The shocking scenes of torture from the Abu Ghraib prison should make us think farther than Iraq, the Middle East, or even U.S. relations with other non-Western countries. It informs our debate on the PATRIOT act, which eases the government’s ability to spy on people, to arrest them, and to treat them in any manner it likes once they are arrested.
Add up the following considerations:
- Most prisoners are innocent.
The Red Cross reported yesterday that 70% to 90% of Iraqi detainees are innocent. Our Iraqi prisons, overstuffed to the bursting point, are not responses to crime or even military need so much as punishment centers for the whole population.
But this should be no surprise. The Guantanamo Bay Naval Base has been releasing its detainees steadily since it was set up. These wretched souls, often swept up in random dragnets after the Afghan war or turned in by malicious neighbors, get a one-way ticket back to their home country without any apology or compensation, so far as I’ve heard. Rarely are they charged with a crime; this is an admission by omission that their arrest was unjust.
- Torture is a policy.
The Red Cross report also quotes high-level U.S. officials as explaining that they strip prisoners naked and hold them in the dark without bedding as a matter of course. Clothes, bedding, and light are rewards for cooperation.
Here, comparisons with Guantanamo Bay are less evident. Few direct reports of torture have come out of there, but the published guidelines for treating prisoners include practices that are illegal under both U.S. and international law. These guidelines include “moderate physical pressure,” which sounds like the guidelines followed (and routinely exceeded) in Israeli prisons, and which an Israeli court has ruled illegal there.
There is no doubt, however, that prison conditions are terrible in U.S.-occupied Afghanistan and that the U.S. regularly farms out prisoners to governments that use torture. So Abu Ghraib is part of the pattern.
- Interrogations are probably worthless.
The lack of people well-trained in Arabic and Iraqi culture in the military and American intelligence community has repeatedly been cited. It doesn’t improve the situation for the military to amuse themselves by subjecting their own Muslim chaplains and translators to the same treatment they dish out to prisoners.
This is the context for understanding the PATRIOT act and its extensions. Instead of evaluating it as an instrument for the U.S. to use against internal or external terrorists, we must evaluate it primarily as an instrument for the U.S. to create new Abu Ghraibs around the world.
There should be no illusions that use of the PATRIOT Act will be restricted to dangerous and criminal people. It will be used like any tool in the hands of the powerful to cut off political disputes and carry out personal vendettas. And its clauses make it easy not only to catch people in a sinister pseudo-legal net, but to hide them away from lawyers and others who could check what forms of torture the government is using against them.
Abu Ghraib has been in the planning for some time. It shows why the U.S. has been so insistent on opposing the very existence of the International Criminal Court and has spent a lot of political and economic capital to browbeat other countries into promising not to bring the U.S. before that court.
Administration officials say, “Don’t worry about us; we are upright protectors of human rights who are unlikely to violate laws, and who will prosecute our own violators.” I’ll believe that when Donald Rumsfield is thrown naked into a darkened cell.
The ACLU and others who fight the PATRIOT Act have identified plenty of abusive Administration practices. But much of the debate over it has been hypothetical. It can be hard to project into the future the seeds of what the government is doing in the U.S. References to the internment of Japanese during World War II or Johnson’s and Nixon’s COINTELPRO activities in the 1960s and 1970s hark back to barely-remembered eras.
But Abu Ghraib is now. And we are all Abu Ghraib.