Saturday, May 07, 2005

AMERICA- LAND OF THE FREE, HOME OF THE... TORTURERS?



Is this the image of America's "moral values" we want to send to the rest of the world?


(This column ran in 5-13-05 THE ALBANY (Ga.) JOURNAL)

If The Albany Herald were to walk into a psychiatrist’s office and ask for a diagnosis, the likely result would be “schizophrenia.” How else to explain how a newspaper can run op-ed columnists who don’t just have different opinions about issues, but have different realities as well? The latest head scratcher came last week from Cal Thomas, who, lacking real life experiences on which to justify his column in praise of torture, had to resort to a scene from a fictional television series, “24” (from Fox, naturally), in which the hero has to torture a prisoner to locate a terrorist who has stolen the President’s nuclear launch codes. In stark contrast, a few months ago the Herald ran an Ellen Goodman column in which she took President Bush to task for his breathtaking hypocrisy in his second Inaugural Address. His exhortation to the country to be the beacon of liberty and democracy around the world stunned Ms. Goodman, who asked: “Does liberty coexist with torture?”

We Americans like to think well of ourselves. We sing songs about how wonderful we are- part of the title of this column is composed from the last words of the Star Spangled Banner (not “play ball,” as I mistakenly believed growing up). Here in America on holiday after holiday we celebrate our freedoms and pay tribute to the concept of human rights and those who fought for our freedom. So what on earth are we doing having our military running prisons in Cuba, Iraq, and Afghanistan where we have physically and mentally tortured human beings, violating fundamental human rights guaranteed by our Constitution, the Geneva Conventions, and international law?

Bob Herbert, the New York Times columnist, writes of Aidan Delgado, an army reservist stationed at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq who was so sickened by the abuse of inmates that he finally turned in his weapon and successfully sought conscientious objector status. “The violence there was sickening,” Delgado said. “Some inmates were beaten nearly to death.” And once we allow our military to slide down the slippery slope of dehumanizing our opponents, other atrocities are virtually inevitable. Outside of the Abu Ghraib prison walls, Delgado witnessed one soldier whipping children with an antenna from a Humvee and another who viciously kicked a six year old child in the chest.

Worse yet- if it’s possible to get worse than the murders and human rights abuses carried out under our name at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib- are the murders and tortures carried out by our surrogates. The New York Times reports that the United States has used countries like Uzbekistan to torture prisoners. Imagine for one moment that a loved one has been snatched up by the CIA or special forces and “renditioned” to lovely Uzbekistan, where he or she will be greeted by the following welcome:

“State Department officials wrote, noting that the most common techniques were "beating, often with blunt weapons, and asphyxiation with a gas mask." Separately, international human rights groups had reported that torture in Uzbek jails included boiling of body parts, using electroshock on genitals and plucking off fingernails and toenails with pliers. Two prisoners were boiled to death, the groups reported. The February 2001 State Department report stated bluntly, "Uzbekistan is an authoritarian state with limited civil rights."”

As Americans, we have to ask: who are we now? Are we like Cal Thomas, who is willing to let his irrational fears from a fictional TV show trump his sense of human decency and any concerns for the Bush Administration’s vaunted “culture of life?” Thank goodness we are not remotely close to a Nazi Germany, with a planned Holocaust which murdered millions. The evil we do is done from a different atavistic corner of our brains, and when the evidence is overwhelming- as it was when digital photographs appeared in the media last year- we will even prosecute the lowest level underlings involved. But that is scant consolation to those who have suffered the horrors inflicted in our name.

Many Americans are rightfully outraged by the violations of human rights by their government. But after more than a year, right thinking people have to ask why no one has been held accountable other than the lowest level guards at Abu Ghraib- the latest being Army Pfc. Lynndie England, who famously was photographed holding a dog leash attached to a naked Iraqi prisoner. With this albatross around our collective necks, our complaints about human rights violations in other nations, including Syria, China and North Korea, ring hollow. It should be embarrassing to us that their dictators can now accurately tell us to get our own house in order before we rebuke them for their human rights abuses. Our glass house now covers officially sanctioned tortures, murders and violations of every law we profess to revere, from the Constitution on down.

Those who agree with Cal Thomas argue that we can’t afford to play by our civilized rules in an uncivilized world where fanatics take hostages and cut off their heads on video aired on the Internet. Those who value our country’s ideals respond that America has faced all kinds of obstacles in its history- invasion by the British in 1812 who burned the White House, a Civil War, and two opponents- Nazis and Communists- in the 20th century who murdered millions in their quests for world domination. Yet never before have we officially thrown off the self imposed restraints of human decency, respect for our own laws, and regard for human rights, as we did with the famous January 2002 memo by then White House counsel (now Attorney General) Alberto Gonzalez, which provided the legal cover for torture of prisoners taken in Afghanistan, and later, Iraq. Gonzalez called the strictures of the Geneva Convention “quaint” and “anachronistic” as he left a huge loophole for mistreatment of prisoners under the cover of “military necessity.”

To Cal Thomas I say: the faceless, mostly nameless opponents we face now are a paltry threat compared to the great nations which opposed us over the last 65 years, and we lower ourselves to think that we need to abandon all we profess to hold dear to defeat them.

As for the rest of us, we can ignore what’s out there and complain about gasoline prices and Michael Jackson’s defense while we provide the cash that fuels the countries in the Middle East that hate us and what we used to stand for. But the old saying still holds: evil triumphs when good people do nothing. I wrote this column and I’ll continue to publicly stand up for human rights. What are you going to do?

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