The Weather Makers

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John le Carré at the Palestinian martyrs’ cemetery, Beirut, Lebanon, 1983; photograph by Don McCullin

If you feel that good novels are the lie that reveals the truth, then it will always be thrilling, in any given period, to come across works that manage to be much more revealing than the evening news. John le Carré made that kind of thrill into a genre, capturing the dowdy, fatal, realistic weather of European espionage at a time when the subject was covered on the BBC as if it were merely a parlor game beloved of donnish existentialists.

Even today, with his most groundbreaking novels behind him, le Carré continues to be the world’s most reliable witness to the vicissitudes of international paranoia: his books conceive of a Western world that has a costly obsession with its possible enemies; he shows you this world’s secret missions, its botched jobs, its manifold attempts to thwart the corrupting and sometimes terrifying idealism of others, while keeping the reader close to the exact lineaments of the way we live now. Some people call such activities prevention; some call them advance retaliation; for the Bush administration, this was the thinking behind “extraordinary rendition.” For the past several years, there have been tiers of people employed to spend a proportion of America’s tax dollars doing the kinds of things some people thought could happen only in novels by John le Carré.

In October 2001, a very much living and breathing nineteen-year-old Turkish man and legal resident of Germany, Murat Kurnaz, traveled from Bremen to Pakistan because, he said, he wanted to learn more about Islam. Near Peshawar, his bus was stopped by the local authorities: he was taken off, questioned, and later handed over to US custody (his interrogators later said that those who arrested him were paid $3,000) and taken to the Bagram air base north of Kabul, where he was tortured. Without trial or legal representation, he was then shackled and taken on a twenty-seven-hour flight to Guantánamo Bay. This is how prisoner number 061 later described his first day at Camp X-Ray:

“Do you know why you’re here?” I heard the man with the nametag ask.

“Do you know what the Germans did to the Jews?” he said. “That’s exactly what we’re going to do with you.”

Someone grabbed me by the shirt and pushed me out of the tent. Outside I saw a number of tightly packed rows of chain-link fence. It was like a labyrinth. I saw another prisoner in his orange overalls being led through the fencing. The soldiers immediately threw me to the ground. I landed on the gravel. “Lie there!” The man with the nametag pressed his knee into the back of my neck, pushing my face into the gravel, so that I could no longer see the other prisoner and…

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