When We Torture: By Nicholas Kristof (NYT)

When We Torture
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF, The New York times, February 14, 2008

The most famous journalist you may never have heard of is Sami al-Hajj, an Al Jazeera cameraman who is on a hunger strike to protest abuse during more than six years in a Kafkaesque prison system.

Mr. Hajj’s fortitude has turned him into a household name in the Arab world, and his story is sowing anger at the authorities holding him without trial.

That’s us. Mr. Hajj is one of our forgotten prisoners in Guantánamo Bay.

If the Bush administration appointed an Under Secretary of State for Antagonizing the Islamic World, with advice from a Blue Ribbon Commission for Sullying America’s Image, it couldn’t have done a more systematic job of discrediting our reputation around the globe. Instead of using American political capital to push for peace in the Middle East or Darfur, it is using it to force-feed Mr. Hajj.

President Bush is now moving forward with plans to try six Guantánamo prisoners before a military tribunal, rather than hold a regular trial. That will call new attention to abuses in Guantánamo and sow more anti-Americanism around the world.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pushed last year to close Guantánamo because of its wretched impact on American foreign policy. But they lost the argument to Alberto Gonzales and Dick Cheney. So America spends millions of dollars bolstering public diplomacy and sponsoring chipper radio and television broadcasts to the Islamic world — and then undoes it all with Guantánamo.

Suppose the Iranian government arrested and beat Katie Couric, held her virtually incommunicado for six years and promised to release her only if she would spy for Iran. In such circumstances, Iranian investments in public diplomacy toward the United States wouldn’t get very far, either.

After Mr. Hajj was arrested in Afghanistan in December 2001, he was beaten, starved, frozen and subjected to anal searches in public to humiliate him, his lawyers say. The U.S. government initially seems to have confused him with another cameraman, and then offered vague accusations that he had been a financial courier and otherwise assisted extremist groups.

“There is a significant amount of information, both unclassified and classified, which supports continued detention of Sami al-Hajj by U.S. forces,” said Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman, adding that the detainees are humanely treated and “receive exceptional medical care.”

Military officials did acknowledge that Mr. Hajj was not considered a potential suicide bomber and probably would have been released long ago if he had just “come clean” by responding in greater detail to the allegations and showing remorse.

Mr. Hajj’s lawyers contend that he has already responded in great detail to every allegation. One indication that the government doesn’t take its own charges seriously, the lawyers say, is that the U.S. offered Mr. Hajj a deal: immediate freedom if he would spy on Al Jazeera. Mr. Hajj refused.

Most Americans, including myself, originally gave President Bush the benefit of the doubt and assumed that the inmates truly were “the worst of the worst.” But evidence has grown that many are simply the unluckiest of the unluckiest.

Some were aid workers who were kidnapped by armed Afghan groups and sold to the C.I.A. as extremists. One longtime Sudanese aid worker employed by an international charity, Adel Hamad, was just released by the U.S. in December after five years in captivity. A U.S. Army major reviewing his case called it “unconscionable.”

Mr. Hajj began his hunger strike more than a year ago, so twice daily he is strapped down and a tube is wound up his nose and down his throat to his stomach. Sometimes a lubricant is used, and sometimes it isn’t, so his throat and nose have been rubbed raw. Sometimes a tube still bloody from another hunger striker is used, his lawyers say.

“It’s really a regime to make it as painful and difficult as possible,” said one of his lawyers, Zachary Katznelson.

Mr. Hajj cannot bend his knees because of abuse he received soon after his arrest, yet the toilet chair he was prescribed was removed — making it excruciating for him to use the remaining squat toilet. He is allowed a Koran, but his glasses were confiscated so he cannot read it.

All this is inhumane, but also boneheaded. Guantánamo itself does far more damage to American interests than Mr. Hajj could ever do.

To stand against torture and arbitrary detention is not to be squeamish. It is to be civilized.

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