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Tortured policies in the U.S.

Observer Viewpoint | Friday, March 4, 2005

While speaking at Notre Dame’s 2001 Commencement, President George W. Bush praised the “great tradition of [Catholic] social teaching” and its call “to protect life in all its stages.” In Brussels, Bush recently noted that democracies are marked by “the rule of law and the respect for human rights and human dignity.” I wonder if there was a hint of nostalgia in his remarks. In what stage of life would Bush place Maher Arar? What does he think about his human rights and dignity?

Arar is a 34-year-old Canadian citizen who moved from his native Syria as a teenager. On September 26, 2002 Arar was taken into custody in Kennedy Airport by American authorities while changing planes. He was interrogated and placed in jail for thirteen days, then shipped to Syria. In Syria, he was tortured. Over one year later, he was released home to Canada, a free man.

The Justice Department claims Arar is linked to al Qaeda, yet they have filed no charges. His torturers, through the Syrian Ambassador, declared they found no terrorist link. Arar, it seems, was the victim of bad information passed by Canadian officials to their American counterparts, who, utilizing a policy termed “extraordinary/irregular rendition,” dispatched Arar to Syria. As Bob Herbert notes in a recent New York Times column, through this policy the government “seizes individuals, presumably terror suspects, and sends them off without even a nod in the direction of due process to countries known to practice torture.”

Although congressional legislation banning this practice has been introduced, it has gone nowhere. Justification for the practice relies in part on a clever reading of the U.N. Convention Against Torture, which requires “substantial grounds for believing” a suspect will be tortured abroad in order to prohibit transferring that individual to a foreign government. As with most definitions affecting the war on terrorism, the Bush administration has used an apparent loophole to its interpretive advantage.

Arar’s case offers further indication that America has a torture problem. Rather than the isolated events of a few misguided individuals, as they have been portrayed, the events at Abu Ghraib appear instead to be only the most glaring evidence of profoundly misguided policies. Their philosophical basis can be traced to the days shortly after Sept. 11, when Vice-President Dick Cheney declared, regarding the response to terrorism: “A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in. And so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.”

This position was further developed in a memo written by Bush’s Assistant Attorney General. It declared that for an act to be classified as torture it must inflict pain “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death.” Mirroring Bush’s profound respect for human dignity, the same memo declared “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” treatment legally permissible.

Some might argue that tactics aimed at avoiding prohibitions against torture are justified given the potential a confession might save countless lives. Yet such utilitarian calculation appears to contradict the good Christian president’s rhetorical emphasis on protecting life in all stages and respecting human dignity. Bush is adamant about making his “faith” known but more and more one is led to wonder what that “faith” is in and whether it has practical implications. Is nothing sacred in the war on terror?

Accounts of torture beyond Abu Ghraib are not mere liberal speculation. The FBI reported in July that Guantanamo prisoners were subject to physical mistreatment, extreme temperatures and lack of food and water. One individual was left in a cell heated over 100 degrees and found unconscious, having pulled out much of his own hair. The military acknowledged that in 2003 two female interrogators at Guantanamo were reprimanded for sexually tinged techniques aimed at humiliating detainees. Among the 550 individuals detained in Guantanamo only four currently face charges. In 2002 the FBI’s director refused a CIA request to send a few agents to a secret facility in Thailand to assist in “sweating” a suspect. These incidents occurred outside of American territory, in a realm without law, inhabited by “enemy combatants,” devoid of Geneva Convention protections and due process.

In dismissing the rule of law and embracing an ethic justifying “any means at our disposal” the government endangers respect for human life and dignity. Yet this issue is not a new one. Extraordinary rendition began during the Clinton administration, which itself did little to investigate accusations of torture. Absent public opposition to practices such as those that led to Maher Arar’s torture in Syria will continue. It is not surprising that a president who sent 152 people to their death while Texas Governor and who mockingly imitated Karla Faye Tucker’s plea for life should witness such lack of concern for human life and dignity. When considering who is his neighbor it appears Bush is more than willing to draw the circle tighter and tighter.

John Infranca is a theology graduate student. His column appears every other Friday. For more information about torture worldwide, he directs readers to the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition at http://tassc.org. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.