Aghast but not surprised by abuse of Iraqi detainees

It’s okay to feel disgusted about the abuse our forces clearly inflicted on Iraqi prisoners and detainees at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. However it should not come as a surprise. Our intelligence agencies have been engaging in what amounts to torture since at least 9/11, despite the United States having signed international conventions saying we would never do such things. The rules of interrogation have changed. Tactics that at one time were considered out of bounds — like chronic sleep deprivation, and loud and random noises at all hours — are now standard interrogation procedures. It appears that in at least Iraq we don’t think twice about hooding suspects for days at a time, burying them in the sand up to their necks or expecting them to survive in a desert country on one bottle of water a day.

If there is anything good about this horrible situation it is that it occurred in Iraq. Why? Because Iraq is reasonably accessible to the press. There such information could at least get out. But these sorts of tactics, while egregious, are likely the tip of a much larger iceberg of more ordinary torture we inflict on our enemies. Most of us would not inflict these on our worst enemies. But they now seem to be part of the military intelligence officer’s handbook.

Some will accuse organizations like Amnesty International of being shrill. Shrill perhaps, but at least they are impartial. They call a spade a spade. When they find out governments are oppressing humans about it they will publicize it. And unfortunately the United States, in their view, has been engaged in torture for many years now.

It appears that we have adopted tactics used by one of our best friends: Israel. Their tactics, reported years ago on 60 Minutes still appear to be going on today, despite prohibitions by the Israeli Supreme Court. There is compelling evidence that the United States is emulating our friend Israel’s successful interrogation techniques. While most of the world has called these tactics torture, Israel continues to insists they are not torture. As there have been cases of Israeli agents unintentionally torturing suspects to death, there are at least two confirmed cases in Iraq where our forces have done the same. One case occurred in the Abu Ghraib prison.

Where we might leave physical marks but need the information anyhow we often find a legal way to clearly skirt the bounds of international law by farming our suspects out to countries without any scruples. There are documented cases of the United States transferring suspects to Egypt, where our own State Department says electric shocks are routinely administered, or to Syria, where ripping fingernails off is a standard method of torture. “We don’t kick the [expletive] out of them,” one official told the Washington Post. “We send them to other countries so they can kick the [expletive] out of them.” Many of our suspects are officially in Pakistani custody where our laws do not apply but where torture is routine.

Some would argue that indefinite detention is in itself a form of torture. See it in places like Guantanamo Bay, where suspects have no rights, no access to lawyers or family and will likely be subject to trial by military tribunal “justice”. But we have many places where our suspects cannot be seen. They are in places like Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, or in Pakistani military facilities where the press cannot visit.

It seems like we have embraced the notion that the end justifies the means. This must stop. We cannot claim to be for peace, human rights and democracy while engaging in the tactics of brutality and fascism.

There is a way out. We must open it all up. Neutral third parties like the Red Cross and Amnesty International must regularly inspect our detention facilities and prisons. We must repeal those portions of the Patriot Act that allowed these abuses to occur. We must explicitly curb the power of the president to indefinitely detain anyone. For a war sold on good vs. evil, we must show that we live the values of a state that believes human rights, freedom and civil liberties are good for all.

But now we must go the extra mile. President Bush must personally apologize to those we have injured and the families of those we have unlawfully murdered, and to the people of Iraq. He must state clearly what we will do to make sure these events never occur again and he must follow through with concrete actions verified by nonbiased third parties.

I am afraid we have irretrievably lost the respect of the Iraqi people. But it is never too late to learn from our mistakes. These events horrid as they are should be a wake up call to America. We have slid too far down the slippery slope. We should feel ashamed and we should make sincere and meaningful contrition. We should vow that no matter how bad our war on terrorism becomes, we will not throw away our most cherished values in the process. We must not lose our national soul in order to win a larger war.

Update 5/15/04:

This New Yorker Magazine article connects the dots and validates my main points.

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