Sunday, June 20, 2004

A rambling meditation

I know that by now you're aware of this story.
WASHINGTON (Reuters, June 17) - The United States is holding terrorism suspects in more than two dozen detention centers worldwide and about half of these operate in total secrecy, said a human rights report released on Thursday.

Human Rights First, formerly known as the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, said in a report that secrecy surrounding these facilities made "inappropriate detention and abuse not only likely but inevitable."

"The abuses at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib cannot be addressed in isolation," said Deborah Pearlstein, director of the group's U.S. Law and Security program, referring to the U.S. Naval base prison in Cuba and Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq where abuses are being investigated. ...

She said thousands of security detainees were being held by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as locations elsewhere which the military refused to disclose. ...

Pearlstein said multiple sources reported U.S. detention centers in, among other places, Kohat in Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan, on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia and at Al Jafr prison in Jordan, where the group said the CIA had an interrogation facility.

Prisoners are also being held at the Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, South Carolina, and others were suspected of being held on U.S. warships.
These are no handful of holding cells for special "high value" terrorist suspects, either.
All told, more than 9,000 people are held by U.S. authorities overseas, according to Pentagon figures and estimates by intelligence experts, the vast majority under military control. The detainees have no conventional legal rights: no access to a lawyer; no chance for an impartial hearing; and, at least in the case of prisoners held in cellblock 1A at Abu Ghraib, no apparent guarantee of humane treatment,
says the Washington Post for May 11.

They are, too many of them, ghost prisoners in ghost prisons, our version of "the disappeared," the ones who vanish suddenly, without trace, leaving others to scramble madly in the hope of finding some account of them. We started it in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when in a CYA panic, federal officials rounded up about 1,200 Muslim men on the flimsiest of charges and for months refused to provide any information about them, not even their names - the latter on the laughable excuse it was to protect their, that is, the detainees', privacy. We continue it now, as even Donald Rumsfeld has been forced to admit.
Washington (Knight-Ridder/Tribune, June 17) - Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld admitted Thursday that he ordered the secret detention of at least two prisoners captured in Iraq so that they could be interrogated by the Central Intelligence Agency, a move that some legal experts say may have violated the Geneva Conventions.

The Geneva Conventions, which outline proper treatment of prisoners of war, forbid holding prisoners incommunicado and require that their identities be registered with the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Rumsfeld said CIA Director George Tenet asked him to hold a member of the Islamic militant group Ansar al Islam without notifying the Red Cross.

"We were asked not to immediately register the individual and we did that," Rumsfeld said. He refused to explain why the prisoner wasn't identified to anyone for more than seven months.
Our ghost prisons are not only our own, but include those of so-called "key allies." From the Guardian for June 13:
In the past three years, thousands of alleged militants have been transferred around the world by American, Arab and Far Eastern security services, often in secret operations that by-pass extradition laws. The astonishing traffic has seen many, including British citizens, sent from the West to countries where they can be tortured to extract information. Anything learnt is passed on to the US and, in some cases, reaches British intelligence. ...

The practice of 'renditions' - when suspects are handed directly into the custody of another state without due process - has sparked particular anger. At least 70 such transfers have occurred, according to CIA sources. Many involve men who have been freed by the courts and are thus legally innocent.
The Guardian also cites the case of Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian arrested by US agents on suspicion of terrorism - but when nothing could be proved against him, instead of allowing him to return home to Canada, he was taken to Jordan and then to Syria, where he was imprisoned and tortured for several months. (I wrote about his case on November 19.) Arar was among the lucky ones: He got out.
The ghost prison network stretches around the globe [the Guardian continues]. The biggest American-run facilities are at the Bagram airbase, north of Kabul in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, where around 400 men are held, and in Iraq, where tens of thousands of detainees are held. Saddam Hussein and dozens of top Baath party officials are held in a prison at Baghdad airport.
At least some of those Iraq facilities will carry on business as usual even after June 30, reports Agencie Presse France on June 13.
The US-led coalition plans to hold on to between 4,000 and 5,000 people after Iraq receives sovereignty on June 30 and to free or hand over to the Iraqi authorities 1,400 prisoners, a military officer told AFP.

"Currently, there are approximately 6,400 detainees," said Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson, a spokesman for detention operations in Iraq.

"At this time, we estimate there will be approximately 4,000-5,000 detainees after June 30, keeping in mind that anti-Coalition activities occur every day, resulting in further detentions."
But, in keeping with the White House's devotion to working with our allies, the US relies heavily on them. The Guardian goes on:
In Morocco, scores of detainees once held by the Americans are believed to be held at the al-Tamara interrogation centre sited in a forest five miles outside the capital, Rabat. Many of the detainees were originally captured by the Pakistani authorities, who passed them on to the Americans. ...

In Syria, detainees sent by Washington are held at 'the Palestine wing' of the main intelligence headquarters and a series of jails in Damascus and other cities. Egypt has also received a steady flow of militants from American installations. Many other militants have been sent to Egypt by other countries through transfers assisted by the Americans, often using planes run by the CIA. ...

Terrorists have also been sent to facilities in Baku, Azerbaijan, and to unidentified locations in Thailand. Scores more are thought to be at a US airbase in the Gulf state of Qatar, and a large number are believed to have been sent to Saudi Arabia, where CIA agents are allowed to sit in on some of the interrogations.
And the justification for all this? You probably won't believe it, but according to the Guardian, one US official actually said "You have to break eggs to make omelettes. The world is a bad place."

Which brings us to Abu Ghraib. We've seen the pictures, read the stories, heard about the "few bad apples" versus the systematic endorsement of "tougher methods" and "taking the gloves off." But what does this debate actually mean? What is it actually about? What does it say about us as a people?

A commentary by Ted Gup in the May 18 Village Voice says
It was Dostoyevsky who said you can judge a society by its prisons. It is how Saddam was judged, and it is sadly now how many around the world will judge the U.S. But the accounts of physical abuse, sexual humiliation, and mental torture that Iraqi prisoners endured at the hands of their American captors at Abu Ghraib conceal an even darker question, one that few Americans seem willing to confront. ...

One cannot help but ask why the nation's outrage could only be triggered by the release of photographs, why it took such an assault on the eyes to shake the nation out of its moral stupor.

Is Abu Ghraib really news? ...

That is at the heart of the Abu Ghraib scandal. It is as if a criminal suggested that it was not he who was responsible but rather the hand and digits at the far end of his arm, as if the intervening two feet afforded some moral disconnect.
The comment there was about what Gup called "moral extraterritoriality," meaning that if it was done "over there," the perception was it didn't matter as much, the rules weren't the same. But I think the issue is less one of geography than of self-image. It's wanting to ignore evil done in one's name or by one's fellows and then when faced with it to encapsulate it, to limit it to some factor that makes it exceptional - a few bad apples, to be sure - in order to deny it. ("The fear of the evil, which one does not see in one’s own bosom but always in somebody else’s, checks reason every time." - Carl Gustav Jung, The Undiscovered Self)
Most Americans reject torture as a technique to force suspected terrorists to answer questions about possible attacks but are divided on whether less harsh forms of physical abuse should be allowed to compel uncooperative suspects to reveal information that could save lives, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Sixty-three percent say torture is never acceptable, even in cases in which a suspect is believed to have knowledge of an upcoming terrorist attack. Slightly more than one in three say torture can be used in some cases. ...

Clear majorities rejected sexually humiliating a suspect (84 percent), applying electric shocks to a prisoner (82 percent), threatening to harm the suspect's family (80 percent), holding a suspect's head under water (78 percent), forcing the suspect to go naked (74 percent), punching or kicking a suspect (69 percent), withholding food or water (61 percent), exposing the suspect to extreme heat or cold (58 percent), or threatening to shoot the suspect (57 percent).

Despite widespread objections to these techniques, only a third of Americans would define what happened at Abu Ghraib as torture.
What the Washington Post for May 28 is telling us there is that Americans say they reject torture - but refuse to face that what's going on is torture, even though it fits their own definitions of what's unacceptable. Someone, I frankly don't recall who, but it was some public figure, admitted he (I do recall it was a he) was caught up short when he was asked what he would call what happened at Abu Ghraib if it was done to captive Americans. It forced him to acknowledge that he'd been unwilling to recognize the fact that Americans, ordinary Americans, could be torturers.

But of course they can.
The faces are commonplace, neither werewolf-ugly nor Rambo-tough. Some grin goofily, some swagger, others seem slightly sheepish, as though a bubble over their heads might read "aw shucks."

They are American soldiers, suddenly transformed from the Dr. Jekylls of Iraqi occupation to the Mr. Hydes of oppression. They enlisted as servicemen and women, but emerged as accused torturers: trapped by the camera's lens like malevolent flies in amber.

Viewers, scanning the faces for clues, can only wonder: what could these people be thinking of when they abused and humiliated their powerless prisoners at Abu Ghraib? What prepared them to do such a thing? What kind of people are they?

Those who study the theory and practice of political abuse closely say the answer is simple: they are ordinary torturers.
This important article from the May 23 Toronto Star deserves to be read and I urge you to follow the link and read the whole piece. It points out how easy it is to get caught up in the "closed world" of torture when you are isolated from outside influences and presented with "authorization to act and dehumanization of the victims."
It's all part of that closed world the recruits are part of, a world of `them and us,'" [Ronald] Crelinsten[, an expert on terrorism and professor of criminology at University of Ottawa] says. ...

"Dehumanizing their captives is one of the main things recruits learn," says Crelinsten. "In the U.S., soldiers see the Iraqis as the enemy, and a danger to their country. Most of them don't speak Arabic, which makes the prisoners even more alien. And when the abused prisoners scream, their screams make them seem like animals."
It seems to me I just said something much like that. Which is why I disagree with Gup's notion of "moral extraterritoriality." It's not easier because it's "over there." It's easier because it's being done to "not us." Once another becomes "not us," the rules can and do change.

But of course we already knew this. The famous Stanford Prison experiment and the Migram Paradigm, both of which I've written about previously, have told us how easy it is to fall into a regimented pattern of disassociation, how easy it is to manipulate our socialization into removing awareness of the actual effects on actual human beings of our behavior and instead to become, if you will, one with the process, defining yourself by the rules, by obeying the rules, by becoming the rules if you will, rather than by the reality of what you're actually doing. The Stanford experiment is, I think, a particularly chilling example, because all the participants - even the psychologist running the simulation - got so far into their roles that they lost sight of the fact that it was supposed to be an experiment, not an actual prison, so much so that they found it necessary to end the trial after six days instead of two weeks. Tellingly, those volunteers who had been tapped as guards, who had become abusive towards the "prisoners" in ways similar to those seen at Abu Ghraib, were upset at the early termination.
Under such conditions, [the Star article says,] few torturers drop out willingly. The accused personnel at Abu Ghraib only stopped their activities when removed from their jobs.
It's all one. The torturers of Abu Ghraib are not a few bad apples, they are us, ordinary people, thrust into a situation for which they were ill-prepared and into which no one should ever be put. Our reaction as a society has nothing to do with "moral extraterritoriality" and everything to do with moral insularity, with refusing to face the meaning of our own actions, of willful ignorance. That's why it took the photographs to shake us: Because the photos made it "real" in a way the words could not, made it abuse of actual people, not of abstractions like "suspected terrorists" or "security detainees." It made the prisoners in their fear and nakedness more "us" than they had been and the mocking swagger of their captors made them, behaving in a way we refuse to imagine ourselves behaving, less "us" then they had been. A wall was breached. And the outrage was released.

But in most places, the wall stands.
"Simply stated, the culture of sadistic and malicious violence that continues to pervade the ... prison system violates contemporary standards of decency."

That conclusion, written by Judge William Wayne Justice, does not describe Abu Ghraib in Iraq last fall, but the Texas prison system in 1999 when George W. Bush was still governor there.

As courts-martial get under way in Baghdad for the prison-abuse scandal, critics are urging Americans to look inside their own criminal justice system for the root of the problems in Iraq. ...

Indeed, inmates, human rights activists, and even some corrections officials contend that abuse, humiliation, and gang rape are common in some US prisons.
More explicitly the Wilmington Journal for June 7 reports that
[a]s Americans continue to recoil at the sight of photographs and videotapes showing handcuffed prisoners piled naked on top of one another, being bitten by dogs, being sexually exploited and subjected to other forms of debasing abuse at the Abu-Ghraib prison in Iraq, human rights advocates say similar constitutional violations occur on a regular basis in United States prisons.

"In recent years, U. S. prison inmates have been beaten with fists and batons, stomped on, kicked, shot, stunned with electronic devices, doused with chemical sprays, choked, and slammed face first onto concrete floors by the officers whose job it is to guard them. Inmates have ended up with broken jaws, smashed ribs, perforated eardrums, missing teeth, burn scars, not to mention psychological scars and emotional pain. Some have died," states a report, published last month by Human Rights Watch, titled, "Prisoner Abuse: How Different are U. S. Prisons?"

The report, written by Jamie Fellner, director of the Human Rights Watch U. S. Program, observes: "Correctional officers will bribe, coerce, or violently force inmates into granting sexual favors, including oral sex or intercourse. Prison staff have laughed at and ignored the pleas of male prisoners seeking protection from rape by other inmates."

It continues: "A culture of brutality has developed in which correctional officers know they can get away with excessive, unnecessary, or even purely malicious violence."
Prisoners, after all, are by definition "other." And as for "us?"
Even [James] Gondles[, executive director of the American Correctional Association.] admits that abuses do occur in US prisons. "But I don't believe that it's endemic in American jails and prisons," he says. "And what happened in one institution in Iraq is not representative of what goes on in America."
Of course not. "We" don't do such things.

"Is Abu Ghraib really news?" asked the Village Voice. Only to those who "have eyes but refuse to see."

Footnote: The Wilmington Journal also refers to
a 1992 Supreme Court case, Hudson v. McMillan, [in which] an inmate was hog tied to the floor of a Louisiana prison and severely beaten by three prison guards. The court held 7 to 2 that the beating amounted to a violation of the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Justices Clarence Thomas and Anthony Scalia dissented.

In his minority opinion, Thomas argued that the beating by three prison guards was not cruel and unusual punishment although the beating left Hudson with loosened teeth, facial bruises, and a cracked dental plate. "A use of force that causes only insignificant harm to a prisoner may be immoral, it may be torturous, it may be criminal ... but it is not 'cruel and unusual punishment,'" Thomas wrote.
I expect what he actually meant to say was that it wasn't unusual.

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