This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  November 5, 2004

Difficult questions won't go away

Who are we in America? What is being done in our name?

Those questions will outlive the Nov. 2 presidential election, regardless of who wins, and they take on added importance at a time when increasingly secret government activity is being carried out in the name of keeping us safe.

The tolerance of the use of torture -- teaching it, applying it, looking the other way when it gets out of hand, writing new justifications for it when it becomes known -- is a huge step down a slippery slope of conduct more harmful to the United States than any terrorist threat we can imagine.

If, in the ill-defined war on terror, we allow terrorists to drive us to the kind of behavior and violation of human rights that we deem inhumane and despicable in others, then the terrorists have won long before the violence has ceased.

This week’s cover story is significant for the record it outlines of experimentation on, instruction about and teaching of torture methods that spans more than 50 years. One need not be naive about the use of force in a dangerous and violent world to question what it means when we join those who engage in torturing their opponents.

We have some of the answer in the U.S. experience in Latin America. When the armies and the generals of Latin America learned torture techniques at the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas, the United States helped unleash hideous violence and massive human rights violations.

* * *

The use of torture is a bipartisan matter; its use has waxed and waned under different administrations. As one expert told writers James Hodge and Linda Cooper, “The potential for its use is always there because the practice is so deeply embedded in the intelligence bureaucracy.”

It is difficult to preach “freedom and liberty” and “human rights” to the rest of the world when the United States turns its back on international conventions designed to protect such values. President Ronald Reagan refused to ratify the U.N. Convention Against Torture, and his administration wrote several reservations to it that exempted the use of the CIA’s psychological torture paradigm. When the Clinton administration finally ratified it in 1994, it did so with the Reagan administration’s reservations intact.

Usually, the use of torture isn’t acknowledged and remains clandestine because it flies in the face of official public policy.

But after 9/11, the gloves came off, and the debate over physical torture was renewed when interrogators using it had some success gaining intelligence. The Justice Department weighed in, writing an opinion redefining torture as pain equivalent to that accompanying organ failure. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, meanwhile, approved a slew of interrogation techniques, including stress positions, 30-day solitary confinements, sensory deprivation, hooding, prolonged 20-hour interrogations, stripping, the use of dogs to induce stress and exploit fears, exposing detainees to temperature extremes or foul odors, and “false flag,” which allows interrogators to pretend to be officials from countries known for torture.

The abuse became so flagrant that soldiers didn’t even attempt to hide it. In one report on Abu Ghraib, Human Rights Watch concluded: “The brazenness with which the soldiers at the center of the scandal conducted themselves, snapping photographs and flashing the ‘thumbs-up’ sign as they abused prisoners, suggests they felt they had nothing to hide from their superiors. The abuse was so widely known and accepted that a picture of naked detainees forced into a human pyramid was reportedly used as a screen saver on a computer in the interrogation room.”

* * *

Democracies have tremendous difficulty dealing with torture, whether it’s France in Algeria in the 1950s or Britain in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, according to Alfred McCoy, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an expert in the history of CIA involvement in developing torture methods. “They go through the same processes of denying or minimizing it, justifying it as necessary or effective and finally trying to bury the matter by blaming a few bad apples.”

By desecrating their principles, democracies pay a terrible price and must “spin an ever more complex web of lies,” he said. And once sanctioned, torture quickly spins out of control, as the Abu Ghraib photos show.

Ultimately it backfires. For the United States, the scandal created hundreds more Osama bin Ladens as the prison photos became al-Qaeda recruiting posters, ensuring brutal treatment of U.S. POWs.

Yet, the Bush administration is not backing off. The Abu Ghraib photos are also snapshots of what is still going at CIA detention centers around the globe.

On Oct. 12, Human Rights Watch released a report on at least 11 al-Qaeda suspects who have been “disappeared,” taken to undisclosed locations where some have reportedly been tortured. The report says the CIA is holding the ghost detainees outside the United States, “with no notification to their families, no access to the International Committee of the Red Cross or oversight” of their treatment.

It remains to be seen whether higher-ups and policymakers will share the blame, and whether Americans will insist on accountability. Disturbingly, a recent Pew Center poll showed that 43 percent of Americans think that the torture of terror suspects can “often or sometimes” be justified.

* * *

It is encouraging, however, to see distinguished military leaders, now retired, out front in the quest for accountability. In a recent publication of Human Rights First, previously the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, eight retired admirals and generals signed a letter to President Bush in which they urged “creation of a comprehensive, independent commission to investigate and report on the truth about all of these allegations, and to chart a course for how practices that violate the law should be addressed.”

They lamented violation of international laws governing detention and interrogation and note that “information gathered through physical torture or dehumanizing humiliation is notoriously unreliable” and “has a demoralizing, dehumanizing effect not only on those subject to violations, but also on our own troops.”

We heartily support a similar call by Human Rights Watch for an independent 9/11-style commission to hold hearings with full subpoena power to investigate the connections between the administration’s policies and the treatment of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo, along with the CIA’s role.

The military is maneuvering for impunity, according to experts, because a paper trail exists that could lead to highest levels of command.

The Schlesinger report expresses concern not about the illegality or immorality of the abuse, but about the “damage these incidents have done to U.S. policy, to the image of the U.S. among populations whose support we need in the Global War on Terror and to the morale of our armed forces.”

The damage will continue, observed Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary in Tony Blair’s government, in the London Independent, “so long as the Bush administration pins the blame on a few guards and dodges its own responsibility for the scandal.”

“With savage irony,” Cook says, “these inventive examples of sadism were visited on Iraqis by coalition troops in the same Abu Ghraib fortress that had been a symbol of the brutality of Saddam.”

Who are we? What is being done in our name? Difficult questions. Avoiding them won’t make them go away.

National Catholic Reporter, November 5, 2004

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to:  webkeeper@natcath.org