Friday, May 14, 2004

De Oppresso Libre?

This blog thing is supposed to be fun and light-hearted. My intention was to establish a place where I could vent my spleen and release the steam valve in my head. I was going to amuse myself by skewering politicians of all shades on both sides of the Atlantic. Someday soon I’ll be able to set aside the grave and horrific news that clogs the airwaves and newspapers and pick on the less consequential things in life, like Mel Gibson. But over in Iraq real life has become as po-faced and sadomasochistic as The Passion of the Christ and the gags are few and far between. So bear with me a while, as this time I’ve run out of reasons to procrastinate and I’m plunging back into the torture story.

As I guessed in my first post on the subject, the exposure of the horror and betrayal in Abu Ghraib Prison was just the scab on top of the whole festering sore. Despite the best efforts to pass off the Iraq torture allegations as the twisted work of a “few bad apples” (remember how wholesale corporate fraud was dismissed as “a few bad apples?”) it appears that the institutional rot might have taken the form of orders, direct or implied, that sanctioned the mistreatment of prisoners. The vast majority of service personnel currently in Iraq did not perpetrate the abuses. It must be noted however that the vast majority did not have contact with the debased, cowed, and dehumanized prisoners that ended up as the playthings of MPs and mercenaries.

While our appointed jailers in Abu Ghraib amused themselves with shooting the Baghdad version of Girls Gone Wild, forced sodomy, rape, beatings, and murder it appears that their twisted pursuits were common at other detention centers too. This points to at best a willful ignorance by command of the “softening” techniques employed by service personnel in furtherance of orders and policies designed to create pliable interrogation subjects.

At this point it is important to note that there are two intertwined yet distinct types of abuse taking place in Iraq. Firstly, there is the brute, unthinking and obscene exaggerations of hazing undertaken by the guards. More sinister is the more considered torture: the nudity, the hooding, the binding in painful positions, the death threats, and so on. This is a prelude to interrogation and is carefully designed to make a prisoner willing to talk. The Communist Vietnamese did this to American pilots. The Nazis did it to many of their captives too.

Apologists (and there is no other word for their ilk) for these abuses like to point out that this is a war and that war is a dirty business. They say that the Iraqi insurgents and Al Qadea show no mercy, and therefore are not deserving of the protections of a civil society or international treaty.

There are real problems with this smug High School debate champ argument:

1) 70-80% of Iraqi detainees have been wrongfully arrested (in the estimation of US military intelligence.)
2) You can’t have it both ways. Bush declared the war over more than a year ago. Which one is it? An occupation, or a war?
3) We cannot win a fight against barbarism and hate by encouraging barbarism and hate.
4) Isn’t it precisely because we believe our values and protections are worth defending that we are fighting these wars?

Do you realize that despite immense provocation, the allied forces that liberated the concentration camps in 1945 did not beat, abuse, torture, or slaughter the guards they captured? Furthermore, those men were mostly conscripts, not the supposed professional soldiery we have now. Their leaders, from field officers to four stars, understood that righteous anger is all the more powerful when restrained. Why did they get it, and our modern military doesn’t?

The president says that these abuses do not reflect America. Well, to a point. In fact this torture reflects an America, one that co-exists with the kindness, friendliness, and compassion. This is the America that allows the suspension of hard-won international protections in Guantanamo and similar abuses to Abu Graib in Afghanistan. The one that allowed the School of the Americas train generations of South and Central American oppressors. The America that looks the other way as its corporations hire thugs to break unions, beat and assassinate activists, and exploit child labor in the developing world. The America that refuses to apologise for anything that adversely affects fellow humans. The in your face America that rubs the noses of the less fortunate in the dirt. The America that through both unthinking and cynical action allows terrorists to establish the popular support that astounds and offends us so often.

The tragedy is that none of this had to happen. If only the administration had rallied to the values that truly inform the constitution rather than take a “the ends justify the means” approach we would be having an easier time pulling the thorns from our hide. Simply, this torture would have been less likely to happen (compare to the concentration camp example above) if our troops had been fully appraised of the philosophies behind their rights and the government had rallied us to core principles rather than the mall.

In 1941, not long before the USA was forced into the Second World War, President Roosevelt outlined four freedoms that made democracy a system worth fighting for: freedom from fear, freedom of speech, freedom from want, and freedom of worship. Right there, in twelve words, is the bill of rights and the constitution beautifully summarized. How many of these essential freedoms have our ill-considered policies since 9/11 delivered?

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