Burke’s Law III: The Torture Over Torture Shouldn’t Be Torturous

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By Elizabeth Burke
Special to the Clyde Fitch Report

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With the recent declassification of the Bush Administration “torture memos,” the debate over the use of torture has reached a fever pitch. And I, for one, am glad. While I have been keenly awaiting President Obama’s reaction to the admission of depraved indifference on the part of Bush Administration officials regarding their belief in the use of torture, I cannot help but wonder where and when the U.S. lost its moral compass.

Earlier this week, I showed up at the Superior Court building in lower Manhattan to serve on that most American of panels, jury duty. And while I waited, I read The 2007 International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) report on torture. The irony of serving jury duty while reading this did not escape me. I listened to the court clerk, the judge and the lawyers thank us for taking the time to be a part of the most judicious judicial system, if you will, in the world. The fate of the accused, they said, rested in the hands of 12 impartial people sitting in a public courtroom. That, without a doubt, ours is the truest form of justice. That it is open and transparent. That it is everything the Bush administration was not.

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The ICRC report, which was recently made public by The New York Review of Books, concluded that the agency’s entire program violated International Humanitarian Law, which is applicable to global armed conflicts and contains numerous provisions and has extensive requirements concerning the registration of persons deprived of their liberty. The 14 undocumented — hidden, actually — prisoners interviewed by the ICRC spent 16 months to four and a half years in solitary confinement, with no contact other than with masked guards and interrogators. Essentially, they became missing persons. For years the U.S. hid these men, not telling anyone, including their families, that their loves ones had been arrested and detained. They disappeared. How does this make us any different from the 17-year dictatorship of Chile’s Gen. Augusto Pinochet, when 1,183 people went missing?

I was under the belief that the U.S. was different, better — a more humane nation. I was wrong. The Bush doctrine not only means it’s permissible to go to war with countries we don’t like, trust, or who look at us sideways, but it’s equally permissible to disregard the ICRC rules, the Geneva Conventions. The torture-intolerant morality that made the U.S. serve as the global standardbearer of fairness was cast aside as Bush’s ruthlessly sought out the “bad guys.”

But now more of the cards are on the table and we have former Vice President Dick Cheney basically coming out and joyously waving the “I Love Torture” flag, claiming that torture tactics were critical in obtaining information that prevented future terrorist attacks. What Darth Cheney casually omitted was the fact that detainees such as Abu Zubaydah gave up their most important information before they were waterboarded — and that nothing of much use was tortured out of them afterward. Why continue to torture? Could it be…racism?

As I mentioned earlier, I had two days of jury duty, which meant two days of sitting around and waiting to be called. I took the opportunity and I did read each page of the ICRC report. For those of you who haven’t, let me give you the link again: http://www.nybooks.com/icrc-report.pdf. Pay particular attention to the information on pages 9 and 10 on the method of ill-treatment “alleged to have been used”:

  • Suffocation by water poured over a cloth placed over the nose and mouth (also known as “waterboarding”)
  • Prolonged stress standing position, naked, held with the arms extended and chained above the head for periods of two or three days continuously and for up to two or three months intermittently, during which period toilet access was sometimes denied, resulting in allegations that they had to urinate and defecate over themselves
  • Beatings by use of a collar held around the detainees neck and used to forcefully hand the head and body against the wall (also known as “Walling”)
  • Beating and kicking, including slapping, punching, kicking to the body and face
  • Confinement in a box to severely restrict movement
  • Prolonged nudity lasting for periods of several weeks to several months
  • Sleep deprivation through use of forced stress positions (standing or sitting) cold water and use of repetitive loud noise or music
  • Exposure to cold temperatures including the use of cold water poured over the body or held around the body by means of a plastic sheet to create an immersion bath with just the head out of the water
  • Prolonged shackling of hands and or feet
  • Threats of ill treatment to the family of the detainees
  • Deprivation/restricted position of solid food from 3 days to 1 month

I write this not to shock, but to enlighten. We have been hearing about these abuses in the abstract and I wanted to actually list the methods the Bush Administration wholeheartedly approved and ultimately authorized.

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The report goes on to detail each of these methods and quite honestly, I felt sickened as I read page after page of the most inhuman, nefarious, despicable actions imaginable. I suggest taht everyone read these pages to get a glimpse into the chilling inner workings of what Darth Cheney calls acceptable “interrogation” techniques.

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Did the Bush Administration forget that waterboarding was prosecuted by the U.S. as part of the war-crimes trials that followed World War II? Or that a military-training program was started to teach soldiers the methods of torture used by the Communists during the Korean War? (Want to see a photo? Click here.) Moreover, the U.S. had already determined that waterboarding constitutes the legal definition of torture: In 2005, the Senate has passed a ban on the torture of suspected terrorists in U.S. custody. Indeed, Bush said the agreement will “make it clear to the world that this government does not torture and that we adhere to the international convention of torture, whether it be here at home or abroad.” Does this not mean that Bush was the Liar-in-Chief as these tactics continued for at least another year? The bill, which is still U.S. law, restricts techniques used to interrogate foreign terrorism suspects and it bans “cruel, inhumane or degrading” treatment of anyone in U.S. custody.” Oh, and it was sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), himself a former prisoner of war in Vietnam. So all of this begs the question: Did the Bush Administration knowingly break the law? And when did it know it?

Go ahead. Answer the question.

I think this is the thing that most disturbs me. We absolutely broke our own law, blatently and now with the open admission from Cheney, Karl Rove and their likes. Yet the Obama Admistration does not seem willing to go ahead with investigations and prosecutions. Sure, the President has left the door open a little bit to prosecutions or at least an inquiry. But is that really enough?

So far there has been, in my view, no accountability for the architects of Bush’s torture program, the top officials who justified keeping detainees awake for days on end in excruciating pain, who authorized the continuous and repeated waterboarding of detainees and prisoners until they vomited, until they slammed their heads against the walls. Go to You Tube and watch Cheney admit he was “involved in helping get the process cleared”:

Cheney defends what he did by erroneously claiming to have received “half of everything they knew about Al Queda from that one source,” referring to Khalid Sheik Mohammed. This has now been proven to be a complete lie. The CIA has admitted that they actually learned nothing of value.

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Knowing that the U.S., with the enthusiastic blessing of Bush, Cheney, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the CIA, tortured with total immunity, what do we do now? Clearly we violated the trust of the world and, most important, that of the citizens of this nation. How can we possibly condemn any other nation for engaging in the same tactics? Is it permissible for us to torture in a time of war? Interestingly, while we were at war with Iraq — a country, let’s remember, that never attacked us — we were torturing detainees for information about Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the terrorist group that was behind the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But I digress!

The fact is that the U.S., once a worldwide beacon of hope, light and civility, is now a country publicly admitting to a commission of war crimes. Don’t we have a moral obligation to hold ourselves accountable to the same standards to which we hold the rest of the world? How can point fingers to the human rights abuses of other nations when we are so obviously, indisputibly guilty of the same thing?

As David Lindorff, in an article for the Philadelphia Independent Media Center website, so elegantly states,

A new torture report, just released by the current, only narrowly Democratic, Senate Armed Services Committee, has definitively laid the blame for the sickening campaign of torture of captives by American military personnel and CIA agents, on officials all the way up to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Joint Chief of Staff Richard Myers, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff David Addington, White House legal counsel (and later attorney general) Alberto Gonzales, and others. It really traces the approval directly up to President Bush, noting that it was Bush’s signing of an executive order on February 7 2002, exempting captives in the so-called (and loosely defined) ‘War’ on Terror from protections of the Geneva Conventions, which authorized the military’s and CIA’s descent into rampant, brutal lawlessness.

Mr. Lindorff goes on to say:

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There is no mention of the obvious point that if crimes have been committed-and in the case of the authorizing of torture, which is banned by both international treaties to which the US is a signatory, and by US law, which folded the torture bans into the US Criminal Code for good measure, they clearly have been-the president and his incoming attorney general have a sworn obligation to prosecute them. That’s what “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution” means, after all.

We must show the global community and our own country that our citizens, no matter how high ranking they are in our government, are not above the law. It will only strengthen our standing in the eyes of the world if we show that we have entered a new area of national integrity, that we prosecute anyone who has broken the law. We must do this or our word will never again have meaning. Nothing we say or do will have credibility. No longer will we be able to fight these same sickening abuses in any other country without the whispers — or not even whispers — of “hypocrite” following us.

Right now, the Obama Administration seems as if it wants to give these criminals a pass in the name of “moving forward,” in the name of “looking ahead, not backward.” As one who not only drank the Obama Kool-Aid but poured many of the glasses, this breaks my heart. I have nothing but admiration for this new administration and the way they are tackling the nightmare bequeathed to them on January 20. But to really heal these wounds, to show we are a land governed by laws and our own venerable Constitution, we must stand up to the lawlessness of the last eight years. We cannot move forward until we look back and right the wrongs committed. We don’t just owe this to ourselves, but to the rest of the world as it looks on and watches. And it is watching very closely.

Elizabeth Burke, a New York-based actor, has been involved in politics since her first campaign at age 16. Burke’s Law does not necessarily represent the view of The Clyde Fitch Report.