ÒNo exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture....
ÒNo State Party [i.e., agent of a country] shall expel, return or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.Ó--From articles 2 and 3 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, signed by the United States in 1994.
They say that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the recently captured Al Qaeda operative, is being Òdebriefed.Ó They say he is undergoing Òintensive interrogationÓ in an Òundisclosed location.Ó
But letÕs put it plain: Khalid Shaikh Mohammed is being tortured. HeÕs being tortured by Americans, or their hired mercenaries, where nobody can watch.
And so is Muhammad Abdel Rahman, who was captured last month, and who apparently spilled the beans on Shaikh Mohammed. And so is Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who was captured last fall, and who apparently led the CIA to Abdel Rahman.
And so are hundreds, if not thousands, of marginal suspects in Afghanistan and Guantamo. Just last week one of these died at an American airbase in Afghanistan. His name was Dilawar, and he was not the first to die in American hands. He was 22. He was a farmer. The Americans caught him wandering near an American army base, imprisoned him, and within a couple of weeks he was dead. An American military pathologist listed the death as Òhomicide,Ó due at least in part to Òblunt force injuries to lower extremities.Ó Prisoners--innocents--who have been released in Afghanistan describe being forced by Americans to stand, naked, sleepless, in chains, for so long that their legs swelled up, leaving them no feeling in their shackled feet. (See the March 4 issue of The New York Times for details.)
In response to DilawarÕs death, the general in charge of U.S. forces in Afghanistan said, ÒOur interrogation techniques are adapted. They are in accordance with what is generally accepted as interrogation techniques.Ó My god, what a man will say so as not to say anything.
George Bush would like us to believe that the terrorists, men who (Bush claims) would happily martyr themselves for Islam and for hatred of America, are, under mild persuasion, revealing everything they know about Al Qaeda. Or he would like us to look away. Or he would like us to congratulate him for getting these bad guys to talk and turn each other in. He would like us to do anything but ask why theyÕre talking.
But we already know why theyÕre talking: TheyÕre being tortured, and the torture is being carried out on George BushÕs orders by Americans or their chosen proxies in foreign countries whose laws are a little more, shall we say, lax than those inside our own borders.
Under the pretext of fighting terrorism and saving human lives, America is forfeiting its very humanity. And most of us, comfortably watching Fox News in our warm living rooms, are happy to pretend we donÕt know anything about it at all.
ItÕs one of the oldest hypotheticals in modern philosophy: If you were certain that a terrorist knew the whereabouts of an atomic bomb hidden in New York, and if it was scheduled to explode tomorrow, would you be justified in torturing him to get him to reveal the bombÕs location so you could prevent a nuclear catastrophe and the loss of millions of lives? Would you rip out his fingernails? Would you attach electrodes to his genitals? Would you chop off his fingers one at a time? Gouge out his eyes? Torture his children in front of him? For most people, the answer even to such an extreme, clearcut question is painful. Yes, they might say, but we hate the idea--torture makes us sick.
The spawn of John Ashcroft and Donald Rumsfeld donÕt hate the idea. Torture doesnÕt even make them queasy--it simply makes life easy. Of course, in the case of Mohammed and his cohorts, there is no nuclear bomb, no clearcut threat of any kind, anymore--only an acute White House paranoia born of one holy-hellish day of terrorist success back on September 11, 2001. But that wonÕt stop the torturers. They are desperate to bring America the prize of OsamaÕs head. They think it will assure them the next election.
Ask them (would that someone in the White House press corps would dare), and BushÕs representatives will tell you they are not torturing anybody. Fine. Then let a neutral third party--someone from the Red Cross, say, or from Doctors Without Borders--visit the prisoners daily. In 1994, the United States, under Bill Clinton, signed the international anti-torture convention cited at the top of this column. In December, 2002, the United Nations created a protocol to the convention calling for Òindependent international and national expertsÓ to visit prisoners in order to assess their treatment. Only four countries refused to sign the 2002 protocol: Nigeria, Palau, the Marshall Islands, and George BushÕs United States. Whose nation is ÒrogueÓ now, Mr. Bush? How ÒrelevantÓ do you feel in the company of Palau?
But the administration says they canÕt allow witnesses to the Òinterrogations.Ó ItÕs important, they say, that the suspects feel isolated, afraid, friendless, and dehumanized, so theyÕll talk. Dehumanization comes easy to this administration. The suspects, say the Bushites, could even somehow send out hidden signals, through the observers, to other terrorists, resulting in more terrorist attacks. Oh, please. As if the worldwide terrorist cells need the wink of OsamaÕs eye or the nod of MohammedÕs head to carry out their plans.
For all we know, the man the CIA is torturing isnÕt even Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. He could, right now, be pleading mistaken identity. But we will never know. Whatever pain the Americans can manufacture will break him, and he will tell them anything they want to hear, even if itÕs lies. The recent revelations about forced confessions by police in the U.S. make it clear that bullying, sleep deprivation and coercive lies have forced many suspects to confess to crimes they didnÕt commit. We can be sure that the CIAÕs bully-minions are willing to go much further than sleep deprivation.
And although the confessions of the tortured have limited credibility among reasonable people, we can fully expect the Bush administration to use the statements of the tortured to justify their future power grabs in the name of fighting terrorism. For this White House, torture serves many ends.
But there is in torture no innocence. And there is in torment no righteousness. If Khalid Shaikh Mohammed is in fact the ÒmastermindÓ behind the September 11 terrorist attacks, he has no right to ask for our sympathy. But if, Mr. Bush, you are torturing him, or if, Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Ashcroft, you have cravenly arranged for someone else to torture him, then you have surely earned the worldÕs pity, for you have lost your souls forever.