Tuesday, 20 May 2008

The ooze

Who can keep up with the steady seep-seep of details about the torture of defenseless detainees by the U.S. government’s agents and its authorized proxies in faraway lands? The latest is tomorrow’s New York Times summary of an FBI report detailing the abuse witnessed by its own agents who, despite feeling occasional distress at what they saw, let it continue.

The report by the Justice Department’s Inspector General is based on one of the absurdly lethargic ‘investigations’ launched by government bodies back in 2004 so that they could pretend to be doing something after the revelations at Abu Ghraib. If the conquest of Iraq had been successful, no one would be paying the slightest attention to all that now. Another of the downsides of losing a war.

Not that there’s a tremendous amount of interest even now in who saw or did what, but it’s still early. I lived through the last years of a vicious dictatorship and witnessed how the revelations and denunciations of murder, torture, kidnapping, extortion and conspiracy steadily accumulated over a period of decades, long after the assassins responsible thought they had gotten away with it for good.

But they didn’t. There’s something about torture that lingers on in the collective memory, despite the best-buried bones or the corpses tossed far out to sea, despite amnesties, bought judges and skulduggery from turncoat politicians who rode opposition to the dictator into power, then forgot about his victims. Eventually, hundreds of the torturers and assassins faced prosecution and ruin.

One aspect of the truth that eventually bubbles to the surface in these cases, like the effluvia of a broken sewer main, is that torture is a conscious policy designed to punish and dehumanize the enemy, even—or especially—if a given individual is found to be innocent.

‘When a man is wrongly condemned to punishment, it becomes necessary for his judges to use greater severity to cover up their own misapplication of the law’ [Galileo to Nicole Fabri de Peiresc, 1630]. Galileo knew something about false accusations and how, once persecutors have launched them, redoubled efforts must follow in the cover-up.

Nineteen-year-old German citizen Murat Kurnaz was picked up by American troops in Pakistan in November, 2001 after a local denounced him to collect the reward money. Kurnaz had gone to study Islam at the wrong time and ended up at the Guantánamo prison where his captors soon realized he hadn’t been fighting anybody’s war and knew nothing.

But that didn’t make him harmless. On the contrary, any proof that the U.S. and its allies were arresting and tormenting the innocent was extremely inconvenient. It would endanger the official policy of setting platoons of thugs loose to grab suspects and beat ‘intelligence’ out of them.

Kurnaz’s story is in the latest issue of the Amnesty International quarterly magazine, and one detail jumped out at me. He relates that after months in prison in Cuba, he was visited by German intelligence agents who, as has now been confirmed, were convinced of his innocence.

However, instead of immediate release Kurnaz suffered even more intense and sustained psychological torment from the Americans, including sleep deprivation, interrogations that lasted for days on end and other techniques designed to drive him into madness. Meanwhile, the German government simultaneously sought to keep him from returning home.

The only credible explanation of this procedure is that a conspiracy took place by which Americans and their German allies, fearing the credible denunciations of a sane victim of their treatment, tried to destroy Kurnaz to save their international secret police camp system.

This is a far more serious set of crimes than the repugnant but amateurish humiliations practiced by Lyndie English and her sub-normal compeers at Abu Ghraib. It reflects an icily calculated system with deep layers of protection and complicity as well as the technical expertise of seasoned psychopaths.

The fetid stink of this pool of malevolence will assault our nostrils for years to come. But the perpetrators may be surprised to find how long memory survives as well and how far back the arm of justice can reach.

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