Monday, April 14, 2008

Torture as Permanent Exile

I'd been mulling over a couple points that I've yet to see mentioned in the debate about the use of physical coercion in terrorist interrogations, trying to figure out just how to illustrate them, when along comes The Moor Next Door with a post about Yal Menfi, a song about an Algerian rebel taken prisoner and beaten by the French colonial authorities. Literally "the Exile", Yal Menfi was written in the aftermath of the Algerian insurrection of 1871, then reprised in the 1950's in the context of the Algerian War of Independence. It has since been recorded by contemporary artists, including Cheb Mami, an Algerian-born rai singer who has enjoyed crossover success with Sting and Nile Rodgers among others (ie. hardly a hardcore radical), demonstrating how more than a hundred and thirty years after its composition, the song and the mistreatment it describes still haunts the collective consciousness of Algerians and resonates with their experience to this day.

The song illustrates in a poignant way something I'd noticed while going through Karim Sadjadpour's Carnegie Institution report, Reading Khamenei, namely that Khamenei, like Hashemi Rafsanjani and a good deal of the Iranian leadership from the time of the revolution to now, was tortured by the Shah's secret police. Similarly, Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida's strategic mastermind, was tortured in Egypt. And the list goes on. The point isn't that torture inevitably creates extremists or terrorists, so much as that torture has a longterm indelible impact not only on individuals but on societies at large. This longterm, multi-generational resentment is rarely included by proponents of physical coercion in the calculation of its usefulness.

Then there is the question of legality, which is what President Bush resorted to in defending the Principles' meetings at which the coercive techniques were discussed. What the legalistic defense ignores is that no regime that ever practiced physical coercion or torture was careless enough to leave it a crime. What's more, governments rarely engage in illegal behavior when they have the ability to render it legal without the consent of the people. The more abhorrent the behavior, the more that rule applies. What's shocking is that this administration has now joined their ranks, not only in its behavior, but also in its recourse to effectively changing the law without the knowledge or consent of the governed.

Which makes the last point so alarming. The use of cruel punishment for a convicted criminal flies in the face of the principles of American jurisprudence. And to the best of my knowledge, no one has yet suggested that terrorists, once they have revealed whatever information of value they might possess and have been convicted in a court of law, be subjected to cruel treatment as punishment for their crimes. Which only makes the use of cruel treatment in the fact-gathering phase of the investigation, before any proof of guilt has been established, even more of an aberration.

Anyone who wavers over the utilitarian defense of coercion (the ticking timebomb scenario) would do well to consider whether they would be willing to authorize these practices in the context of the American justice system. Because there are any number of reasonable scenarios whereby an American citizen, unassociated with any international terrorist organization and not motivated by any radical ideology, might be in possession of knowledge that could spare thousands of innocent lives. The ticking timebomb scenario, in other words, respects no borders, and has little regard for passports or citizenship. Which means that once it is invoked, it is essentially enshrined. And under this administration, that can happen whether we know about it or consent.

Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   

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