Thursday, June 16, 2005

Redefining torture and terrorism

Sen. Dick Durbin caused a stir recently when he quoted from an FBI report documenting some of the prisoner abuses that have taken place at Guantanamo.

On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water. Most times they urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18-24 hours or more. On one occasion, the air conditioning had been turned down so far and the temperature was so cold in the room, that the barefooted detainee was shaking with cold. . . . On another occasion, the [air conditioner] had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his hair out throughout the night. On another occasion, not only was the temperature unbearably hot, but extremely loud rap music was being played in the room, and had been since the day before, with the detainee chained hand and foot in the fetal position on the tile floor.

Conservative bloggers have been beside themselves claiming that this treatment does not rise to the level of torture. But what exactly is torture if not this?

Here is a definition we might consider by the "United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment" or UNCAT:

“Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”

The Geneva Convention further specified that prisoners of war “shall in all circumstances be treated humanely and that there must not be any "violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture." or "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment".

It is fairly clear that inmates at Abu Gharib were being tortured on a routine basis. Along with the photos that documented some of the abuses we have the report from Major Gen. Antonio M. Taguba that describes:

”Breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees; pouring cold water on naked detainees; beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair; threatening male detainees with rape; allowing a military police guard to stitch the wound of a detainee who was injured after being slammed against the wall in his cell; sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick, and using military working dogs to frighten and intimidate detainees with threats of attack, and in one instance actually biting a detainee.“

We also have the reports on abuses at Bagram Collection Point in Afghanistan that resulted in the deaths of at least two detainees - one of whom was widely believed to have been innocent of any involvement in military action against the U.S.

Conservatives who continue to defend these systematic abuses argue that such treatment is necessary if we are to defend ourselves against future 9/11-like terrorist attacks.
But while you might be able to make a case for harsh treatment in some limited circumstances where we have captured a top lieutenant to Osama bin Laden who might have details of a pending terrorist attack, that is not the case with the vast majority of inmates at Guantanamo and elsewhere. Many of these prisoners being subjected to this treatment are not top-level members of al-Quaeda, but are at best foot soldiers in the Taliban or the Iraqi insurgency with little useful information to provide. In the worst cases, they have proved to be innocent civilians who were caught up in events and wound up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But the same conservatives who are so ready to give a very narrow definition of torture, like to use a very broad definition of the word terrorist. Everyone at Guantanamo is a “terrorist” as is anyone in Iraq who is opposed to our occupation of that country. By labeling them as such we make them accountable for not just 9/11, but for all of the suicide attacks and roadside bombings that have plagued Iraq since the beginning of our occupation. And thus we are free to torture them as much as we want because they are not worthy of humane treatment. And anybody who challenges their treatment is faced with the Bush/Darth Vader dictum: “You are either with us, or you are our enemy.”

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