Having just read several articles about the so-called Killing Fields in Cambodia, as well as the US Military Prison at Abu Ghraib, I am struck not only by the similarity in motives of the abusers (ideology), but also by the outcomes (liberty and justice only for those responsible). The 21st century may end up being known as the century of leniency toward evil. It was in this century that we have seen the wholesale dissolution of the American proscription against torture and against inhumanity. It was also in this century that we have seen a Cambodian court sentence one of the chief perpetrators of the Cambodian holocaust to a mere 19 years in prison for 14,000 people tortured and killed. Conversely, in the mid-twentieth century, we saw Nazi death camp guards and commandants rightly executed for crimes of that proportion. Accountability was upheld in those earlier cases, but not in these of our current century.
With the advent of the torture memos written by John Yoo and Jay Bybee, who served under an administration of more powerful and more nefarious devils who cared not about the conscience or the spirit of America and who drew together such a crowd of yes-men to write doctrine to support the torture being encouraged, we see large portions of the American public shift their beliefs about torture as if they were under a hypnotic spell. Formerly, it was a no-brainer: ‘we don’t torture. “Only the bad guys torture. The Nazis tortured. We’re the good guys, we are better than that; we do not torture.” As if by magic, the party line has shifted to a more lenient point of view that torture is okay, as long as it is we that do it. Torture by the opponent is terrorism, a crime against humanity; torture by us is a necessary evil. Early on in the Bush administration, after the revelation that there was torture going on under our jurisdiction, Bush decried repeatedly that we do not torture. Later on, Bush, Cheney and their supporters (including Cheney’s own daughter Liz) began to defend torture as something acceptable when carried out to ensure the safety of our nation. Talking out of both sides of their proverbial mouths, they both supported torture and claimed that the torture they supported is not torture!
Shortly after the revelation of the existence of our torture camps, Conservative apologists like Rush Limbaugh sought to claim that the activities carried on in our military prisons were no more harmful than fraternity hazing, choosing to address only the less egregious forms of “enhanced interrogation” methods, such as being subjected to long periods of enforced standing and being exposed to barking dogs, as well as humiliating postures and positions. These weren’t so bad, afterall, were they? Unfortunately, he chose to ignore the growing evidence for more nefarious forms of torture that were going on, the proof of which is now undeniable. These include allowing those aforementioned barking dogs to actually bite prisoners as well as guards actually torturing prisoners to death. Numerous instances of prisoners dying under torture have surfaced and a paucity of prosecutions have been carried out, with virtually no substantial convictions. The Conservative apologists are still ignoring these cases, as if they were not a black mark on our collective national conscience. By this same token, I suppose that the Nazis rounding the Jews up and sending them to concentration camps wasn’t so bad afterall. Where’s the harm in that? Oh, but don’t forget about the gas chambers and the ovens, not to mention the medical experiments and the starvation!
Retired Major General Antonio Taguba is perhaps the most outspoken and righteous man in the current military hierarchy, having headed up a military investigation against the abuses of the Bush administration and having publicly decried them in a contribution to the Physicians for Human Rights report of 2008. In this, he rightly and boldly accused the Bush administration of war crimes. God bless the whistle blowers like him.
Now, lest you think that I am taking an unfair stance against American and Christian parties, I must state that similarly I am deeply saddened by the Turkish government’s stance on the ‘non-existence’ of a genocide against the Armenians during the early part of the 20th century. In their official position, it simply did not happen. But lest I one day be arrested for transgressing Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, should I ever visit Turkey, I will refrain from making any disparaging remarks against the Turkish government. I will not say that I abhor this stance as unrighteous and damaging to all citizens of Turkey, either Muslim or Armenian or otherwise. I will not state that the Armenian genocide is a black mark on the record of an otherwise righteous nation known for its traditional tolerance of Jews and other ethnicities within its borders. I will not criticize the Turkish government for any such policy or transgression. But I ask the reader if it is possible to criticize a government and its policies without being seen to criticize the entire nation. I ask the reader if it is truly patriotic to back one political party and to be an apologist for all of its stances, right or wrong, and to be swindled by the leaders of that party into allowing them to do what they will, fearing that if one were to criticize their actions that one would be criticizing the entirety of the nation. I ask the reader if it is just to follow a tyrant who has wrested control from the hands of justice and from the hands of the people and demanded that all remain silent while he commit unearthly acts of terror against a portion of the nation’s populace or even other peoples. Is this patriotism? Is this justice? Is this righteous? Since when did patriotism become synonymous with blind support of tyranny? Evidently, we in the United States are not alone in our struggle to remember what the U.S. military oath says about supporting and defending the Constitution of the United States “against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Perhaps those in other nations too must face the task of standing up to bullies and tyrants within their own governments.
Once again, lest I be characterized as one-sided or unfairly critical of my own beloved nation, I also must remind you of how I began this essay. I was appalled that the government of Cambodia, now somewhat safely removed from its days of tyranny by the Khmer Rouge, has largely adopted a policy of ‘let bygones be bygones’, and in which its youth no longer remember the scars that their parents bore in former days under the former regime. The courts have allowed one of the key members of the torture academies to be given a proverbial slap on the wrist for his innumerable crimes against humanity. But still, where were our cries of injustice during that regime’s tenure? We were largely silent while Pol Pot and his cronies exterminated perhaps a million or more in the countrysides and lush jungles of their nation. And Europe was similarly silent while the Young Turks ravaged their brethren, the Armenians, in the midst and in the wake of WWI. Had a cry of injustice been raised then, perhaps later genocides might have been prevented or at least attenuated.
The CIA black prisons still exist, despite the largely ceremonial liquidation of Guantanamo Bay. The authors of our national lapse of conscience have still gone unpunished, as have their uniformed henchmen. And those who should be behind bars still practice law ‘at the bar’. It is time to prosecute those responsible for the U.S. torture prisons, even if it means going all the way to the top. It is time that we, in our patriotism, put righteousness at all costs above petty conceptions of patriotism. We must set an example for the rest of the world that we are still the good guys, that our country, right or wrong, is still our responsibility. That it is still in the hands of democracy and is still the beacon of freedom and liberty and justice for all. That we will shoulder the burden of our nation’s moral guidance and will not close our eyes to the misdeeds of those who have pretended to act in our best interests; that we will not ignore justice simply because our former lapse in judgment embarrasses us. Perhaps the other nations will then also follow our example.