January 10, 2004

The Guardian: An "Experiment" In Global Repression

UPDATE: Thanks to everyone who sent in this article from the Atlantic.

Check out this op-ed gracing the Guardian's opinion pages today.

Louise Christian, the lawyer who penned the piece describes Guantanamo, Bagram and similar facilities as something akin to sinister Mengele-like "experiment(s)".

"Worldwide, the experiment is becoming the norm. It has been estimated that at least 15,000 people are being held without trial under the justification of the "war on terrorism". They include more than 3,000 detained in Iraq after the war, of whom at least 1,000 are still in detention; an estimated further 1,000 to 3,000 detained at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan; and an unknown number being held on the British territory of Diego Garcia.

Bagram is a CIA interrogation centre, practising "stress and duress" or "torture lite". An investigation has reportedly begun there after the deaths of two prisoners in suspicious circumstances. US personnel stationed at Bagram have described the regular practice of sensory deprivation and sleep starvation, as well as incidents of throwing prisoners against walls while hooded."

This is a very complex area. On the one hand, we have compelling national interests to try to extract as much information as we can from al-Qaeda detainees. On the other, we would likely consider it "un-American," as the saying goes, to torture detainees (or knowingly transfer them to locales where we are reasonably certain they will be tortured).

The best article I've yet seen on this matter was in the Washington Post a while back. It's a must read, despite being a bit dated, and deserves much wider attention (particularly the practice of 'rendering' detainees to third countries--including, in one case, Syria--for further interrogation as well as the extent of post-capture 'roughing' up of detainees).

Clearly, the Guardian op-ed writer relied, in large part, on the WaPo article for her information. But as so often, those writing in the Guardian get a bit carried away.

Here's the kicker:

"It is of grave concern that the example being set by the US and the UK is being used to legitimise repression internationally on an ever-increasing scale. From China, which has imprisoned up to 100 Chinese Muslims without trial, to Uzbekistan (up to 1,000), Yemen (200), Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, India and Indonesia, this alarming lead is being eagerly followed. In Israel and Chechnya, there would be far more people in prison without trial had not the authorities there taken matters one step further and authorised extra-judicial killings. They were safe in the knowledge that the US government boasted last year of killing alleged al-Qaida members in Yemen."

This, of course, fits the typical Guardian readers's prejudices quite well.

It's the U.S., in this Alice-in-Wonderland topsy-turvy universe, that is leading the global community towards a grotesque legitimation of repression on an international scale.

You didn't know?

Countries like China, Saudi Arabia and Yemen are now following the U.S. "lead."

Before, as you may not be aware, the human rights records of such countries were pristine--until the brutish Yanks entered the picture to muck it all up by provision of such a rogueish example.

And Yet

Still, more transparency in terms of our treatment of detainees wouldn't be a bad thing--especially in cases where detainees (as may have occurred at Bagram) appeared to have died while in captivity. We, of course, do need to know the circumstances surrounding such incidents.

You know, when I think of these issues, I harken back to a conversation with a NYC cabbie sometime around November '01. I think there may have been a rumor floating about that UBL was about to be captured.

The cabbie suggested that, if caught, UBL be "rendered" to Ground Zero--where he might then be literally torn to bits by crowds of New Yorkers. He was dead serious--and a lot of us felt these types of crude rumblings for revenge then and even now.

Unlike Howard Dean, I've got no big hang ups about UBL's guilt. For one, the videotape showing him expressing giddy surprise that the WTC actually crumbled went a long way towards, you know, convincing me that he may have had a minor role to play in the whole affair....

Still, our appeal as a society, our strength as a polity--revolves around striking a fair balance as between ensuring our national security and protection of our civil liberties.

Yes, the constitution, to use Justice Robert Jackson's memorable phrase, isn't a suicide pact and never can be. But torture is a slippery slope.

Like a reforming alcoholic tippling the bottle--throwing hooded detainees into walls and transferring detainees to countries that have used torture extensively in the past take us a ways towards some pretty perilous straits.

On balance, given the extraordinairy times we find ourselves in (with coerced information perhaps helping stem another 9/11 or the like), nothing I read in that WaPo article has me concluding we are in flagrant disregard of the relevant human rights norms--at least not in term of systemic, official policy:

"According to present and former officials with firsthand knowledge, the CIA's authoritative Directorate of Operations instructions, drafted in cooperation with the general counsel, tells case officers in the field that they may not engage in, provide advice about or encourage the use of torture by cooperating intelligence services from other countries.

"Based largely on the Central American human rights experience," said Fred Hitz, former CIA inspector general, "we don't do torture, and we can't countenance torture in terms of we can't know of it." But if a country offers information gleaned from interrogations, "we can use the fruits of it."

Bush administration officials said the CIA, in practice, is using a narrow definition of what counts as "knowing" that a suspect has been tortured. "If we're not there in the room, who is to say?" said one official conversant with recent reports of renditions." [emphasis added]

But, as I said, a slippery slope.

Regardless, the issue merits wider attention--not just by leftist lawyers in the UK trying to score cheap, hyperbolic anti-U.S. points with their arguments descending into Guardianesque caricature--but by more concerned Americans taking a hard look at how the war on terror is being prosecuted in the Bagrams of the world.

Posted by Gregory at January 10, 2004 02:35 PM
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