The shame of torture

As we’ve been shown yet again, with the release of the horrifying photos of prisoner abuse in Iraq, nothing has the sheer power of a visual image to wake us up.

It’s not as if we, and the Bush administration, didn’t know that unpleasant things were going on in the wake of 9-11. President Bush and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld can do all the cluck-clucking they want, but the fact is that all kinds of human and civil rights have been suspended or ignored, in blatant violation of the Geneva Conventions, in the fight against terrorism. The print media have been telling us about them all along; the photos finally brought it home.

The prison at Guantánamo Bay, for example, is filled with detainees designated “unlawful combatants,” a category that doesn’t exist in international law. They are being held incommunicado and subjected to months and even years of interrogation with no outside oversight.

In Afghanistan, detainees have been subjected to so-called “stress and duress” techniques that include being hooded, forced to stand or kneel for long periods, deprived of sleep, food or water or otherwise pressured to provide information. If still resistant, they’ve been shipped to allied countries such as Egypt that routinely use harsher methods.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has been documenting these abuses for a long time and quietly informing U.S. officials of them, to no avail, apparently. Last February it reported that some military intelligence officers estimated that 70 percent to 90 percent of “the [43,000] persons deprived of their liberty in Iraq had been arrested by mistake.” The report also found that abuse “tantamount to torture” by American prison guards was systematic, widespread and routine, and that American forces have commonly used excessive force during raids on Iraqi homes and businesses.

Like most Americans, we know that most U.S. soldiers in Iraq are doing their best in a terrible situation. Their goal is well-intentioned—to create lasting democratic institutions there—and they are doing the hard work of building schools, repairing water systems and otherwise trying to help.

But they have been undermined by their leaders, military and civilian, who have mismanaged the invasion terribly and countenanced the violation of human rights, including the fundamental right not to be tortured, in the pursuit of victory. It’s a shame.