Renounce torture and abuse

This story was published on June 21, 2006 on Page A9 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News

A childhood hero of mine has just been called up to report to Iraq. Michael is an idealist – creative and smart – he really listened to everyone, even 4-year-old me. He was exactly the sort of adult I hoped I’d be when I grew up. All of a sudden there is too little time to say everything I would like to say about what an influence he has played in my life. I’m deeply worried for his safety.

I’m also deeply worried about what he may be called upon to do while in Iraq. It has been two years since the brutal photographs of Abu Ghraib first shook our core beliefs in who we are and what we stand for. Since then, at the ACLU we’ve received almost monthly document shipments from the Pentagon and FBI – now over 100,000 pages in all – providing horrifying eye-witness accounts of widespread abuse of possibly innocent detainees.

One heavily redacted FBI report talks of “strangulations, beating and placement of lit cigarettes into the detainees ear openings,” in Iraq. Department of Navy documents record incidents of abuse by US Marines in Iraq including “mock executions” of juveniles and electric shocks. In an internal June 2004 email, a senior officer in the Navy Criminal Investigation Service in Iraq described its abuse caseload as “exploding,” with “high visibility cases” on the rise.

An investigative file records the account of a 73-year-old Iraqi woman seized from her home by U.S. forces. She describes how she was savagely beaten, sodomized with a stick, ridden like an animal and made to “swim” in water thrown on the ground.

It’s difficult not to picture my grandmother as I read that file and even more difficult to believe that this elderly woman was treated this way for intelligence purposes or because she was dangerous.

As these tens of thousands of official government documents show, torture in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo was not limited to a few bad apples as the Bush administration would have us believe. It was widespread and continuing despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of United States “war on terror” detainees held in Iraq were not deadly terrorists but innocent civilians. The documents further demonstrate that torture and abuse of detainees was systemic, policy driven and authorized by high-ranking officials within the Defense Department, despite protests from the FBI, the State Department and lower ranking personnel within the military.

Amidst a culture of secrecy and neglect, internal military investigations have resulted in the prosecution of only a few low-ranking personnel for the worst of the atrocities. None of those at the top – not Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who upended over two hundred years of US military prohibition against torture with his memos outlining what sort of torture was acceptable nor Lieutenant General Ricardo A. Sanchez who directed those in his command to exploit Arab fears of dogs, isolation, and stress techniques – have been held accountable.

Court cases brought by the ACLU and other human rights’ groups on behalf of detainees subjected to torture are making their way through the courts slowly and not necessarily successfully. Indeed, Congress quietly passed a law last winter to specifically strips the courts of jurisdiction over any habeas claim by a foreign national for protection against government-funded torture or abuse. Stripping detainees of their day in court was part of a deal with the administration and Republican leadership to let McCain’s much ballyhooed torture ban pass. But the McCain torture ban stipulated that the U.S. Army Field Manual should be the standard of treatment. Now it appears that the US Army Field Manual has been rewritten to weaken the prohibitions against torture. Specifically, language prohibiting “humiliating and degrading treatment” under the Geneva Conventions has been stripped out of the manual. Torture may be un-American. Torture may be illegal under the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions. But it’s still an authorized practice under Rumsfeld’s Defense Department.

So what can one military officer do? Will my childhood hero still be my hero when he returns from Iraq? And what can we who will pray for him every day that he is there do to keep him safe – in body and soul? My hope in all of this lies in the terrifying volume of documentation turned over to the Defense Department. In these tens of thousands of pages are hundreds of individuals – FBI agents, interpreters, officers, soldiers – sounding the alarm internally, reporting honestly on a tragedy and urging those in command for clearer guidance. It’s time for every one of us here at home to amplify their cry for justice, to reassert our moral authority, and persuade Congress, the president, and the Pentagon once and for all to renounce torture and abuse.

Thomas Jefferson said, “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.” It is time for each of us to voice our conscience, to have the courage to study this issue and confront the pain and anger it generates in each of us and to marshal that pain and anger into constructive action.

It might be easier to do nothing. But while we are doing nothing, our heroes are suffering the weight of terrible choices and great danger.

Shenna Bellows is the executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union.