The issue of torture is important in the political race this Fall in the United States. Even the local, the time frame, and the methodology have been circumscribed. There are many human rights organizations concerned with the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, less if the subject is the prisons elsewhere, or renditions to foreign countries, still less, or not at all, about the reaction to our practices in other parts of the globe. Somehow, once the prison is closed down at Guantanamo Bay, our dark period, when U.S. officials wrote memos reinterpreting the law and international treaties, when cabinet members worked out which technique would be done next, when a national debate raged for months over whether or not strapping a man to a board, covering his head with a towel, lowering his head below his feet, and pouring water into his nose and mouth until he started to drown, was torture, will be over. Somehow once those 270 inmates are repatriated, or moved to U.S. supermax prisons, or whatever is supposed to happen to them, a foul chapter in American history will be over, and everyone can concentrate on their own happiness, on the gas prices and the values of their homes, on good jobs and quality health care once again, like, well like they have been doing all along.
To be sure, it is important to put torture into the litany, to add it to the list of things to be fixed when the big change comes. To be sure, it is also important that whoever is elected in the United States be against torture. To be sure, it is also important that the military commissions be criticized for the mock justice that they are, that the details of what has been done to Mohammed Jawad must be enunciated by Major David Frakt eloquently, for the world to know what has happened to these boys. To be sure, we must close down the prison that has become the symbol of American human rights abuse at Guantanamo Bay.
And so torture is an important issue in the political race this Fall in the United States. Too important to talk about. In a parody of what elections in democratic societies are all about, the issues that are the most important ones facing the United States in the Fall of 2008 are those which are receiving the least attention. There is perhaps no greater indication of the feel good nature of American discourse, than that precisely those subjects which cause the most pain to listen to, precisely those for which Americans are faced with stark choices and grave implications, precisely those issues for which our forbears fought and died, for which many in this world would still fight and die, which do the most to define us, our character, our mettle, our sense of responsibility to our country and to our world, are those which may not be mentioned, unless in passing, unless as one in a list of epithets, unless there is another subject to which the speaker or the media can quickly segue, fearful that the magic which sells will fail to sell if the buyer hears something discordant, a break in the façade, a breach in the fabric of the wonderful life.
What matters elsewhere
But torture and human rights are an important election issue outside the U.S. How the U.S. chooses to repudiate these recent practices is important to other countries. How the U.S. chooses to uphold its treaties, whether the perpetrators of grave injury to the minds and bodies of citizens of other countries will be prosecuted matters elsewhere. A delegation from the Pakistani Senate will arrive in the U.S. this month, they had asked to meet with the Pakistanis interned in Guantanamo Bay. They have been refused. They will meet with Aafia Siddiqui, maybe. They have been told U.S. officials have no objection to the meeting, but she has not met with many people, because a strip search is a pre-requisite for such meetings. And the fact that Bush administration officials do not object to the meeting is secondary to the permission of the MDC prison in Brooklyn where she is held. Khalid Hasan, in the Pakistani Daily Times, vents frustration over both proposed meetings, calling the meeting with Siddiqui a "consolation prize", and wondering what it will accomplish. Exactly why members of a foreign government which is said to be an ally of the U.S. cannot meet with their nationals at Guantanamo is a mystery -- or not.
In truth, Pakistan has been through more than a few upheavals since February 2007 over the fate of its nationals who have disappeared. Ms. Siddiqui is only a poster child for these, a well known figure and someone who would have seemed above the fray to Pakistanis, because of her gender and education. She symbolizes the plight of the 580 or possibly thousands, of missing people, taken by the government, and handed over, at least so it is believed, to the United States for torture. As the U.S. deepens its penetrations into Pakistan, and enunciates a doctrine of not requesting permission to fight on either side of the border, the level of anger over people the Pakistanis are sure have been tortured, is not something that can be dismissed.
Across the border in Afghanistan, a country that went from 600 or so prisoners before the U.S. invaded to close to 15,000 now, the issue of imprisonment and abuse under U.S. control is also prominent. While the candidates in America debate how many more brigades will solve every problem in Afghanistan, debate whether or not the Iraq war drew off so many resources that the effort there is slowly failing, and debate the policy of incursions into Pakistan which has so many Pakistanis up in arms, a very clear statement on locking up Afghans in prisons at American direction was made in Kandahar last June. On June 13th, at around 10 pm, the Afghani Taliban assaulted the prison there with suicide bombs and armed men on motorcycles. They set free perhaps a thousand prisoners.
Americans, perhaps, concentrate on the 400 Taliban that were released, the danger they pose, and the Taliban freeing their own. The deeper message is that many local Afghans were waiting as the prisoners walked out of the prison, looking for their relatives, rejoicing over reuniting with them, and thankful, perhaps for the first time, to the Taliban militias who set them free. It went this way once before. When the British were wearing out their welcome in Afghanistan, the first step in a rebellion that ended in beheadings of British officers, was freeing Afghans from British prison. The conditions of the prisons that have been filled under U.S. control is frightening. Even the U.S. military does not consider most of them fit for housing any prisoner except on an interim (two week) basis, yet prisoners are kept in pens there for months. There are reports of abuse, use of the exposure to the elements to effect sleep deprivation, pouring water over inmates' exposed skin in the winter so that it will freeze. Sleep deprivation, exposure to heat and cold, causing injuries, softening up prisoners for interrogation. Torture is an issue in these prisons too, and there have been transfers to Afghan prisons from elsewhere, as the Supreme Court of the United States has gradually clamped down on Guantanamo, and the legal theories that held that it was beyond the law (B. Olshansky, Democracy Detained). Afghanistan is the new Guantanamo, it is much bigger, more abusive, and it is still unclear whether those Supreme Court decisions apply.
In Europe, torture is an issue, American torture. Philippe Sands' book The Torture Team reflects this, as does the demands of the high court there to MI5 to relinquish information on British government complicity, and the finding that MI5 was complicit in the torture of Binyam Mohammed (Sands was involved in arguing this case as well). In Germany and France, there are efforts to bring charges for torture against American officials. The latest poll by the BBC showing that most countries in the world have definite preferences in the upcoming U.S. elections, combined with the knowledge that these preferences come from wanting a change from the current foreign policy, cannot be devoid of feelings about the tortures and abuses that have come to light.
Even in countries that are known for their harsh abuse and torture of prisoners, there is a desire that America be not among the torture states. An editorial on the Aafia Siddiqui case last month in the Arab News, the editors invoke America's Founding Fathers, and then the human rights doctrine which America has championed in the past:
This is yet another instance of how, in their zeal to fight terror, the US authorities are undermining the ideals and values that once inspired America’s Founding Fathers. More important, they are trampling on everything that the world has come to view as sacrosanct, from the rule of law to human rights to a fair trial, as enshrined in the UN Human Rights Charter and Geneva Conventions.While candidates vie for testimonials on patriotism in America, it is tough to have our own core values and Founding Fathers invoked back to us, as a plea from Saudi Arabia, not to "play into
the hands of terrorists by confirming the worst things they say about their enemies in general and the West in particular."
Those for whom it is paramount
There is one group of Americans who are completely focussed on the issue of torture during this election cycle, you can be sure of it. There is the group for whom it is the paramount issue, and far exceeds the importance of anything else. That would be the group which, in the world as it should be, would be prosecuted for the acts of torture committed under color of U.S. law, by the military, and those who, above all, created the system, approved its application, and directed the implementation of the plan.
These are people who will not go gently into the night, should a new government have no place for them. Darius Rejali warns of such people (Darius Rejali, Torture and Democracy), invoking the Battle of Algiers, and the fall of the Fourth Republic in France. When Henri Alleg's La Question hit France, and after the claims of its untruth fell one by one, the French were faced with only one conclusion. There are, Rejali claims, only two things that a democracy can do: It can reconcile itself to the cruelties of torture, which plants the seed of its destruction through loss of its moral authority, or it can face an attempt by the perpetrators to usurp power, in order that they can avoid prosecution. Some democracies are, truthfully, already gone by the time the torture occurs. Upon restoration, they may purge themselves of what has been done in the national name. Luis Moreno-Ocampo, currently the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, describes this process in the movie Darfur Now, in Argentina, where they put the military junta members on trial. Moreno-Ocampo was the deputy prosecutor.
Many of the names and faces associated with the torture regime in the United States have been in power circles in the U.S. for quite some time. Some, mostly political operatives, harken back to the Nixon administration. Some were staff in the White House during Gerald Ford's term. Many were involved, either directly or indirectly, in the Iran-Contra scandal in the Reagan administration, or in efforts to create loopholes in the fabric of international humanitarian law at that time. And some were new to this administration. Many are young.
All of these people need the protection of the government. They need to either have an ironclad provision that they will never be prosecuted, or they need a continuation of the current government to the extent that their participation in government will protect them. There is a wider diaspora of people involved. There are prisoners. What will happen to the prisoners in Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the world, under the next administration? There are calls to close Guantanamo, yes. But the prisoners, in many plans, would be transferred to American supermax prisons. Those are the prisons cited by the Commission Against Torture for -- well -- torture. There is an international incident festering in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn over the treatment of Aafia Siddiqui with regards to strip searches. Sexual degradation and abuse was also cited by the Commission Against Torture.
In short, there are people who have nothing to lose by doing whatever is necessary to prevent the exposure and prosecution of torture here in the United States. There are domestic issues that will follow any of the solutions proposed by either major candidate for closing Guantanamo into the international arena: It may seem a solution to move the nationals of other countries from Cuba to prisons in the U.S., but this means international scrutiny on the very prisons which violate international norms. The American public may be doubly surprised to learn that the rest of the world will believe we torture as a matter of course, if we do that.
One way or another, then, the issue of torture is among the most important to be discussed this Fall in the United States. And the discussion should not wait until after the election. We need to know more than whether a candidate opposes torture. That isn't enough while thousands of prisoners wait in abusive pens. It isn't enough while thousands of relatives wait for word about people who have disappeared. The moral inheritors of the black shawls and photographs of the women who stood every day in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires will be standing in front of American embassies in country after country. To them, those who have done this are no better than those Argentine generals, and deserve equal punishment. We don't just need to know our candidate will feel their pain. We need to know what his plan is to end the torture.