven feet high. It had a metal door, with a small opening in the door, which did not let in light because there was a piece of metal on the outside for sliding things into the cell.There was a small opening in the ceiling, about one foot by two feet with iron bars. Over that was another ceiling, so only a little light came through this.
There were cats and rats up there, and from time to time the cats peed through the opening into the cell. There were two blankets, two dishes and two bottles. One bottle was for water and the other one was used for urinating during the night. Nothing else. No light.
I spent 10 months, and 10 days inside that grave.
The next day I was taken upstairs again. The beating started that day and was very intense for a week, and then less intense for another week. That second and the third days were the worst. I could hear other prisoners being tortured, and screaming and screaming. Interrogations are carried out in different rooms…
The cable is a black electrical cable, about two inches thick. They hit me with it everywhere on my body. They mostly aimed for my palms, but sometimes missed and hit my wrists — they were sore and red for three weeks. They also struck me on my hips, and lower back. Interrogators constantly threatened me with the metal chair, tire and electric shocks. The tire is used to restrain prisoners while they torture them with beating on the sole of their feet. I guess I was lucky, because they put me in the tire, but only as a threat.
I was not beaten while in tire. They used the cable on the second and third day, and after that mostly beat me with their hands, hitting me in the stomach and on the back of my neck, and slapping me on the face. Where they hit me with the cables, my skin turned blue for two or three weeks, but there was no bleeding. At the end of the day, they told me tomorrow would be worse. So I could not sleep. Then on the third day, the interrogation lasted about 18 hours. They beat me from time to time and make me wait in the waiting room for one to two hours before resuming the interrogation.
Maher Arar was finally released and allowed to return to Canada over 1 year and 10 months later. He has never been given an explanation for his treatment. Nor an apology from the U.S. government. Nor a visa to enter the U.S.
BHL’s words, in the epigraph above, echo as I reread this description of Maher Arar. But apparently it can be justified–in the same breath as acknowledging that it is immoral. Two days ago, I had an exchange on Twitter about precisely this, even as my interlocutor agreed that torture was immoral.
But I don’t hear my dear colleague BHL exclaiming outrage about the latter cases. Why are earth-shattering screams of outrage only provoked when white elites such as DSK are thought to be badly treated? Why do we hear only mind-numbing silence when Jose Padilla, Maher Arar, Fahad Hashmi, Tarek Mehanna—dark, Muslim, non-elite men–are held, detained indefinitely without charges, put in solitary confinement for months and years, beaten with cables, and tortured otherwise? Why do we hear only smug justifications when the US kills US citizens and Muslims such as Anwar Al-Awlaki and, two weeks later, murders his 16 year-old US citizen son, Abdulrahman? Where are BHL’s protests when African American woman are sentenced to a life in prison for a drug crime that they did not commit? Why do we hear little outcry from BHL and his colleagues when Muslim women in the UK are charged with terrorism for possessing an “Al-Qaeda magazine”?
Perhaps part of the answer can be found here:
“He was arrested just hours before the meeting during which he would face a more orthodox German chancellor to plead the cause of a country, Greece, that he believed could be brought back to order without being brought to its knees. His defeat would also be that of this great cause. It would be a disaster for this entire part of Europe and of the world, because the IMF, under his leadership and for the first time in its history, did not intend to sell out to the superior interests of Finance. And that would really be a dreadful sign.”
The horror then is that someone of such prestige, such wealth, such importance, was having his honor questioned by…a…gasp …“chambermaid” with whom “he had a quick tumble.” There are virtually no references in the French context to the race of the “chambermaid,” or to that of the former head of the IMF. But that is not surprising in a nation that still has no official statistics on race, nearly half a century after moving away from its colonial past: This is the French’s version of anti-racism, similar to the American liberal view of “colorblindness.” That is to say, if we don’t name it, then we can pretend it doesn’t exist…or that it will just go away.
As interesting, story after story came out about DSK’s “exploits,” (as if such a casual term could possibly describe what was slowly emerging as a history of sexual assault)—all of which were summarily dismissed by…French elites, prosecutors, philosophers. The regressive attitude toward sexual assault could be seen in the description of the tumble with the chambermaid, and in some of the following stories that soon came to light:
Tristane Banon, DSK’s step-daughter accused of DSK of having attacked her years before, describing him as a rutting chimpanzee. To bring out this accusation when she did suggests that it was hardly a spontaneous act of the imagination. But even then, DSK’s staunch defender BHL stopped at little: accusing DSK’s step-goddaughter of pulling out all an “eight-year” old accusation of attempted rape because of a “golden” opportunity. And what kind of opportunity was this, one might wonder? To accuse one’s family member of rape in public, after years?
And there were other accusations as well—certainly not legal accusations, but rumors of DSK’s sexually coercive exploits, which had floated about France for years. We can be skeptical of them, but it becomes more and more difficult to cast them off when the rumors and incidences and alleged victims multiply.
There are several lessons to be learned here:
1) the sexuality of working-class, poor, and migrant women of color will always be under more suspicion than the coercive tendencies of the upper-class men who are accused of assaulting them.
2) When those accusations are corroborated through the stories of other women, the falsely reviled sexual assault victim will rarely, if ever, receive an apology from those who cast aspersions on her to begin with. At least, I think so. Right, Bernie?
3) The outrage and shock over the simple procedural treatment of upper-class men accused of sexual crimes will be loud and shrill–even in the face of plausible evidence.
4) The horrendous treatment of Muslim men and women, of Black men and women, will be casually accepted worldwide–even in the face of no evidence whatsoever. And it will be augmented by near silence or smug righteousness.
I can only take a bit of comfort as a settlement was reached between DSK and Diallo, that some tiny little justice was served, even in the face of enormous, unconscionable, gaping injustices for other men and women of color in the US and around the world.
Yet, we can rest assured that upper-class elite white men, like their predecessors, will always be excused from being accountable for crimes they may have committed, while men and women of color and their communities will—for the foreseeable future–have to pay for crimes that they will never commit.
*Corrected Title. This post has been updated and revised.