The official euphemism for it sounds like the title of a Tom Clancy thriller, or a straight-to-video 1980s action movie starring Chuck Norris. The practice itself sounds like something that might go on, or be rumoured to go on, through the course of a novel by Don DeLillo. But there is no doubt that it does happen, despite the cagey denials and qualifications of the British and American governments. Condoleezza Rice has described extraordinary rendition as a ‘lawful weapon’ which has nothing to do with torture. Tony Blair has suggested it must be OK if only because it’s been going on for years, and a spokesman for the prime minister has blithely announced that ‘we do not believe that we are involved in this story.’
CIA aeroplanes, some of them registered as private jets, are used to transport suspected terrorists between the United States, offshore US prisons scattered around the world, and US ‘allies’ or client states that aren’t as squeamish as the US when it comes to getting their hands dirty torturing people, or at any rate don’t have laws against it. With the passing of the so-called McCain Bill, it’s now illegal for Americans to commit torture anywhere in the world: all the more reason to outsource it. Thanks to the heroic drudgery of a number of planespotters, there is documented evidence that these flights stop over in Britain. It makes you wonder if those planespotters who got into trouble in Greece a few years ago were arrested not for behaving suspiciously themselves, but because they might have been witnesses to this secret battlefront in the ‘War on Terror’.
‘Careful research has been unable to identify any occasion,’ Jack Straw has said, ‘when we have received a request for permission by the United States for a rendition through United Kingdom territory or airspace.’ Perhaps it’s time to employ a few planespotters. Since the government won’t admit to knowing anything about it, whether the CIA planes land in the UK to refuel or for some other purpose isn’t clear. But whatever the particular reason for the stopovers, one of their more general effects is to ensure British complicity in a practice that everyone – including its perpetrators, since otherwise they wouldn’t need to deny it – knows to be wrong.
The premise behind Space Cadets, Channel 4’s most recent ‘reality’ TV show, is in many ways the opposite of extraordinary rendition. A group of hopefuls were tricked into thinking they were being flown to Russia for training as cosmonauts followed by a few days orbiting the Earth in a space shuttle. In fact, they were taken by a circuitous route to an abandoned air force base in Suffolk, which had been painstakingly rigged up to look as if it was in Russia, even down to the plug sockets – as if anyone deluded enough to think they could fly into space with less than a fortnight’s training would notice something like that.
It was touted as the greatest hoax in television history, though as hoaxes go it doesn’t come close to the one about there being ‘weapons of mass destruction’ in Iraq. As I write, there are only two episodes of the series to go: the cadets have finished their ‘training’ and are knocking around inside a space shuttle simulator, and it appears that none of them has yet twigged that they’re not really in space. And why would they? As the show itself has proudly announced, why would anyone believe that anyone would go to all the trouble of mocking up something so idiotic and unkind? There are people who believe that all space travel over the past few decades has been an elaborate scam, that Neil Armstrong was simply filmed leaping around the desert in Arizona at night – one very small step for man – but the unfounded beliefs of the victims of the Space Cadets hoax tend in the opposite direction: at least one of them claims to have met an alien.
Most contestants on reality TV shows know what they’re letting themselves in for: on Pop Idol or The X Factor, wannabe popstars get a chance to fulfil their ambitions. On Space Cadets, wannabe astronauts think they are getting the chance to fulfil a lifelong ambition, but then – ha ha ha – find out that nothing of the sort was ever on the cards. Big Brother housemates can leave if they want to. Claustrophobic space cadets holed up in their shuttle simulator in Suffolk don’t have that option, or don’t realise they have that option, because they think they’re miles above the surface of the Earth. Perhaps, after the LRB has gone to press, it will transpire that the hoax was on the rest of us, that either the cadets really did go into space (highly unlikely), or (fairly unlikely) they’re all actors – viewers have known all along that two of them are – and indignant detractors like me will be the ones who look like idiots. I hope so. But I doubt it. It would be comforting to think that the victims of extraordinary rendition are all actors too.