Issue Date: December 16, 2005
The disturbing reality of torture
Where, precisely, then, do we stand on this matter of torture?
Is it with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rices most recent explanations that the United States does not permit its personnel to engage in cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment of prisoners, whether on U.S. or foreign soil?
As The New York Times reported, her remarks were viewed, depending on the analysts point of view, as either a subtle but important shift in policy, a restatement of the administrations long-held position or an artful dodge intended to retain flexibility in dealing with detainees while soothing public opinion here and abroad.
If Rices statements during her early December travels are as absolute as they sound, they would, of course, represent a significant departure -- or at least a significant qualifier -- to the conclusion reached by Justice Department lawyers in 2002 that excused U.S. personnel from the restrictions outlined in the Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War when such personnel are dealing with al-Qaeda or Taliban fighters.
One must wonder if the seemingly sweeping prohibition against torture voiced by Rice is also the view of the administration -- or only some of those in it.
If her views are those of the administration, then what are we to make of the black site prisons that have been set up in several European and Asian countries where prisoners and terror suspects have been subjected to interrogation techniques that would be considered torture? What are we to make of the techniques used at the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, facility, where detainees, held without access to due process or trial, were subjected to beatings and interrogation methods prohibited by the Geneva Conventions?
What are we to make of Vice President Cheney and his aggressive attempts to undermine Sen. John McCains Senate bill that would prohibit use of torture against detainees by any American personnel anywhere?
Some commentators have expressed shock and indignation at the mere prospect of United States officials debating whether this nation should employ torture methods. The reality is that torture, while never openly touted as a method of persuasion, has certainly been an element of U.S. tactics since well before the horrors of Abu Ghraib.
As we reported a year ago (NCR, Nov. 5, 2004) the CIA spearheaded significant research on interrogation techniques and psychological torture through the 1950s and early 1960s. By the late 1950s, according to Alfred McCoy, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an expert in CIA torture methods, the agency was paying $1 billion a year for such research.
In an interview with NCR last year, McCoy described the photos of torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq as snapshots of CIA torture techniques that have metastasized over the last 50 years like an undetected cancer inside the U.S. intelligence community.
The CIA produced a number of manuals used in Central America, for instance. And six manuals, linked to a CIA program, were used the U.S. Armys School of the Americas and distributed across Latin America by Army Mobile Training Teams in the 1980s. They advocated torture techniques as well as executions of guerrillas, extortion, coercion and false imprisonment.
The U.S. intelligence community, having taught the techniques, certainly knew they were being used. The thousands of Catholics and others who demonstrated last month at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga., newly constituted as the U.S. Armys Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, know the unvarnished truth. So does Ursuline Sr. Dianna Ortiz, who spoke recently in the Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., diocese on the anniversary of the deaths of the four women church workers 25 years ago in El Salvador (see story, see photo essay). Ortiz was abducted and tortured in Guatemala in 1989. In recent years she has worked to expose torture and to advocate for its victims.
Finally, the two dozen or so activists, mostly Catholic Workers, who took off from Santiago de Cuba on a 50-mile walk to the U.S. prison camp at Guantánamo, also call attention to the treatment of prisoners and plan to seek a meeting with hunger-striking detainees.
They say they are taking seriously President Bushs earlier invitation to those raising questions about prison conditions to go to Guantánamo to check out conditions for themselves.
The current discussion of whether the United States uses torture and whether it should be allowed at least acknowledges the reality but is deeply disturbing. Plying the political thickets of the debate is an exercise somewhat akin to walking a minefield to determine if it is dangerous.
In all of this, the Catholic Workers, the protesters in Georgia, Ortiz and the growing ranks working against the use of torture understand the stark truth of it. Well stand with them. Torture is wrong. No country should condone it under any circumstances. And certainly the lone superpower making such protestations about the spread of democracy should not practice it.
National Catholic Reporter, December 16, 2005
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