Torture. To suggest that a country engages in the practice is to set it apart from the pantheon of civilized nations. Torture is so universally recognized as a symbol of tyranny that President Bush used it to justify invading Iraq. "Bringing stability and unity to a free Iraq will not be easy, yet that is no excuse to leave the Iraqi regime's torture chambers and poison labs in operation," Bush said in February.
The president claims to be at the helm of a human rights effort to extinguish torture. In June, he proclaimed: "The United States is committed to the worldwide elimination of torture and we are leading this fight by example."
But are we? Does Bush have such clean hands that he can lecture the rest of the world?
No. Not even close. In the name of the "war on terrorism," the Bush administration is condoning and even facilitating the torture of terrorist suspects.
While the activities take place behind a veil of deniability, some excellent reporting by the Washington Post has laid bare the facts. And they aren't pretty.
Under a practice known as "extraordinary rendition," the CIA is delivering terror suspects into the hands of foreign intelligence services without extradition proceedings. According to the Post, the authority to do this comes from a secret "finding" by the president.
Suspects have been sent to Syria, Morocco, Egypt and Jordan, countries whose abusive practices have been documented and condemned by the State Department's annual human rights report. "We don't kick the s-- out of them. We send them to other countries so they can kick the s-- out of them," an unnamed official who had participated in the rendering of prisoners told the Post. Along with the prisoner, the CIA provides the foreign intelligence services a list of questions it wants answered.
Torture is illegal in the United States, by law, Constitution and international convention. Not only may the United States not engage in the practice - even in wartime - the law explicitly prohibits sending a person to another nation where there is good reason to believe he might be tortured.
This is why the administration has been so cagey about its tactics. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has been trying to get answers, but the administration officially denies what it is doing. "United States policy is to obtain specific assurances from the receiving country that it will not torture the individual being transferred to that country," wrote William Haynes II, general counsel of the Defense Department, in response to Leahy's queries.
Assurances are part of a wink-nudge game. The Post talked with a number of officials who essentially admitted that, despite assurances, suspects are sent to places knowing they'll be treated harshly. "The temptation is to have these folks in other hands because they have different standards," said one. Everything is couched in knowing vagaries.
And now comes a living example of the administration's game: Maher Arar. For 10 months Arar was beaten, whipped with cables and threatened in a Syrian prison where we sent him. The disgrace of this case should indelibly stain the Bush administration's hands in a way that, like Lady Macbeth's, they will never come clean.
Arar was born in Syria but moved to Canada as a teenager and has been a Canadian citizen since 1991. He does computer consulting and has a wife and two young children. In September 2002, Arar was traveling back to Canada from a family gathering in Tunisia. During a connection at JFK Airport in New York, Arar was pulled out of line by immigration officials and detained as a suspected member of al-Qaida. It appears the thrust of the government's case is that Arar was an acquaintance of Abdullah Almalki, a Syrian-born Canadian who is also a suspect.
Arar insisted he was not a terrorist and had never been to Afghanistan, but U.S. officials refused to release him or send him back to Canada. He was held at a federal detention facility in Brooklyn and later deported to Jordan and driven to Syria. He said the cell he was put in for nearly the next 10 months resembled a grave: "It had no light. It was three feet wide. It was six feet deep. It was seven feet high."
Finally, in early October, Arar was released to Canadian officials and returned home. He was never charged with any crime.
The administration apparently feels justified in turning over suspects for torture, on the theory that our cause is righteous therefore anything we do in its advancement is moral. It is a delusion that all tyrants through history have embraced. The overriding truth about torture is that it degrades those who inflict or condone it. We begin to resemble the enemy being fought.