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Torture and Mr. Obama

Okay, at least some things are settled. When George W. Bush said “The United States does not torture”, everyone now knows it was crapaganda. And when Barack Obama, a month into his presidency, said “The United States does not torture”, it likewise had all the credibility of a 19th century treaty between the US government and the American Indians.

When Obama and his followers say, as they do repeatedly, that he has “banned torture”, this is a statement they have no right to make. The executive orders concerning torture leave loopholes, such as being applicable only “in any armed conflict”. What about in a “counter-terrorism” environment? And the new administration has not categorically banned the outsourcing of torture, such as renditions, the sole purpose of which is to kidnap people and send them to a country to be tortured. Moreover, what do we know of all the CIA secret prisons, the gulag extending from Poland to the island of Diego Garcia?

How many of them are still open and abusing and torturing prisoners, keeping them in total isolation and in indefinite detention? Total isolation by itself is torture; not knowing when, if ever, you will be released is torture. And the non-secret prisons? Has Guantanamo ended all its forms of torture? There’s reason to doubt that. And what do we know of what’s happening now in Abu Ghraib and Bagram?

And when Obama says “I don’t believe that anybody is above the law”, and then acts in precisely the opposite fashion, despite overwhelming evidence of criminal torture — such as the recently leaked report of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Bush Justice Department “torture memos” — it’s enough to break the heart of any of his fans who possess more than a minimum of intellect and conscience.

It should be noted that a Gallup Poll of April 24/25 showed that 66 per cent of Democrats favored an “investigation into harsh interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects”. If the word “torture” had been used in the qestion, the figure would undoubtedly have been higher.

Following the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003, President Bush went on TV to warn the people of Iraq: “War crimes will be prosecuted. War criminals will be punished. And it will be no defense to say, I was just following orders.”

“Objectively, the American public is much more responsible for the crimes committed in its name than were the people of Germany for the horrors of the Third Reich. We have far more knowledge, and far greater freedom and opportunity to stop our government’s criminal behavior,” observed James Brooks in the Online Journal in 2007.

On February 10, the Obama Justice Department used the Bush administration’s much-reviled “state secrets” tactic in a move to have a lawsuit dismissed — filed by five detainees against a subsidiary of Boeing aircraft company for arranging rendition flights which led to their torture. “It was as if last month’s inauguration had never occurred”, observed the New York Times.

And when Obama says, as he does repeatedly, “We need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards”, why is it that no one in the media asks him what he thinks of the Nuremberg Tribunal looking backwards in 1946? Or the Church Committee of the US Senate doing the same in 1975 and producing numerous revelations about the criminality of the CIA, FBI, and other government agencies that shocked and opened the eyes of the American people and the world?
We’re now told that Obama and his advisers had recently been fiercely debating the question of what to do about the Bush war criminals, with Obama going one way and then another and then back again, both in private and in his public stands. One might say that he was “tortured”.

But civilized societies do not debate torture. Why didn’t the president just do the obvious? The simplest? The right thing? Or at least do what he really believes.

The problem, I’m increasingly afraid, is that the man doesn’t really believe strongly in anything, certainly not in controversial areas. He learned a long time ago how to take positions that avoid controversy, how to express opinions without clearly and firmly taking sides, how to talk eloquently without actually saying anything, how to leave his listeners’ heads filled with stirring clichés, platitudes, and slogans. And it worked. Oh how it worked! What could happen now, as President of the United States, to induce him to change his style?

The president and the Director of the CIA both insist that no one at the CIA who was relying on the Justice Department’s written legal justification of methods of “enhanced interrogation” should be punished. But the first such approval was dated August 1, 2002, while many young men were arrested in Afghanistan and Pakistan during the previous nine months and subjected to “enhanced interrogation”. Many were sent to Guantanamo as early as January 2002. And many others were kidnaped and sent to Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and other secret prisons to be tortured beginning in late 2001. So, at least for some months, the torturers were not acting under any formal approval of their methods. But they still will not be punished.

I love that expression “enhanced interrogation”. How did our glorious leaders overlook calling the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki “enhanced explosive devices”?

Lord High Dungeon Master Richard Cheney is upset about the recent release of torture memos. He keeps saying that the Obama administration is suppressing documents that show a more positive picture of the effectiveness of interrogation techniques, which he claims produced very valuable information, prevented certain acts of terrorism, and saved American lives. Hmmm, why am I skeptical of this? Oh, I know, because if this is what actually happened and there are documents which genuinely and unambiguously showed such results, the beleaguered Bush administration would have leaked them years ago with great fanfare, and the CIA would not have destroyed numerous videos of the torture sessions.

But in any event, that still wouldn’t justify torture. Humankind has aspired for centuries to tame its worst behaviors; ridding itself of the affliction of torture has been high on that list. There is more than one United States law now prohibiting torture, including a 1994 law making it a crime for US citizens to commit torture overseas. This was recently invoked to convict the son of former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor. There is also the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, ratified in 1949, which states in Article 17:

No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever. Prisoners of war who refuse to answer may not be threatened, insulted, or exposed to any unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind.

Thus it was that the United States has not called the prisoners of its War on Terror “prisoners of war”. But in 1984, another historic step was taken, by the United Nations, with the drafting of the “Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment” (came into force in 1987, ratified by the United States in 1994). Article 2, section 2 of the Convention states:

No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.

Such marvelously clear, unequivocal, and principled language, to set a single standard for a world that makes it increasingly difficult for one to feel proud of humanity. We cannot slide back. If today it’s deemed acceptable to torture the person who supposedly has the vital “ticking-bomb” information needed to save lives, tomorrow it will be acceptable to torture him to learn the identities of his alleged co-conspirators. Would we allow slavery to resume for just a short while to serve some “national emergency” or some other “higher purpose”?

If you open the window of torture, even just a crack, the cold air of the Dark Ages will fill the whole room.

“I would personally rather die than have anyone tortured to save my life.” – Craig Murray, former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, who lost his job after he publicly condemned the Uzbek regime in 2003 for its systematic use of torture.

With all the reports concerning torture under the recent Bush administration, some people may be inclined to think that prior to Bush the United States had very little connection to this awful practice. However, in the period of the 1950s through the 1980s, while the CIA did not usually push the button, turn the switch, or pour the water, the Agency …

encouraged its clients in the Third World to use torture; provided the host country the names of the people who wound up as torture victims, in places as bad as Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and Bagram; supplied torture equipment; conducted classes in torture; distributed torture manuals — how-to books; was present when torture was taking place, to observe and evaluate how well its students were doing.

I could really feel sorry for Barack Obama — for his administration is plagued and handicapped by a major recession not of his making — if he had a vision that was thus being thwarted. But he has no vision — not any kind of systemic remaking of the economy, producing a more equitable and more honest society; nor a world at peace, beginning with ending America’s perennial wars; no vision of the fantastic things that could be done with the trillions of dollars that would be saved by putting an end to war without end; nor a vision of a world totally rid of torture; nor an America with national health insurance; nor an environment free of capitalist subversion; nor a campaign to control world population … he just looks for what will offend the fewest people. He’s a “whatever works” kind of guy. And he wants to be president. But what we need and crave is a leader of vision.

WILLIAM BLUM is the author of Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, Rogue State: a guide to the World’s Only Super Power. and West-Bloc Dissident: a Cold War Political Memoir. He can be reached at: BBlum6@aol.com

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