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Dark shadows

Suspect Alphabet City 10 Edited by John Knechtel MIT Press: 352 pp., $15.95

January 08, 2006|Karrie Higgins | Karrie Higgins is a writer in Portland, Ore.

ABOUT halfway through "Suspect: Alphabet City 10," there's an essay by UC Irvine criminologist Simon A. Cole on the case of Brandon Mayfield. Mayfield is the Portland, Ore., lawyer who was imprisoned as a material witness in the 2004 Madrid train bombings after the FBI matched his fingerprint to one taken at the scene. Spanish authorities later identified the print as someone else's, and Mayfield was released.

Unlike most of the other pieces in this collection -- which is the latest issue of the arts and culture journal Alphabet City -- Cole's essay is printed in white, on black paper. As I read, my own fingertips rubbed into the blackness, ink smudging into the ridges of my skin. If I stamped my prints on the wall, would anyone decode them? Could the FBI trace the ink back to this book? When I came to a two-page spread showing Mayfield's actual one alongside the partial print from the Madrid bombing scene, I pressed my fingertips into both like a prowler stepping into someone else's footprints to evade detection. What would it feel like to have something so intimate published for everyone to examine, even after you've been cleared of criminal charges? And why, when I already knew that Mayfield was innocent, did I compare the prints?

This is perhaps the most essential thread that runs through "Suspect," the notion of our collective and individual complicity in suspicion: how we consume evidence, construct narratives and delight in the certainty of naming suspects. Unlike other Sept. 11-inspired books, this one does not seek to witness or interpret the attacks so much as to account for the philosophical, moral, ethical and legal complexities of suspicion in a time of terror and war. It challenges us to consider not only what it means to be suspicious, but also what it means to suspect -- as individuals and as nations. In that sense, it may be the most sweeping Sept. 11 volume to date.

"Suspect" contains essays, stories, graphic-novel-style narratives, stills from short films, art and interviews that are interesting individually but powerful and even chilling when looked at as a whole. This is partly because of the lack of genre boundaries, a fluidity that suggests there is no dark corner in which to hide. Suspicion is born everywhere. Fiction and nonfiction are equally true. Adventure stories and political essays can ultimately raise the same issues.

Based on its critical perspective and underground aesthetic -- loud colors, swirling graphics -- one might expect "Suspect" to be full of liberal screeds about the state of civil liberties. In fact, the anthology subscribes to no particular ideology. Rather, these works twist and turn to an almost dizzying degree, leaving us with more questions than answers. The collection seems designed to create reasonable doubt.

In his essay "Liberalism, Or What Rights Look Like in a Shipwreck," Kent Enns explores the problem of liberal ideology and its goal of "procedural neutrality," asking whether a dedication to universal human rights makes it impossible to recognize enemies. "[P]rocedural liberalism, since its account of the 'complete' human being is limited to a rights-enshrined self-interest, finds it difficult not only to specify in what way certain individuals, certain types, are defective (or even evil), but to declare its enemies," he writes. "[S]ince humanity is a category that transcends all politics, the rights of the 'enemy,' the suspect, must be upheld procedurally by the liberal polity."

With "Rumsfeld's Unknown Known, or Iraq's Initiation Into Democratic Practice," meanwhile, Slavoj Zizek reframes the abuses by American soldiers at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison as a ritual of initiation into the "darkest aspect of our way of life -- the public exposure of oneself as an object of humiliation." The analysis here is sociological rather than political: Saddam Hussein hid his treatment of prisoners, but U.S. soldiers photographed their victims "compulsively," he says. Such photos, Zizek argues, are particularly American, recalling "hazing" rituals on college campuses, in which humiliation becomes its own justification for violence -- twisted into a kind of consent.

One might assume that individual choices invite or allay suspicion -- that if we live our lives right, we will never find our fingerprint published like a centerfold. Turn to "The Sequel" by Joey Dubuc, an illustrated choose-your-own-adventure narrative. You might be surprised where you end up.

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