Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Opposing torture used to be as American as Apple Pie

Bat (Myotis) eating a grasshopper

Turns out, the world is so complicated.

Ms. TfK and I have been reading Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris, and Teddy was steamed about waterboarding in the Philippines 100 years ago. Now we've got a nominee for the Attorney General defining torture so narrowly that anything goes.

I've commented broadly on torture before, but now's a chance to actually do something. Call your congresscritters and demand that they oppose Alberto Gonzales for Attorney General.

Kos has an open letter that explains much of the detail behind opposing Gonzales, and is calling for others to step in too. When the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund opposes the first Mexican American AG nominee, you know he's bad.

This is an Op-Ed I sent to the Kansas City Star and New York Times in July. Too bad it didn't get printed.

As an idealistic high school student, I joined the school's chapter of Amnesty International. We would get Action Alerts and write polite letters to world leaders, explaining that we heard about torture, murder, rape or the “disappearances” of people based on their politics or religion. We wouldn't accuse anyone of participating in these crimes. We hoped that by letting them know what we knew, the horrors in those benighted countries would stop.

It worked.

As an American, my words carried moral weight with the thugs who thought no one cared what they did. America is the birthplace of human rights, and when even a powerless high school student spoke, torturers reconsidered their career paths.

Fifteen years later, I still remember the stories of the people I worked to help. I wrote to Chinese prison officials, asking them to look into reports that religious leaders were being tortured. I asked the military junta ruling Myanmar (once Burma) to free the winners of the last legitimate election. I asked generals in a border war between Albania and Armenia to stop their troops from raping women and children.

Now, I see my homeland's moral authority being lost. Two months ago, Sudan was up for re-election to the UN Human Rights Commission. The American representative pointed out that between the genocide going on in Darfur, kidnapping children into slavery, and deliberate attacks on humanitarian aid workers, Sudan was a poor choice for the global human rights agency. Ultimately, lacking support from other countries, our nation's representative was forced to walk out in protest. The Sudanese foreign minister later pointed to the torture at Abu Ghraib, and called the United State the greatest human rights violator in the world.

American voices were once treated with respect on matters of human rights and liberties. Now, our moral leadership has been undermined by unresolved questions about the actions of American soldiers and the orders they received from the highest levels of the government.

The loss of respect our nation holds is tragic, but so are the stains on our conscience. Military dog handlers at Abu Ghraib held contests to see who could make more detainees wet their pants from fear. A prisoner whose death was first attributed to “natural causes” was found to have died after American soldiers “danced on his belly.” Shortly before he was named Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, a former hit man for Saddam Hussein, murdered 6 prisoners and had their bodies hidden in the desert. The Red Cross informed our leaders that “methods of physical and psychological coercion were used by military intelligence in a systematic way to gain confessions and extract information.” The quality of that information is questionable, since Coalition forces told the Red Cross that 75 to 90 percent of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib were “arrested by mistake.”

General Taguba's report includes graphic descriptions of American soldiers raping children. A journalist who saw a video of the rapes said, “The worst [part] is the soundtrack of the boys shrieking.” Soldiers recorded the rapes to show the mothers, to force the mothers to give them information. Some women have smuggled notes to their families begging that they be put out of their suffering, and mortar attacks on the prison target the women's wing in particular.

I am writing this because these actions are taken without the knowledge of many citizens and many of our leaders. Our soldiers asked to serve this nation out of a commitment to the cause of freedom and liberty. They did not join up as torturers. The President and his senior staff received memos diluting the meaning of torture, but questions remain about what orders resulted from those discussions. There are serious questions about how high up the chain of command the knowledge and acceptance of torture stretched, and how senior the people were who gave the orders that resulted in American soldiers raping children. Secretary Rumsfeld will not describe what new techniques he authorized, and which actions where unauthorized.

These questions must be addressed publicly and openly. Nonetheless, Senator John Warner, the chair of the Armed Services Committee, has decided that there will be no more public hearings on the torture of Iraqis by Americans. Some think that this investigation is partisan, or that the only way to stand by the President is to protect the torturers from exposure. The shame that this nation bears is greater than the blame any one person will have to bear. The government of the people and for the people must put our national reputation ahead of the potential tarnishing of a few men's reputations. Until we publicly root out the rapists and anyone who ordered them to do what they did, petty dictators around the world will use our reputation as a shield.

Mister Blue / White Bones Of Allende” by Tom Paxton from the album New Songs From The Briarpatch (1977, 3:32).