risking blood on his hands

A piece from the Age today:

NAZI hunter Simon Wiesenthal was often asked why he pursued old men about events from so long ago. He replied: “I am someone who seeks justice, not revenge. My work is a warning to the murderers of tomorrow that they will never rest.”

Those words highlight everything wrong about US President Barack Obama’s response to the so-called “torture memos”. The documents, written by lawyers in George Bush’s Justice Department, authorise CIA interrogation techniques. They permit agents to push prisoners into walls, slap them on the face and abdomen, douse them in very cold water, strip them naked, house them in dark, cramped spaces, force them into painful positions (one memo reads, “in wall standing, all of the individual’s body weight is placed on his fingertips”) and deprive them of sleep for up to 180 hours (while shackled and in nappies).

And they authorise water-boarding. Known in the Spanish inquisition as toca, or tortura del agua, water-boarding — which induces the physiological responses associated with drowning — was used by Marcos in the Philippines, Pinochet in Chile and Pol Pot in Cambodia. The new memos show that the CIA performed water-boarding on Khalid Sheikh Mohammad 183 times in a month, and on Abu Zubaydah, who seems to have been mentally ill, 83 times. CIA doctors stood by to perform an emergency tracheotomy — a wise precaution, since one memo suggests a detainee (probably Abu Zubaydah) stopped breathing or lost consciousness.

To his credit, Obama has publicly acknowledged the obvious: water-boarding is torture. Yet he has made it clear that interrogators will face no sanctions, saying: “I do not think it’s appropriate for them to be prosecuted.”

But low-ranking individuals ordered to carry out torture invariably do so within guidelines provided by their superiors. Here is part of the charge sheet drawn up by American lawyers against a civilian employee of the Imperial Japanese Army: “In or about August 1943, the accused, Genji Mineno, together with other persons did, willfully and unlawfully, brutally mistreat and torture George De Witt Stoddard and William O. Cash, American prisoners of war, by strapping them to a stretcher and pouring water down their nostrils.” Mineno was sentenced to 20 years’ hard labour — even though official Japanese army manuals instructed interrogators to torture POWs.

The Nuremberg trials established the principle that orders provide no defence of acts that revolt the conscience. One FBI agent described so-called “coercive” techniques in Guantanamo Bay like this: “On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a foetal position on the floor, with no chair, food, or water. Most times they urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18-24 hours or more.”

Most of us, whatever a legal memo said, would instinctively judge such scenes as profoundly wrong.

Obama has also, apparently, decided not to prosecute those who devised the torture memos. The officials, it is said, thought they were doing the right thing. The country had been spooked by September 11. Investigations would polarise the nation; the US should move forward rather than get caught in recriminations. In the words of Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan: “Some things in life need to be mysterious … sometimes you need to just keep walking.”

Such principles would exculpate any tyranny. As the Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman argues: “Every regime that tortures does so in the name of salvation, some superior goal, some promise of paradise.” Mineno was fighting a total war, much more desperate than the war on terror. Did that justify the water-board?

The US boasts a well-funded judiciary. Many of the countries where human rights violations proliferate do not. We now know that about 100 US detainees, including some in the custody of the CIA, died during interrogations. If Obama does not investigate, how can anyone expect impoverished nations to do better?

The arguments are also profoundly undemocratic. The ordinary wretch convicted of petty theft goes straight to jail — he or she cannot airily tell the court to worry about the future rather than the past.

Torture was, is and (one hopes) always will be, a criminal act, but the Obama Administration seems to be upholding the Nixon doctrine, whereby if the president or his men do it, it is not illegal.

Last month, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre won an important victory when the Federal Court of Australia ruled that 87-year-old Charles Zentai — accused of beating a teenager to death in Budapest in 1944 — would be extradited to Hungary for trial. Zentai has been pursued for 65 years, in order that, as Wiesenthal put it, war criminals might never rest easy. If we abandon prosecutions over crimes that took place more recently, what message do we send the torturers of the future?

Jeff Sparrow is the editor of the literary journal Overland. His book, Killing: Misadventures in Violence, will be published by MUP in July.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

More by Jeff Sparrow ›

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