At the dawn of a new century a revered republic is stunned to discover that its enemies have penetrated into the very heart of its society. Suspicions run wild and some citizens are persecuted solely because of their phenotype, religion and history as immigrants. As the hysteria mounts the republic turns to its leaders and institutions for safety. Above all, its military, whose services are lauded as defenders of freedom and liberty against foreign enemies and their co-conspirators. Patriotic arms of the news media declare that questioning the Army is tantamount to treason and the refrain is enjoined again and again that only through the strength of the military can the republic be preserved.
Readers can be forgiven for thinking this is a description of the United States after September 11th, 2001 rather than France at the end of the 19th century. If the parallels seem obvious, however, it’s because they are readily apparent. The Dreyfus Affair, which consumed France from 1894-1906, is proof that while history does not repeat itself, some stories are re-created in succeeding generations. Knowing history, therefore, helps us to contextualize the events of our own time. Otherwise, we are like a blind man who touching the trunk of an elephant declares it to be a hose, a tree, and a leg; the same thing understood each time as a singularity. This, in turn, lets us claim unfettered authority to adjudicate the challenges of our time as we see fit and free from retrospection. If the Dreyfus Affair is most famous, however, for giving us the term “intellectual” it is equally as infamous for allowing “secret evidence” to be admissible in a court of law. In this, and many other ways, Dreyfus presaged our own times.
The Dreyfus Affair: A Fin de Siecle Tragedy
In 1894 France was rocked by the revelation that an officer in the French General Staff, equivalent to our Joint Chiefs, was passing secrets to Germany. A generation earlier, Germany had humiliated France in the Franco-Prussia War of 1870-71 and taken France’s prized provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. The foundations of France’s Third Republic, which emerged at the end of the war, teetered on a questionable legitimacy, much like the administration of George W. Bush in 2001, and the government faced the real possibility of being deposed by a coalition of reactionary forces who believed that only an imperial executive could lead France to new glories. The discovery that there was a traitor passing secrets to the German High Command on French armaments and military preparations from within France’s vaunted officer caste was the type of revelation that could have shaken the Third Republic to its foundations and possibly have led to its demise. Someone was needed to deflect criticism from the Third Republic and its leaders, someone whom France would accept as being a traitor. Enter Alfred Dreyfus, Captain in the French General Staff and a Jew.
Anti-Semites in 19th century Europe labeled Jews parasites, “Christ-killers”, foreigners, sorcerers, and accused them of being members of an International Syndicate devoid of national patriotism that was working to dominate the free world, much as Islam is portrayed today. At his court martial, despite weak and circumstantial evidence, Dreyfus was convicted thanks to a file of manufactured information that purported to contain state secrets so valuable they could not be released in open court. It was on the strength of this deception, one that was never after securitized in an open court, that Dreyfus was convicted. Supported by a racist national press and preservationist military and aided by the belief that an international Jewish conspiracy was working to weaken France, Dreyfus was condemned a traitor.
General Auguste Mercier, Minister of War at the time of Dreyfus’ conviction, publicly declared Dreyfus was guilty even after he knew that the evidence used to convict Dreyfus was a forgery. At Dreyfus’ re-trail in the city of Rennes, Mercier contemptuously looked Dreyfus in the eye and said, “If I had the least doubt of his guilt, I should be the first to come to Captain Dreyfus and say to him that I was honestly mistaken…I should be the first to make amends for my error.” Having wrapped himself in the cloak of patriotism, Mercier was unable to confess that he had allowed an innocent man to be dishonored and exiled.
On the other side stood those who were convinced that by convicting an innocent man France would lose its way, not only from the hope of becoming a true republic but also from the very ideals of the its esteemed revolution: liberty, equality, brotherhood. These values, they argued, had made France great and the envy of nations. Without them, the very idea that had helped spark democracy in Europe would wither and die. It was a conversation that sundered brother from brother and father from son. Friends stopped speaking and dinner parties were conducted with the strict request that Dreyfus not be discussed.
Abetted by men of conscience and honor, the case against Dreyfus started to unravel soon after his exile. Despite revelations supporting his innocence, the nationalist press continued denouncing him as an agent of the International Jewish Syndicate while military leaders insisted ad nauseum that the information leading to his conviction could not be released publicly for fear of compromising France’s national security.
With the evidence exonerating Dreyfus so apparent, Pierre Waldeck-Rousseau, France’s newly appointed Prime Minister, convinced the French parliament to pass an amnesty bill that pardoned Dreyfus but also forestalled any further prosecutions associated with the Affair. Dreyfus reluctantly accepted the pardon prompting Charles Péguy, a prominent Dreyfusard, to famously remark, “We might have died for Dreyfus; Dreyfus has not died for Dreyfus.”
By the time the Affair concluded in 1906, with a reversal of Dreyfus’ convictions for treason by France’s United Court of Appeals, the passions that had once sparked France had grown cold. In the end, no one was brought to justice for the many crimes associated with the Affair. Not the real traitor, who lived out his life as an exile in England, nor the unscrupulous men who had helped convict Dreyfus despite knowledge of his innocence. In fact, the French courts concluded Dreyfus was innocent because the evidence on which he had been convicted was inadmissible. In other words, though there had been a crime there were no criminals.
September 11th: Tragedy in the New Century
Dreyfus’ case is reminiscent in many ways of the capture, torture, release, and trial of Khaled el-Masri. After September 11th, al-Qaeda became the rationale used to induce mass hysteria and fear. In the name of “national security” President Bush re-invented our military base in Guantanamo, Cuba as a jail, akin to Devil’s Island, for so-called enemy combatants; most of whom have been held without charge or trial. At Guantanamo the Geneva Conventions and other rules of human decency were ignored in the name of fighting terror and after five years, with most of the Guantanamo inmates not indicted of any crime, the US government still maintains that those incarcerated are guilty even if the evidence against them cannot be publicly acknowledged. The United States also re-invigorated a program publicly called “extraordinary rendition” whereby the US government uses extra-judicial processes to abduct and interrogate terrorist “suspects” in third party states; all of which have no civil liberty protections making them ideal locations for torture.
On December 31, 2003 Khalid el-Masri, a German citizen of Lebenese descent whose family went to Europe fleeing the sectarian violence of the Lebenese Civil War, was detained on his way home from vacation in Macedonia by Macedonian border officials; ostensibly because his name is spelled identically to that of Khalid al-Masri, an al-Qaeda operative who is on the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list, and because of suspicion that his German passport was a forgery. Macedonian officials contacted the local CIA station and soon after el-Masri was handed over to American counter-terrorism operatives who drugged, bound, and blind-flooded him before transporting him to Afghanistan as an “extraordinary rendition.” When US officials learned that they had abducted the wrong man in April 2004, Condeleeza Rice, then National Security Advisor ordered his release. It was not until May, however, that el-Masri was freed from detention in Afghanistan and only on the condition that he tell no one about his ordeal. On May 28, 2004 el-Masri was abandoned at night on a desolate road in Albania, without apology or funds to return home, and still suffering from the effects of his incarceration.
El-Masri did not remain silent and on December 6, 2005 he filed a criminal complaint against George Tenant, then Director of the CIA, and other CIA employees for their role in his ordeal. El-Masri reported being beaten, sodomized, and held in unsanitary conditions. Like his fellows in Guantanamo el-Masri was charged with no crime and held incommunicado, unable even to contact German national officials.
El-Masri filed his case in the Eastern Federal District of Virginia. The case had barely begun, however, when the United States government interceded. On March 8, 2006, the United States filed a statement of interest and a formal claim of the state secrets privilege. According to court documents, this privilege asserts that “el-Masri’s civil action could not proceed because it posed an unreasonable risk that privileged state secrets would be disclosed.” On May 12, 2006 the district court issued a decision supporting the government’s contention and dismissing el-Masri’s suit.
El-Masri appealed the District Court decision to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals which affirmed the lower court decision on March 2, 2007. In upholding the right of the United States to “prevent the disclosure of information in a judicial proceeding if ‘there is a reasonable danger’ that such disclosure ‘will expose military matters which, in the interest of national security, should not be divulged” the Appeals Court concluded that, “If state secrets are sufficiently central to the matter… [a plaintiff] may lose his cause of action altogether…not through any fault of his own, but because his personal interest in pursuing his civil claim is subordinated to the collective interest in national security.”
As with Dreyfus, an innocent man’s attempt to clear his name ran afoul the doctrine of “state secrets.”
Most recently, we have learned that the CIA is guilty of destroying video tapes showing the torture of Abu Zubaydah
and another “high value” CIA target under American incarceration. Despite continued bravado about the utility of torture, the government has taken the position that the treatment of those suspected of terrorism is classified as a matter of national security. The same Dreyfusian logic applies, those entrusted with transparent prosecution of enemies of the state have instead used illegal processes and then willfully destroyed the “evidence” by which those incarcerated were charged with a crime.
Just as General Mercier hid and obstructed the truth of Dreyfus’ innocence, we learned during the trial of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby that Vice President Cheney arrayed the vast powers of his office to fabricate evidence about Iraq’s weapons program and Saddam’s Hussien’s link to Al Qaeda and then bury his role. Cheney’s deception involved discrediting Ambassador Joseph Wilson, whose offense was that he had publicly doubted the administration’s rationale for war against Iraq; a vendetta which resulted in leaking that Wilson’s wife Valerie Plame was a CIA agent; an act that constitutes a Federal crime. As the false justifications used to start the Iraq War were discredited, including investigations by the 9-11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group, Cheney continued to stand his ground publicly declaring that there were links between Saddam Hussien and Al Qaeda.
Although a less sympathetic character than Khalid el-Masri, Saddam Hussein was nonetheless a victim of erroneous and fabricated charges. There was evidence, even in 2002-2003, that contradicted the emerging opinion that Saddam was an imminent threat, but just as Frenchmen accepted Dreyfus’ Jewishness as evidence of his guilt, American’s accepted the portrait of a blood-thirsty Arab bent on the destruction of the United States.
Dreyfus was ultimately acquitted. Saddam Hussien, although exonerated of the crimes by which he was deposed, was killed. As in the Dreyfus Affair, however, the real criminals behind the conspiracy to destroy Saddam have not been prosecuted and although the recent conviction for perjury of Lewis Libby is widely accepted as a surrogate conviction of the vice president, Cheney himself remains at-large. Like Mercier, who was later elected to the French Senate, Cheney has avoided any censure or punishment and has instead allowed subordinates who had assisted in his deceptions to be discredited. After the Libby verdict Federal Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald intoned, “There is a cloud over the vice president,” but as with Dreyfus although we acknowledge crimes have been committed we are unwilling to finger the criminals.
The Dreyfus Affair as History Lesson
The Dreyfus Affair teaches us that in moments of national hysteria our inquisitiveness should be sharpened rather than added to the cacophony drowning out our better instincts. Then as now men without scruples played the tune of patriotism upon our passions and aligned their own vices with the virtues of the nation. There are certainly enemies among us but our response can be either that of 19th century Frenchmen, rooted in xenophobia and racism, or it can be worthy of our 21st century society. By relying on technology, inter-agency cooperation, and sound police-work we can foil attacks before they happen without subjecting our citizens to reckless Orwellian surveillance. Neither need we incarcerate nor torture; acts which destroy our reputation before the world and demean the basic values of our great republic.
Partisans for President Bush have already begun saying that history will vindicate this administration for its actions at home and abroad. General Mercier and his adjutants also believed that history would justify them as patriots but one would be pressed to find a historian who didn’t view the Dreyfus Affair as a French national travesty. I for one have no doubt that the excesses propagated in the name of September 11th–Iraq, Guantanamo, domestic spying, and racial profiling– will leave a damning legacy for the United States in future generations. What was written by the poet Verhaeren in 1898 will be said of us, “[T]he whole of Europe has defended the spirit of France against France herself…. But it has come to pass that this same people violated its own teaching as one might violate an oath. The world has not yet recovered from its surprise….”