There was something familiar about the Abu Ghraib pictures when I saw them in the spring of 2004.
I was a teenager in 1972 when Deliverance debuted. It was a movie about four friends on a whitewater canoeing trip starring Burt Reynolds. The friends got separated in the backwoods, and the characters played by Ned Beatty and Jon Voight were taken at gunpoint by two hillbillies. In the most intense scene in the movie, Ned Beatty’s character is forced to strip naked, he’s slapped around by one of the hillbillies who humiliates him by making him squeal like a pig, and then he is sexually assaulted. Suddenly, Burt Reynolds steps out of the woods with his bow drawn and fires an arrow that puts an end to the abuse.
Ned Beatty should be thankful he was with Burt Reynolds and not Barack Obama. The President probably would have said, “You hillbillies go on about your way. We’ve got a lot of rough water ahead of us and we can’t afford to look back.”
It is disappointing to those who believed Obama’s election marked the beginning of a reckoning with America’s descent into torture. Rather than drawing a bead on impunity, the President has lowered his bow and let it go.
The United States is a party to the Convention Against Torture (CAT) and it has made torture an offense under the U.S. Criminal Code. President Ronald Reagan signed the CAT in 1988 and when he forwarded it to the Senate he said,
“By giving its advice and consent to ratification of this Convention, the Senate of the United States will demonstrate unequivocally our desire to bring an end to the abhorrent practice of torture.”
The U.S. is capable of prosecuting torturers. Chuckie Taylor, the son of former Liberian President Charles Taylor now on trial for war crimes in The Hague, was convicted in federal court in Florida in 2008 for torture committed when he was head of the Liberian National Police. He’s serving a 97 year sentence in federal prison.
Finding Bin Laden revived the torture debate. Torture apologists like former Vice President Cheney, CIA Director Hayden and Attorney General Mukasey tried to link torturing high value detainees in 2002-2003 to Bin Laden’s bedroom in 2011.
Others like Senator John McCain and Fox News analyst Juan Williams took the apologists to task. Senator McCain said:
This is a moral debate. It is about who we are. I don’t mourn the loss of any terrorist’s life. What I do mourn is what we lose when by official policy or official neglect we confuse or encourage those who fight this war for us to forget that best sense of ourselves… (W)e are always Americans, and different, stronger and better than those who would destroy us.
Juan Williams added:
The torture apologists are wrong. There is no credit to be given to the Bush White House for allowing the use of torture… Torture is inconsistent with American values and international law.
It skews the debate when the object of torture is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or someone else that’s easy to vilify and dehumanize. A cavalier attitude is harder to justify when the person subjected to torture is not a villain.
Maher Arar was on his way home to Canada when he was detained at JFK Airport in New York. After nearly two weeks in U.S. custody in solitary confinement, he was flown by private jet to Jordan and then transferred to Syria – a country that the U.S. has labeled a state sponsor of terrorism since 1979 and that is in the news now for Bashar al-Assad’s brutal crackdowns on protests – where he was held for a year and tortured. Eventually, after the Syrians concluded he was innocent, Arar was sent home to Canada.
A Canadian inquiry found that the information that led to Arar being suspected of links to terrorism was erroneous and concluded he was innocent. The Canadian government offered him an apology and awarded him compensation. The United States has never held anyone accountable for what happened to Maher Arar. When he filed a civil suit – a right guaranteed by the CAT – both the Bush and Obama administrations asserted the State Secrets Privilege and the case was dismissed. The U.S. has never apologized.
In a statement marking the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture in June, President Obama said he joined “people around the world in honoring the victims of torture.” He didn’t say if that included Maher Arar. The President added:
Generations of Americans have understood that torture is inconsistent with our values. Over two decades ago, President Reagan signed, and a bipartisan Senate coalition ratified this landmark document (the CAT), which affirms the essential principle that under no circumstances is torture ever justified.
In 2006, Senator Lindsey Graham said:
Torture has always been a crime, so anyone who comes to the Senate and says the United States engages in torture, condones torture, that this agreement (the Military Commissions Act) somehow legitimizes torture, you don’t know what you’re talking about. Torture is a crime in America.
America has been long on rhetoric and short on action for too long. Torture is a crime and impunity is unacceptable. We can’t win the fight to end what Reagan described as an abhorrent practice by maintaining a policy of official neglect of our own conduct.
The views expressed are those of the author.