Thursday, May 26, 2005


May 26, 2005
With the Gloves Off
A photo of President Bush gingerly holding a month-old baby was on the front page of yesterday's New York Times. Mr. Bush is in the habit of telling us how precious he thinks life is, all life.

The story was about legislation concerning embryonic stem cell research, and it included a comment from Tom DeLay urging Americans to reject "the treacherous notion that while all human lives are sacred, some are more sacred than others."

Ahh, pretty words. Now I wonder when Mr. Bush and Mr. DeLay will find the time to address - or rather, to denounce - the depraved ways in which the United States has dealt with so many of the thousands of people (many of them completely innocent) who have been swept up in the so-called war on terror.

People have been murdered, tortured, rendered to foreign countries to be tortured at a distance, sexually violated, imprisoned without trial or in some cases simply made to "disappear" in an all-American version of a practice previously associated with brutal Latin American dictatorships. All of this has been done, of course, in the name of freedom.

The government would prefer to keep these matters secret, but we're living in a digital age of near-instantaneous communication. Evidence of atrocities tend to emerge sooner rather than later, frequently illustrated with color photos or videos.

A recent report from Physicians for Human Rights is the first to comprehensively examine the use of psychological torture by Americans against detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The employment of psychological torture, the report says, was a direct result of decisions developed by civilian and military leaders to "take the gloves off" during interrogations and "break" prisoners through the use of techniques like "sensory deprivation, isolation, sleep deprivation, forced nudity, the use of military working dogs to instill fear, cultural and sexual humiliation, mock executions, and the threat of violence or death toward detainees or their loved ones."

"Although the evidence is far from complete," the report says, "what is known warrants the inference that psychological torture was central to the interrogation process and reinforced through conditions of confinement."

In other words, this insidious and deeply inhumane practice was not the work of a few bad apples. As we have seen from many other investigations, the abuses flowed inexorably from policies promulgated at the highest levels of government.

Warfare, when absolutely unavoidable, is one thing. But it's a little difficult to understand how these kinds of profoundly dehumanizing practices - not to mention the physical torture we've heard so much about - could be enthusiastically embraced by a government headed by men who think all life is sacred. Either I'm missing something, or President Bush, Tom DeLay and their ilk are fashioning whole new zones of hypocrisy for Americans to inhabit.

There's nothing benign about psychological torture. The personality of the victim can disintegrate entirely. Common effects include memory impairment, nightmares, hallucinations, acute stress disorder and severe depression with vegetative symptoms. The damage can last for many years.

Torturing prisoners, rather than making the U.S. safer, puts us all in greater danger. The abuses of detainees at places like Guantánamo and the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq have come to define the United States in the minds of many Muslims and others around the world. And the world has caught on that large percentages of the people swept up and incarcerated as terrorists by the U.S. were in fact innocent of wrongdoing and had no connection to terrorism at all.

Bitterness against the U.S. has increased exponentially since the initial disclosures about the abuse of detainees. What's the upside of policies that demean the U.S. in the eyes of the world while at the same time making us less rather than more secure?

The government, like an addict in denial, will not even admit that we have a problem.

"We're in this Orwellian situation," said Leonard Rubenstein, the executive director of Physicians for Human Rights, "where the statements by the administration, by the president, are unequivocal: that the United States does not participate in, or condone, torture. And yet it has engaged in legal interpretations and interrogation policies that undermine that absolutist stance."


Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
May 26, 2005
U.S. 'Thumbs Its Nose' at Rights, Amnesty Says
LONDON, May 25 - In coordinated broadsides from London and Washington, Amnesty International accused the Bush administration on Wednesday of condoning "atrocious" human rights violations, thereby diminishing its moral authority and setting a global example encouraging abuse by other nations.

In a string of accusations introducing the organization's annual report in London, Irene Khan, Amnesty's secretary general, listed the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the detention of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and the so-called rendition of prisoners to countries known to practice torture as evidence that the United States "thumbs its nose at the rule of law and human rights."

Defending its human rights record as "leading the way," the White House dismissed the accusations as ridiculous and unfounded.

Ms. Khan labeled the United States detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, where more than 500 prisoners from about 40 countries are being held, as "the gulag of our times."

In Washington, William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA, urged President Bush to press for a full investigation of what he called the "atrocious human rights violations at Abu Ghraib and other detention centers."

"When the U.S. government calls upon foreign leaders to bring to justice those who commit or authorize human rights violations in their own countries, why should those foreign leaders listen?" Dr. Schulz said. "And if the U.S. government does not abide by the same standards of justice, what shred of moral authority will we retain to pressure other governments to diminish abuses?

"It's far past time for President Bush to prove that he is not covering up the misdeeds of senior officials and political cronies who designed and authorized these nefarious interrogation policies," he said. "So Congress must appoint a truly impartial and independent commission to investigate the masterminds of the atrocious human rights violations at Abu Ghraib and other detention centers, and President Bush should use the power of his office to press Congress to do so."

In response, Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, said: "I think the allegations are ridiculous, and unsupported by the facts. The United States is leading the way when it comes to protecting human rights and promoting human dignity. We have liberated 50 million people in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have worked to advance freedom and democracy in the world so that people are governed under a rule of law, that there are protections in place for minority rights, that women's rights are advanced so that women can fully participate in societies where now they cannot."

"We've also - are leading the way when it comes to spreading compassion," Mr. McClellan said. "The United States leads the way when it comes to providing resources to combat the scourge of AIDS." Amnesty's language was among the strongest it has used and represented a sense in human rights groups that the treatment by the United States of prisoners in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantánamo Bay had diminished its standing.

"It's not because the United States is the worst human rights abuser in the world but because it's the most influential," said Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, via phone from New York. "United States disregard for international human rights standards is damaging those standards," he said, referring to some governments with poor human rights records "citing the U.S. record to justify their own."

In a separate telephone interview, Dr. Schulz of Amnesty International USA acknowledged his organization had used "strong language" because it felt that "the United States has betrayed a very fundamental principle that this country stands for."

The focus on what Dr. Schulz called "the failure of global leadership" was a shift from times when Amnesty International concentrated on issues like the death penalty, which it opposes, in countries like China, and the plight of refugees.

Ms. Kahn said the Bush administration had "gone to great lengths to restrict the application of the Geneva Conventions and to 'redefine' torture."

"It has sought to justify the use of coercive interrogation techniques, the practice of holding 'ghost detainees' (people in unacknowledged incommunicado detention) and the 'rendering' or handing over of prisoners to third countries known to practice torture," she said.

She also criticized the European Union and some United Nations institutions, saying the Security Council had "failed to muster the will to take effective action in Darfur" in Sudan.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company


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