Amazing grace toward torture

by Hugh Cortazzi

LONDON — It beggars belief that U.S. President George W. Bush took so long to endorse Sen. John McCain’s resolution against the use of torture by the CIA or any other U.S. organization. The resolution has been passed by an overwhelming majority in the U.S. Senate and by Congress but was, it seems, fiercely opposed by Vice President Dick Cheney and his neocon supporters, who seem to believe that evil means can be justified if the results benefit America.

Terrorists welcome such an attitude. It shows, they assert, that they are fighting against an evil regime. This is, of course, a perversion of the facts, but the use of evil means is grist to the terrorists’ arguments.

Torture is barbaric and a throwback to medieval times. Information obtained by torture is never reliable. The tortured understandably will say just what their hearers want in order to mitigate the pain they have been made to suffer. The information on which the attack on Iraq was “justified” was at best unreliable. Some of it may have been obtained by torture or have come from Iraqis who thought that they could gain power by inducing an attack on their own country.

The United States is now the only superpower, but terrorism cannot be defeated by military and police power alone. The U.S. may be invincible but it remains vulnerable. You cannot achieve peace by simply killing, torturing or suppressing your opponents. Even the U.S. needs friends. The big stick alone is insufficient; carrots also have an important role in any attempt to settle conflicts. Unfortunately it seems that some in America don’t agree. John Bolton, America’s arrogant and abrasive U.N. ambassador, once famously said, “I don’t do carrots!”

Many Americans, as well as most foreign observers, have been appalled by the excuses made for incarcerating “combatants” without trial or due process at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Many more have been ashamed of the abuses by members of the U.S. forces at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. They have also been concerned by the many Iraqi civilian casualties as a result of operations in Iraq, such as that in Fallujah. They worry whether the mounting U.S. casualties and the sufferings of the Iraqi people can be justified by the attempt to impose democracy on a country that has never before experienced it.

Some may also wonder whether the U.S. refusal to accept the International Criminal Court suggest that some U.S. leaders such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, fear that some Americans may have been guilty of war crimes.

U.S. ties with Europe have been ruffled again recently by reports that CIA flights have been taking prisoners from the U.S. and elsewhere — possibly including some individuals kidnapped by CIA officials outside the U.S. — to secret prisons in some East European countries where torture is allowed. This policy is euphemistically termed “extraordinary rendition.”

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was questioned about these reports on her recent visit to Europe. She declared that the U.S. government does not do anything illegal or break any international conventions and said that in cases of “extraordinary rendition” the U.S. did not send prisoners anywhere where it knew they would be tortured. This, of course, leaves open the possibility that prisoners might have been shipped to places where they might be tortured.

Nor did she attempt to explain the purpose of “extraordinary rendition” if it was not to extract information by means that could not lawfully be used in the U.S. She insisted that America respected the sovereignty of countries receiving such prisoners and of countries through which CIA flights had passed.

The ambiguity of Rice’s statements has been widely noted and there have been calls for an investigation by European governments of CIA flights that might have been carrying prisoners. The British government has issued a supportive statement and the British foreign secretary has claimed ignorance of such flights. The argument seems to be that, if passengers do not land, authorities have no means of knowing whether prisoners were on board.

The House of Lords, acting as Britain’s supreme court, has recently reaffirmed that evidence extracted by torture cannot be used to justify detention of terrorist suspects. The British government has never endorsed the use of torture, but it has been alleged that it has been prepared to use evidence obtained elsewhere by torture. Once again the British courts have shown that they are better defenders of human rights than an increasingly authoritarian government.

Terrorist attacks and suicide bombings designed to kill and maim women, children and others can never be justified, but we must not use means such as torture, which put us on a par with the terrorists. We must also do what we can to ameliorate the conditions that breed terrorism.

The Arab-Israel dispute continues to fester and it will not be solved until there is a fair settlement of Arab borders including Israeli withdrawal from the new settlements still being built in the West Bank. Some American neocons and “born-again” Christians take the line that any criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is anti-Semitic. This is, of course, nonsense. Many Israelis recognize that, to achieve peace, Israel will have to make substantial concessions.

Under Bush’s leadership, the U.S. seems increasingly to take the line that the rest of the word can “go hang.” The behavior of the U.S. delegation at the Montreal Climate Change conference seemed to exemplify this, but fortunately former U.S. President Bill Clinton intervened and persuaded the U.S. delegation to accept a compromise formula even if it amounts to very little.

When we feel increasingly exacerbated and provoked by the arrogant behavior of some members of this U.S. administration, we should remind ourselves that nearly half the American electorate voted differently at the last election, that there are wise and principled members of the Republican Party, such as McCain.

We must also remember the achievements of former U.S. governments and their contributions to world peace and prosperity in the postwar years and in the defeat of communism. We must all try to convince the Bush administration that unilateralist policies are not conducive to the American interest and that any condoning, however veiled, of evil practices such as torture is immoral, will lose friends and only benefit enemies.