It's Called Torture
New York Times OP-ED
By BOB HERBERT
February 28, 2005
As a nation, does the United States have
a conscience? Or is anything and everything O.K. in post-9/11
America? If torture and the denial of due process are O.K., why
not murder? When the government can just make people vanish -
which it can, and which it does - where is the line that we, as
a nation, dare not cross?
When I interviewed Maher Arar in Ottawa
last week, it seemed clear that however thoughtful his comments,
I was talking with the frightened, shaky successor of a once robust
and fully functioning human being. Torture does that to a person.
It's an unspeakable crime, an affront to one's humanity that can
rob you of a portion of your being as surely as acid can destroy
Mr. Arar, a Canadian citizen with a wife
and two young children, had his life flipped upside down in the
fall of 2002 when John Ashcroft's Justice Department, acting at
least in part on bad information supplied by the Canadian government,
decided it would be a good idea to abduct Mr. Arar and ship him
off to Syria, an outlaw nation that the Justice Department honchos
well knew was addicted to torture.
Mr. Arar was not charged with anything,
and yet he was deprived not only of his liberty, but of all legal
and human rights. He was handed over in shackles to the Syrian
government and, to no one's surprise, promptly brutalized. A year
later he emerged, and still no charges were lodged against him.
His torturers said they were unable to elicit any link between
Mr. Arar and terrorism. He was sent back to Canada to face the
torment of a life in ruins.
Mr. Arar's is the case we know about. How
many other individuals have disappeared at the hands of the Bush
administration? How many have been sent, like the victims of a
lynch mob, to overseas torture centers? How many people are being
held in the C.I.A.'s highly secret offshore prisons? Who are they
and how are they being treated? Have any been wrongly accused?
If so, what recourse do they have?
President Bush spent much of last week
lecturing other nations about freedom, democracy and the rule
of law. It was a breathtaking display of chutzpah. He seemed to
me like a judge who starves his children and then sits on the
bench to hear child abuse cases. In Brussels Mr. Bush said he
planned to remind Russian President Vladimir Putin that democracies
are based on, among other things, "the rule of law and the
respect for human rights and human dignity."
Someone should tell that to Maher Arar
and his family.
Mr. Arar was the victim of an American
policy that is known as extraordinary rendition. That's a euphemism.
What it means is that the United States seizes individuals, presumably
terror suspects, and sends them off without even a nod in the
direction of due process to countries known to practice torture.
A Massachusetts congressman, Edward Markey,
has taken the eminently sensible step of introducing legislation
that would ban this utterly reprehensible practice. In a speech
on the floor of the House, Mr. Markey, a Democrat, said: "Torture
is morally repugnant whether we do it or whether we ask another
country to do it for us. It is morally wrong whether it is captured
on film or whether it goes on behind closed doors unannounced
to the American people."
Unfortunately, the outlook for this legislation
is not good. I asked Pete Jeffries, the communications director
for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, if the speaker supported Mr.
Markey's bill. After checking with the policy experts in his office,
Mr. Jeffries called back and said: "The speaker does not
support the Markey proposal. He believes that suspected terrorists
should be sent back to their home countries."
Surprised, I asked why suspected terrorists
should be sent anywhere. Why shouldn't they be held by the United
States and prosecuted?
"Because," said Mr. Jeffries,
"U.S. taxpayers should not necessarily be on the hook for
their judicial and incarceration costs."
It was, perhaps, the most preposterous
response to any question I've ever asked as a journalist. It was
not by any means an accurate reflection of Bush administration
policy. All it indicated was that the speaker's office does not
understand this issue, and has not even bothered to take it seriously.
More important, it means that torture by
proxy, close kin to contract murder, remains all right. Congressman
Markey's bill is going nowhere. Extraordinary rendition lives.