.
.
.
.

Of fear, loathing and tortured bodies and souls

The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the “war on terrorism” have diminished the republic and tarnished American exceptionalism

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

Americans and people all over the world have long known that the United States government, in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, engaged systematically and illegally in abducting and torturing al-Qaeda, Taliban and other detainees suspected of terrorism in its custody. This happened alone and in collaboration with many governments and used subterfuge, deception and outright lies to keep Americans and the world in the dark. However, very few knew the extent of the catalogue of depravity and cruelty visited upon these prisoners, many of whom were violent, dangerous men. This cruelty was carried out by Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operatives and other contractors to whom the CIA outsourced torture after giving it the Orwellian name “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.” That was until the Senate Intelligence Committee issued what amounts to an indictment of the CIA and its political enablers in the form of its report on “Central Intelligence Agency detention, Interrogation Program.”

The report brings to the fore very disturbing questions about what Americans call the intrinsic values of their unique republic; enlightenment, human dignity, justice, rationality, freedom and moderation. The report is a painful reminder that in the climate of fear and loathing that followed the worst foreign violent violation of the mainland ever, America went into a dark territory where its elected leaders invoked the elastic concept of National Security, just like religion was invoked for centuries by leaders elsewhere, to wage unrestrained wars.

This is a tale of leaders and institutions running amok in times of war, of a sullen and fearful public willing to suspend its critical judgment of the unbridled ambitions of its leaders and letting them escape moral, legal and political accountability. Finally, the report raises a daunting question about a uniquely American dilemma: How can a colossus power, an empire in fact with strategic and economic interests all over the world reconcile defending these interests with maintaining its democratic ethos?

A chronicle of horrors

The more than 500 pages of summary, based on more than 6000 pages still classified study, is a shocking chronicle of horrors that was far more brutal than the CIA has admitted to policymakers, congress and the American public. The details of “enhanced” torture are stomach-turning and sickly sadistic. They included waterboarding, (which the U.S. classified during the Cold War as a form of torture) sleep deprivation for up to 180 hours at a time, mock executions, beatings, forcing detainees to stand on broken limbs, threats of physical and sexual abuse of family members, pouring cold water on naked bodies chained to concrete floors, (one detainee died of hypothermia) and performing on at least five detainees, what can only be called pornographic torture in the form of rectal rehydration or rectal feeding for no apparent medical reasons.

Cruelty went hand in hand with incompetence. The Agency at times did not know how many were incarcerated in its far flung dungeons. The report reveals that at least 26 of the 119 documented CIA prisoners were “wrongfully held,” including an “intellectually challenged” detainee, who was held, according to the report, solely to intimidate or convince a next of kin to provide information the CIA was seeking. The grisly details make a mockery of President Obama’s bland admission last summer that “we tortured some folks.”

An international confederacy of torturers

Traveling in that dark territory along the United States in the years that followed the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were many co-conspirators, in fact there existed a confederacy of international torturers that included 54 countries, some of them providing, the aptly named “black sites,” secret prisons where local henchmen and professional torturers were unleashed on detainees who were abducted overseas then through a process known as “extraordinary rendition,” were moved to prisons abroad solely for the purpose of torturing them. The infamous case of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen of Syrian descent captures the absurdity and cruelty of this practice. In 2002 Mr. Arar was detained at JFK airport in New York on his way home to Canada from a vacation in Tunisia on suspicions of belonging to al-Qaeda. After detaining him for 12 days without charges during which he was interrogated and denied access to a lawyer, U.S. authorities decided to “deport” him not to Canada, the country whose passport he was traveling on, but to Syria, a country known for its brutal torture. Mr. Arar was reportedly imprisoned in Syria for a year during which he was subjected to severe abuse and torture. No charges were ever leveled at Mr. Arar, and he received no compensation from the United States government.

Most Arab states were members in this confederacy of torturers. It is as if their motto was: we torture your prisoners, so that we can torture our prisoners with impunity, now that we are partners in crime. The “extraordinary rendition” program, suspended by President Obama, meant that the U.S. during the presidency of George W. Bush had pioneered what might be called the “globalization of torture” by using a wide international network of prison systems, to help capture, interrogate, transport and outsource torture to foreign government, and engage in practices it cannot engage in on American soil.

‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairperson Dianne Feinstein addressed the climate of dread that followed the terrorist attacks of 2001, which were used by the Bush administration to justify the “enhanced” measures against the suspected terrorists. “It is worth remembering the pervasive fear in late 2001 and how immediate the threat felt”. She added “pressure, fear and expectations of future terrorist plots do not justify, temper, or excuse improper actions taken…in the name on national security”.

The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the “war on terrorism” have diminished the republic and tarnished American exceptionalism

Hisham Melhem

When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt warned Americans in 1933 at the height of the Depression, that the only thing they have to fear is fear itself, he was telling them that fear itself was making their economic predicament much worse, he called it “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” It was this kind of paralyzing fear of imminent threats that was invoked by the Bush administration to justify its war on terrorism and later the invasion of Iraq. Former vice President Dick Cheney said as much following the release of the report in a television interview “I think you’ve got to remember partly what was going on as well too during that period of time, we had reporting that al-Qaeda was trying to get their hands on nuclear weapons…we had the anthrax attacks, and we had every reason to expect to have a follow on attack…”

The U.S. and the rest

Many people outside the United States did not appreciate initially, the impact of the attacks on America’s collective sense of impenetrable security, and the rage many people felt when in the next days that followed we were told that the number of victims was likely to be very high, and certainly more than the 3000 documented later. Europeans and Arabs had to be reminded that one reason for America’s wrath in Afghanistan was due to the fact that their security was violated in an unprecedented way. No American city was ever, bombed, strafed or besieged a fate that befell practically every major city or capital in Europe, the Middle East and all the way to Tokyo in the twentieth century.

The bloodiest battles on American soil were those fought by Americans against fellow Americans in the epic Civil War. But as Senator Feinstein implied, even in wars there are impermissible forms of violence and violations. And in the “war on terrorism” the enhanced interrogation program and the attendant torture were immoral, illegal and unnecessary to obtain information. Republican senator John McCain, who was subjected to severe torture as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, rejected invoking fear because of imminent threats or using potential attacks to engage in torture, because that argument would vindicate North Vietnam’s torture of American prisoners. If another nation, even in a state of war had abducted individuals overseas, transported them illegally to foreign jails were they were subjected to torture, one could easily see the U.S. spiriting to defend the victims, denouncing torture, weighing military intervention and the imposition of economic sanctions.

Digging up bones

This is not the first time the CIA finds itself investigated for illegal activities inside and outside the U.S. In 1975 -76 The Church Committee, named after Democratic senator Frank Church issued 14 reports on the alleged abuses of law by Intelligence services particularly the Central Intelligence Agency, such as attempts to assassinate foreign leaders, as well as spying on American citizens on behalf of the Nixon administration. Those reports included recommendations for reform, in contrast with the current report by the Intelligence Committee.

The other “flaw” in the current report is that it did not include any recommendations for further reform to guarantee that these abuses will not re-occur, particularly if the President’s political party controls also both houses of congress.

Did you say accountability?

The absence of recommendations and lack of calls for prosecuting those responsible for designing, implementing and protecting these grizzly practices means that the current report is at best cathartic, allowing senator Feinstein to say that “America is big enough to admit when it is wrong and confident enough to learn from its mistakes.” President Obama and his Justice Department have made it very clear that heads will not roll as a result of these abominations. President Obama can be satisfied by showing his moral indignation and condemnation of torture, provided that CIA comeuppance will not exceed the moral dimension to include legal punishment.

Focusing only on the CIA and its failings during the “war on terrorism” lets the whole political class off the hook. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were overwhelmingly supported by the democratic members of congress. After 13 years of the invasion of Afghanistan (a worthy objective had it remained limited only to punishing Al Qaeda perpetrators and their Taliban enablers) and 11 years after the disastrous invasion of Iraq, none of the senior Bush administration officials expressed even a whiff of mea culpa. None of the people who ordered the invasions that led to the death and wounding of tens of thousands of American soldiers, and a countless number of Afghans and Iraqis is willing to own their decisions, or to engage in serious introspection or self-criticism. Most of them published convenient, selective memoirs to essentially re-write, or obscure history and in the process made money. Some of them still have the audacity to go on television to pontificate and give advice as to what to do now in Iraq and Syria. At times the U.S. looked and behaved like a third world country: the leadership commits costly and literally bloody blunders, and everybody’s heads remained intact. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the “war on terrorism” have diminished the republic and tarnished American exceptionalism. There is after all something rotten and scandalous in this land.

__________
Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.