John Buell

The Lessons of Torture

Even as he undertook what is for him the unprecedented step of apologizing, the president unwittingly exposed the conceits underlying his foreign policy. The president has apologized for the treatment of some prisoners in US hands. He promised to get to the bottom of the scandal, while still reassuring the world that the documented cases of torture were isolated instances. Yet almost daily there are new suggestions of high level Pentagon and administration support for or at least complicity in the torture. Until practices in the prisons under US control are thoroughly investigated -- and by outside authorities -- how can one know that the cases are isolated?

Some Democrats in Congress, like Tom Allen in my home state of Maine, have properly called on Congress to do an independent investigation of the torture revelations. There are good reasons why the administration cannot be counted on to run an adequate investigation. The problem is not just that these prisons were under its control and that gross malfeasance would reflect on its competence and integrity. In a more fundamental sense, the way in which these prisons have been managed go to the heart of the Bush agenda.

Neither critics nor supporters should prejudge the outcome of an independent examination. However, there are already several reasons to be concerned. The administration has long taken the position that because the US is a democratic nation and is at war with terrorists, it alone can determine whom it will imprison and under what circumstances it will maintain those prisoners. This posture has had unfortunate consequences. Anthony Lewis pointed out in a recent New York Times column that: "Fear of terrorism has led to harsh departures from normal legal practice at home. Aliens swept off the streets by the Justice Department as possible terrorists after 9/11 were subjected to physical abuse and humiliation by prison guards, the department's inspector general found. Attorney General John Ashcroft did not apologize -- a posture that sent a message."

Any independent investigation of these incidents must also ask just who is receiving these messages. The media have highlighted the possibility that some private contractors assigned prison duty may escape prosecution for their role in the torture incidents. Surely these loopholes in the law need to be filled, but the larger question is the privatization of vital juridical and security functions. The Bush administration has a near religious faith in privatization. Yet it is ironic that while Bush eagerly privatizes schools and hospitals, he does not advocate privatization of the Secret Service. He does not want his own security to depend on hired outside guns. Some functions require sensitivity, judgment, and commitment to the public good. These cannot be bought.

Private contractors asked to run prisons have long fallen far short of minimal commitments to humane values. Not surprisingly, maximizing profits has been their agenda. The London-based Guardian recently carried an interview with a disillusioned interrogation officer: "As the number of suspects sucked into the system exploded, the Pentagon came to rely increasingly on interrogators from private contractors to question them. Mr. Nelson was one of a roughly 30-strong team in Abu Ghraib employed by a Virginia-based firm, CACI International. He believes his decade of experience in military intelligence made him well qualified to do the job, but he had growing doubts about his colleagues. "I'd say about of the contractors that it's kind of a hit or miss. They're under so much pressure to fill slots quickly ... They penalize contracting companies if they can't fill slots on time and it looks bad on companies' records. If you're in such a hurry to get bodies, you end up with cooks and truck drivers doing intelligence work."

How ugly this story eventually becomes remains to be seen, but the potential for widespread, systemic abuse is surely here. Noncombatants and civilians swept up by soldiers who are surely no experts on Iraqi culture are then deposited in prisons to be interviewed by poorly trained staff under pressure to deliver "results." And all in a context where national authorities and the mainstream media proclaim the rightness of our cause, have consistently denied racism and pervasive police and prison abuse at home, close the prisons to any outside access, and deny prisoners even the most limited right to know for what "crimes" they are being held. Such circumstances may not always yield outright abuse, but these prisoners, whether terrorists, enemy combatants, or innocent bystanders, have not been treated fairly.

The next subject war critics and civil rights advocates must confront is what to do with these prisons and prisoners. Opening the prisons to full, regular, and unannounced inspection by Amnesty International might be a good start. The prisoners might eventually be turned over to the United Nations, but progressives need to confront a dilemma here. The Security Council is often a tool of the US and the General Assembly an ineffective debating society. Both have stood by in the face of recent atrocities. When progressives call for internationalizing various aspects of this conflict, from prisons to peacekeeping and domestic security, they would do well to couple these demands with a willingness to scrutinize and reform these international instruments. In his recent Age of Consent, London Guardian columnist George Monbiot suggests ways to reform the General Assembly by weighing votes based on population and adherence to democratic principles. Though his work on this topic is visionary, it can help inaugurate a much needed debate.

Unfortunately, an administration that has consistently repudiated all international standards is unlikely to encourage such a debate. Indeed, perhaps its strongest motive to contain this scandal lies in the pressure that these revelations exert to acknowledge that the US has no unique hold on or commitment to human rights. Only a new politics willing to cross borders and continually challenge established can begin to insure minimal rights for the world growing number of stateless people. Let us hope that the prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison and Guantánamo Bay, today's most prominent stateless victims, will not have suffered in vain.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

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