Apparently, if you’re under 25 years of age, you rarely if ever buy newspapers, preferring either to read them online or just watch the TV news.
What a world you are missing out on! Yes, you can click random links as you surf the web, but that in no way compares to the experience of physically holding a paper in your hands, and turning to pages far away from the front page headlines.
Buried in any newspaper’s hinterland, from page 6 onwards, there lurk two kinds of news: important stories that remain under-reported for reasons that keep conspiracists awake at night, and the bizarre little stories that make my eyebrows rise and my head spin.
Tearing both types of story from the newspaper, I build them into little piles on the bed in my office (it doubles as a guest room) alongside other more dishevelled piles of scrawled often illegible notes.
Loopy I may be, but thankfully, I’m not as bonkers as these stories. How could I be? Yes, there have been insane moments in my life (the time I awoke unexpectedly in New Zealand springs to mind) but in comparison to the bad craziness hidden in my little piles (behave!) I’m as sane as a lump of granite.
Trouble is, these clippings betray in their lunacy snapshots of how far we have lost our way. They act as micro-metaphors for our condition as a supposed civilization.
On top of the pile to my right at the moment is a tiny torn story about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-confessed planner of the attack on the Trade Centre Towers.
According to The Guardian’s Washington Staff and Agencies, while at a CIA prison in Poland, Mohammed was forced to stay awake for 180 hours and endured 183 instances of water-boarding. Popular with international intelligence forces these days, water-boarding is a form of torture that replicates in your mind the feeling that you are drowning.
Ever precise with their very few words, the CIA describe this process as one
“… designed to psychologically dislocate people.”
The CIA use torture because it works a treat, but sadly their - what do you call people being tortured? ‘Subjects’? ‘Prisoners’? I’m tempted to say ‘victims’ but Mohammed is a self-confessed mass murderer, so I’ll settle for that disgusting 21st century euphemism - ‘clients’ often end up schizophrenic and post-traumatic. The CIA’s own medical records suggest nobody makes it out with all their noodles intact.
When the Polish prison was closed in September 2003, Mohammed was moved to another CIA prison in Romania, where his captivity was less aggressive. A request arrived at CIA Headquarters from that secret facility in Bucharest. Mohammed, who had been reading the Harry Potter novels, was asking for permission to design a vacuum cleaner.
My tiny brain can only imagine the conversation which then took place at CIA headquarters, but a short time later a CIA manager called their prison in Romania, approving Mohammed’s request:
“… in the hope that it would help preserve Mohammed’s sanity.” according to an ex-CIA official.
Stables, doors, bolts and a little bit late for compassion, you might think.
For the next three years Mohammed worked on his vacuum cleaner design, but nobody will ever know how it looked, if it worked, or indeed if it really was a vacuum cleaner rather than perchance a craftily-disguised jet pack, which he was planning to strap onto his back before flying away.
Sorry, had to pause there for a moment. I just saw a white-robed bearded devout Muslim climbing high into the Romanian sky, clutching a rocket-powered ‘vacuum cleaner’ like a 21st century Dr. Strangelove, while down below be-suited be-shaded CIA agents wave their fists in the air and shout:
“Damn you, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed! You may have outwitted us this time, you dastardly devil, but look out, we’ll not be so dumb again. We’ll be ready for you next time!”
Sadly, life is neither a comic book nor a movie, and in 2006 the Romanian CIA prison was also closed down, which resulted in Mohammed being transferred to that testament to moral low ground, which every anti-American terrorist in the world exploits as justification to attack: Guantanamo Bay. He is still there to this day, being held along with many others who are doubtless far less guilty of such heinous crimes as his.
The reason these obscure newspaper stories mean so much to me is not because they entertain me, on a facile level, but because there’s inevitably something within them that gives me a chill. Somebody is always saying something that makes me fear for our collective sanity and safety.
In this instance, that role is fulfilled by Mohammed’s military lawyer, Jason Wright, who is quoted in this tiny hidden-away newspaper story, trying to explain why he was not allowed to discuss his client's interest in vacuum cleaners.
“It sounds ridiculous,” he said, “but answering this question, or confirming or denying the very existence of a vacuum cleaner design, would apparently expose the US government and its citizens to exceptionally grave danger.”
From mass murder to the absolutely absurd, via Poland and Harry Potter, one tiny supposedly insignificant corner of a newspaper page has taken us to vacuum cleaner design, through CIA torture and Guantanamo Bay, ending up, tragically yet inevitably, with a global superpower so entirely wrapped up in the fetid blankets of its own paranoia that it can see neither the inanity nor the insanity of its own methods.
Newspapers are great. I’d much rather have the torn corner of that page from The Guardian than an ignorant troll ranting at me online.