Torture Awareness Month

June 4, 2010

Speaking in Grand Rapids, Michigan, last Wednesday former President George W. Bush appeared to take personal responsibility for the decision to waterboard Khalid Sheikh Mohammed:

“Yeah, we waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. I’d do it again to save lives.”

The former President’s comments remove any lingering doubt that may have remained that torture was sanctioned at the highest level of his administration.

The lack of public outcry at his remarks demonstrates all too clearly how for most Americans torture has become an acceptable tool in America’s counter-terrorism arsenal.

Prior to September 11th waterboarding was unequivocally regarded as torture in American jurisprudence. Sleep deprivation was a tool used by Stalin’s secret police. Mock executions were associated with Hollywood villains not Congressional candidates.

Then everything changed. People got scared and unscrupulous politicians sold the idea that thuggish criminality was the only route to public safety. In reality, we got less safe not more. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo created droves of new recruits for Al Qaeda and got hundreds, if not thousands, of American servicemen and women killed.

America’s decision to turn to the dark side, as Dick Cheney memorably put it, alienated our allies and made it difficult for foreign governments to work with us. It has made them more likely to withhold vital intelligence and less likely to work alongside US troops. This also makes us less safe.

We need to reboot. The election of President Obama seemed to offer that opportunity but he let it slip away. Like Dick Cheney during the Vietnam War – the President had other priorities and now torture is slowly creeping back into the mainstream.

In the past months reports have surfaced that US personnel are using sleep deprivation, enforced isolation and physical violence on prisoners held in a secret screening facility in Bagram, Afghanistan.

We have seen this movie before. Abuse inevitably escalates and America’s reputation will just as inevitably be further tarnished.

There was a time in America when torture was considered beyond the pale. The landmark 1980 case Filártiga v. Peña-Irala opened the way for foreign torturers to be pursued in US courts. The panel of American judges that heard the case commented:

“For the purposes of civil liability the torturer has become – like the pirate and the slave trader before him – hostis humani generis, an enemy of all mankind.”

I don’t know about you but I miss that America. However, it wasn’t destroyed by Osama bin Laden but by those who made political capital out of the 9/11 tragedy and by the rest of us who let them.

The Soccer World Cup is not the only global event happening this month. June is international torture awareness month. Amnesty is calling on its supporters to sign up to host an event to raise awareness that torture remains a central issue in American public life.

We cannot claim America has changed until we confront this issue and lay it to rest. Torture is both illegal and morally abhorrent. Just societies do not use it. Period. We need to send our government the message that they cannot just look the other way.

We need to reestablish the norm against torture in American politics. But we can’t do it without you. You need to raise your voice. So please get involved in torture awareness month and help rebuild an America we can all believe in.