Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Torture: Doing The Dirty Work

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

On June 6th, the last day of the Hillary-Obama battle, fifty-six Democrats in the House of Representatives asked the Attorney General for an immediate investigation into whether Bush and Company were in violation of "the War Crimes Act ... and other U.S. and international laws."

Their letter charged new information had surfaced about top level meetings at the White House specifically approving the use of "enhanced techniques" like waterboarding. "President Bush was aware of and approved of the meetings taking place." "... the Bush administration may have systematically implemented, from the top down, detainee interrogation policies that constitute torture or otherwise violate the law."

As far as I know their request is dead in the water. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi didn't sign on. Their effort didn't make the front or even last page of the New York Times. I wouldn't have know about it all if I hadn't seen an old Nat Hentoff column in the Village Voice. He's like an anti-torture prophet crying in the wilderness, with a lot less effect. Abu Ghraib was swept under the rug with a few prosecutions of low level grunts, and Guantanamo only comes up when one more disgusted prosecutor resigns over unethical practices in the military tribunals.

Maybe Americans are blase because they've seen James Bond tortured too many times. He stands it easily, escapes, has a cocktail, and saves the world. Or maybe it's that we've tortured before with total impunity. The CIA was so good at it, they spent most of the 70's helping the right-wing governments of Latin America hold back the evil tide of Communism with a few nicely placed electrodes.

In Chile alone we helped Augusto Pinochet murder three thousand lefties, some pursued beyond their borders by death squads from the intelligence services. Thirty thousand or so were tortured with our help.

We Americans now indulge in our own kidnappings, our own disappearances and torture and murders, this time to keep America safe from terrorists. As I sit comfortably in front of my computer there's a man in a cell somewhere, battered and terrified. In fact, there are thousands of them whose excruciating physical pain is carefully redoubled with uncertainty, terror, and solitude. All in the name of my safety. We don't even know where half of them are. Our own security forces have spirited them away to Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Jordan, anywhere they can be tortured without the inconveniences of overstepping American law.

They remind me of those who died particularly horrible deaths on 9/11, trapped in the rubble, talking on cell phones until their batteries died, their voices gradually lost in the darkness, their bodies broken, suffering alone and finally in silence. They died powerless, dehumanized, terrified. For months, their lost faces covered every square inch of telephone pole and mailbox and billboard on First Avenue as relatives begged for information about people who didn't come home after the blast. People just snatched away one morning, a primary election day, under a clear blue sky. Killed by terrorists that never had to look them in the eye.

Torturers are even worse, consciously inflicting horrible suffering, not on faceless masses, but very real prisoners who cry out in real voices begging for pity. These torturers betray an ice-cold degeneration that my country now stands for. They should be locked up, and their criminal commanders tried for treason.

I don't see it happening. As Senator Schumer said, when he was asked about the possibility of bringing Bush to justice for war crimes, "People don't care about that." For getting a blow job in the oval office: national scandal, impeachment. Ditto for partisan spying a la Watergate. For killing and torturing: nada. In fact, shut up. Turn the page. It's a new era with a new President who'll want to start fresh.

For now, justice will require action from abroad. Impunity for Chilean Dictator Augosto Pinochet was only challenged by a judge in Spain, who was investigating the torture and murder of Spanish nationals in Chile. When the British police actually arrested Pinochet ten years ago during a trip to London for back surgery, it was an earthquake, a landmark, one of the first exercises of universal jurisdiction since that was included in the UN Convention on Genocide in 1948. The arrest helped propel The Hague's International Criminal Court into existence in 2002. And everywhere, it pointed the way to justice.

In 2005, an Italian court issued arrest warrants for twenty-five CIA agents responsible for snatching an Egyptian cleric off the streets of Milan and flying him to Egypt where he was tortured during interrogation. In 2007, a Munich court issued warrants for similar reasons. Also that year, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld beat a quick retreat from France when his visit there inspired a torture suit against him.

Still, it would be better if we washed our own dirty laundry. There's plenty of evidence, just not the will to risk our delicate hands in that filth.

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