When allegations of torture or abuse of detainees in the war on terror surface in the press, it is most often in the context of interrogation of suspected terrorists. And many well-meaning Americans find that allows them to avert their eyes, and not worry too much about whatâ€™s going on. Or, to be precise, about whatâ€™s being perpetrated in our name and with our tacit approval.
In a post from last Thursday, Andrew Sullivan points out that when it comes to torturing and brutalizing these prisoners of The War On Terror, we take a back seat to no one. We practice as much casual, pointless brutality as any of the evil regimes from history that we consider ourselves, unquestionably, to be morally superior to:
We also know that some prisoners have been tortured and abused, and many are regularly assaulted, or “IRFed”, for often minor infractions. If you don’t know much about the process of “IRFing,” read this. Eric Umansky has another excellent post on the subject. A lawyer for one of the prisoners met with his client shortly after such an “IRFing”:
â€œOne of our clients was a mess. He’d been IRF’d a couple of days before and he was sickening to behold. One eye was swollen shut, the other a deep black and blue. Contusions all over his body, cuts on his head and legs. He couldn’t swallow and could barely talk. The “offense” meriting his forcible extraction was that he stepped over a line that they painted in his isolation cell.â€
This is America in the era of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. You can either look the other way or deal with it.
Sullivan also presents this quote from Eric Umanskyâ€™s post. According to a lawyer whoâ€™s been to Guantanamo,
[T]he detainees who hanged themselves last week were in cells where “there’s nothing on the ceiling and the meshing is far too small to allow a sheet or anything to be tied to it. They would have had to slowly strangulate themselves by wrapping a sheet around the toilet bowl or something like that.”
Try wrapping your mind around that. How desperate does someone have to be, to be able to commit suicide like that, by slow self-strangulation? How can any form of punishment that drives a prisoner to take his own life like that not constitute cruel and unusual punishment? Or maybe it calls for stronger language than that hallowed phrase, designed as it was for a nobler day and age. How about inhumane and unconscionable?
Of the three Guantanamo prisoners who killed themselves, leave aside the two for whom it is not clear to us at this point whether they were actually terrorists or not. One of them has been certified by the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Pace military to be innocent. We, the United States of America, the cradle of democracy and grand champions of freedom and liberty and justice for all, the unquestionably all-round good guys in our own eyes, have so far forgotten ourselves that we deliberately and consciously and systematically, as a matter of policy, treat possibly innocent prisoners in such unspeakably obscene ways as to drive them to take their own lives in such a manner? And we do this, with no sense of irony whatsover, in the name of freedom and liberty and justice.
How have we managed to fall so far beneath even the cruelly oppressive regimes of history that we have always considered ourselves morally superior to? Is there, for example, a single recorded instance of even the worst excesses of the Soviet gulags driving someone to kill themselves in such a desperate manner? What exactly have we now managed to make ourselves the new grand world champions of?
And yet we have no national outrage over these suicides, no national sense of absolute horror and utter shame for the treatment that drove these men to these deaths.
How can we look in the mirror and tell ourselves we have not become as monstrous as these monsters we claim to fight in the war on terror? Especially when our Guantanamo generals and our Deputy Assistant Secretaries of State go before the press, and far from displaying any trace of collective institutional remorse, they make such chillingly contemptuous remarks about the suicides. (The English language doesn’t even have any standard phrases to do justice to their conduct. How woefully inadequate is “adding insult to injury”?) And how could these sorry excuses for Americans say what they said? Only because they were confident they would not invite our disapproval. What that unconscionably stupid general and that unconscionably stupid Deputy Assistant Secretary of State did through their statements was they stood up before the whole world, and they said: this is how monstrous I think the American people are at this point in this war. I can say this, and I will still have my job tomorrow.
If the Decider-in-Chief doesn’t wake up from his delusional moral torpor and decide to have their jobs right away, and to change our prisoner treatment policies, and if our opinion leaders in Congress and in the media and in public life generally don’t wake up and press the Decider-in-Chief to act on both counts, then it really doesn’t matter what happens from here on out in the war on terror. In every meaningful sense, the terrorists will have already won.
And George W. Bush better start facing up to the fact that when he goes into that long eternity in which we must all face up to who we really were and what we really did, neither rhetoric nor smirking nor Karl Rove will carry him to where he would dearly love to be. Unless he gets his act together pretty damn fast, he’s going to the other place. And as he steps across the portal, the welcome mat they put out just for him will surely say: The Buck Stops Here, Sucker.