Rendition Chic

Rendition Chic

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In a recent Washington Post piece on the case of Maher Arar (“Canadian Was Falsely Accused, Panel Says”), reporter Doug Struck noted that since September 11, 2001, an estimated 3,000 people have been captured or kidnapped by the Central Intelligence Agency. Many, like Maher, taken in “extraordinary rendition” operations, were transported “to other countries, hidden from U.S. legal requirements and often subject to torture.” (Arar was sent to Syria to be tortured.) Then Struck added this curious note: “Those renditions are often carried out by CIA agents dressed head to toe in black, wearing masks, who blindfold their subjects and dress them in black.”

Head to toe in black with masks? Uh… is this simply the fashion fetishism from hell? Are our covert warriors from Langley, Virginia now choosing to sport the look of ninja warriors?

Can anyone remember a time — we’re talking World War II here — when black was still the color, and aesthetic, of fascism? When, if you were small, you automatically knew that the guy in black in the western — the one with the twirlable mustache and the leer who slunk into the saloon just as the cowboy dressed in white emerged from the sheriff’s office — was the bad guy?

Way back in 1948, three years after the World War ended in triumph, actor William Boyd, who had played the cowboy hero Hopalong Cassidy on the silver screen, gained TV rights to his old “Hoppy” movies and shunted into a new medium those “spine-tingling episodes never before shown on TV!” Now, Hoppy, who had the requisite white hremember a time when black was the color–and aesthetic-oorse, nonetheless dressed in black and yet proved an early TV sensation. And Boyd parlayed his TV show into a host of licensed products — including black shirts sold to adoring children by the skadzillion. As TV historian J. Fred MacDonald wrote, this was “a singular marketing achievement since in American culture black was associated with mourning or Italian Fascism.”

No longer is it so singular. Now, the aesthetic of fascism and of Hong Kong ninja movies, the aesthetic that came to be shared in the post-Vietnam toy universe by both G.I. Joe and his arch enemy, COBRA, the aesthetic of Darth Vader and his storm troopers, not to speak of SWAT teams across the country, is shared as well by our covert warriors. We know that on extraordinary rendition operations, CIA renditioners have, on occasion, stayed on taxpayer money in five-star hotels, dined out in five-star restaurants, and taken five-star Italian vacations to rest up. But who knew that, having spent all those years at the movies, they were also boning up on torture chic. Where’s the runway? Egypt? Syria? Uzbekistan?

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