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Issue Date:  March 25, 2005

U.S.: From good guy to torturer


Some conversations you never forget. One of mine falls under the category of “Things I did not want to believe.”

I was in the oval office of Malacanang palace in Manila with the then-president of the Philippines, Corazon Aquino. We were just two women being women together. No reporters, no secretaries, no chiefs of protocol. The conversation shifted from one point to another, all of them interesting. She was teaching me, a slightly used history teacher, Filipino-American politics. She told me “Ninoy,” (her assassinated husband) said, “Cory, if you ever work with the Americans, remember this. They have two human rights policies. One they apply inside the United States. The other they apply everywhere else in the world.”

I remember frowning in disbelief. That couldn’t be true. We wouldn’t do outside the United States what we would not do within its borders. Yesterday, 16 years later, I discovered just how right she was. It’s embarrassing to be in Europe these days.

People simply don’t regard Americans the way they did before the invasion of Iraq. Before this, the United States of America -- whatever its reputation for guzzling the resources of the rest of the world, of smudging the atmosphere, of being nationally narcissistic and culturally insensitive at the same time -- had an aura of unimpeachable integrity. This was a nation people saw as fair, just, free and democratic. It confessed its sins at Mai Lai in public and repented them. It operated off a set of Boy and Girl Scout standards emulated by most of the rest of the world. Whatever else it may have been, the United States, the average European believed, was honest and decent and played by the rules.

But that’s all changed now.

Two media pieces that appeared within hours of each other prove the point. In the United States, The New York Times ran a piece March 1 titled, “U.S. Cites Array of Rights Abuses by the Iraqi Government in 2004.” The article cited “reports of arbitrary deprivation of life, torture, impunity, poor prison conditions … and arbitrary arrest and detention.

“What this shows,” a senior State Department official said of the human rights report, “is that we don’t look the other way. There are countries we support and that are friends, and when they have practices that don’t meet international standards, we don’t hesitate to call a spade a spade.”

No mention, of course, that the Iraqi government named in violation of human rights standards is the puppet government we put in place there. No mention either of Abu Ghraib Prison, which apparently missed the list of prisons not in compliance with such standards because the prisoners within it were ours rather than theirs. Whoever “theirs” is supposed to be in an environment where we toppled one government guilty of human rights offenses and then created another one of our own. Ironic, to say the least.

But the real irony of the piece lay in the fact that hours before its publication in The New York Times, a British television channel, Channel 4, showed “Terror: Is Torture a Good Idea?” for its prime time “Choice” of the evening.

The show featured Clive Stafford-Smith, a human rights lawyer among whose clients are prisoners from Guantanamo Bay.

Guantanamo Bay held more than 500 prisoners, many of them in human kennels for most of the time. They were presumed guilty and held for three years. Without charging them with anything. Without access to lawyers. Without contact with home. Other prisoners were farmed out to client prisons in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, our archipelago of prisons.

Worst of all, Stafford-Smith reported, many detainees were simply picked up in random street sweeps carried out by bands of Iraqi bounty hunters who were paid by the Americans $5,000 a head.

Then, the politics of fear -- torture -- took over. A middle-aged yogurt vendor, who looked numbly into the wall as he talked, spent three years in custody and had a stick stuck up his rectum to make him “talk.” He was released without charge. “They never even apologized,” he said.

A younger Iraqi man, Richard Belmar, was beaten with sticks till his skull fractured. He, too, was released -- epileptic and frightened.

Two of the returned men, Sandy Mitchell and James Cottle, were shackled and hung over a bar, their bare buttocks to their torturers who beat them till they passed out and then started over again, for five days, until they began to hallucinate. “You can’t get a lawyer unless you plead guilty,” an American naval lawyer explained. “And I did,” one of the men explained. “There was nothing here worth dying for.”

It’s all being done on the grounds that as Tony Blair put it, “This is a different kind of war.” But the torture methods being used are called “The Vietnam” -- which means it has been being done for a long, long time now.

It’s all being done, too, on charges based on “secret” evidence -- the kind the accused never has a chance to refute.

From where I stand, it’s clear: Torture is ineffective. Torturers don’t get the truth; they get only what they want to hear -- which is how they know when to stop, apparently. As Mike Baker, an ex-CIA agent put it, “You can make anybody say anything. What you can’t do is have any confidence in what they say.”

Joan Chittister is an author and lecturer and a Benedictine Sister of Erie, Pa.

National Catholic Reporter, March 25, 2005

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