Maher Arar, Bradley Manning and the Sad State of the U.S. Justice System

July 2, 2011

Guest post by Chase Madar, a lawyer in New York. His next book, The Passion of Bradley Manning, will be published by O/R Books in the fall.

What the US government did to Maher Arar is certainly atrocious. But is our government’s treatment of Arar so very different from what it routinely does to its own citizens, minus the air travel and exotic outsourcing? After all, many of the atrocities that we have committed in the course of our Global War on Terror find easy analogs in our everyday “normal” justice system.

Take Omar Khadr, captured at the age of 15 in Afghanistan, tortured during interrogation and, after years of pretrial detention, convicted of a wholly invented “war crime”. This is surely an appalling persecution of a child soldier. But here in the United States we have young men doing life without parole for crimes committed when they were 13, and who have been treated no less roughly every step of the way. Is the Khadr prosecution consistent with American values? You bet.

The nasty treatment of Bradley Manning has also provoked an international outcry, from the Bundestag to the United Nations.  A year of pretrial solitary confinement under the most punitive conditions must surely be an aberration in any wealthy developed country.  Alas, it turns out that the infliction of isolation even in pretrial detention is far from unknown in the United States.  And solitary confinement itself, properly viewed as a form of no-touch torture that drives people insane, is utterly routine here.  We have about 25,000 prisoners in long-term solitary in the federal prison system, and how many in the state prisons, nobody knows.  Our Supreme Court came within a whisker of finding solitary confinement to be a violation of the Eight Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment back in 1890.  Are we moderns just a whole lot tougher than our 19th century forebears?

The analogy between our treatment of terror suspects and homegrown defendants is of course imperfect: torture-driven interrogations are not as systematic in our local lock-ups as they were Bagram, Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo.  But domestic torture isn’t uncommon either.  Chicago police captain Jon Burge was recently convicted on perjury charges stemming from a long career of torturing suspects in interrogation rooms.  Many of his tricks he learned while serving in Vietnam, and we can only imagine what some of our returning soldiers today will take with them into law enforcement.

To be sure, the extraordinary rendition of Maher Arar is a particularly vivid case of American national security gone berserk.   But we are kidding ourselves if we see this as a one-of-a-kind freakout, an anomalous blot on an otherwise wonderful justice system.  The greater part of our disgrace at Abu Ghraib, Bagram and elsewhere is simply to have replicated and exposed to the world some of our rarely controversial practices from back home.  It is going to be difficult to roll back any of our brutal (not to mention counterproductive) national security practices without an Augean cleansing of our domestic justice and penal systems as well.

We certainly have our work cut out for us.

The views expressed are not necessarily those of Amnesty International.

This post is part of our 2011 Torture Awareness Month series