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Paul Verhaeghen: We Are Not Immune to History. History Is Not Immune to Us.

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May 21, 2008

By Paul Verhaeghen, author, Omega Minor

It used to be so simple.

Even five years ago there was no room for moral ambiguity.

Here is President Bush, in his 2003 State of the Union:

“Iraqi refugees tell us how forced confessions are obtained — by torturing children while their parents are made to watch. International human rights groups have catalogued other methods used in the torture chambers of Iraq: electric shock, burning with hot irons, dripping acid on the skin, mutilation with electric drills, cutting out tongues, and rape. If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning.”

At this point, the transcript mentions an outbreak of (Applause.)

Torture and America

Not that long ago, then, we were not only opposed to torture inflicted upon Americans (such as the kicking, clubbing, burning with cigarettes and waterboarding of American POWs as practiced by Japanese soldiers; they received between 15 and 25 years of hard labor for their transgressions): We were also quite opposed to torture inflicted upon Iraqis for the mere purpose of extracting from them what we then called “forced confessions”.

It used to be simple.

And then all this, within a year of this rousing denunciation of the practice of torture: 2003: Naem Sadoon Hatab, strangled to death at the Whitehorse detainment facility in Nasiriyah; 2003: Hemdan El Gashame, shot to death while imprisoned in Nasiriyah; 2003: Manadel Jamadi, beaten to death during interrogation at Abu Ghraib; 2004: Farhad Mohamed, cut and beaten to death in Mosul.

Such is the “enhancement” of our “interrogations”.

What happened?

It is simple.

Now it is we who do the beating.

We are Good, you see, and we fight Evil, and by the very nature of our Goodness, all we do, no matter what it is, is both permitted and justified, for it is done for Goodness’s sake. Invading a country that never posed a threat, killing at least 83,000 of its civilians, detaining 25,000 of them, building cages on faraway shores for prisoners who will never get justice and at most a verdict, mock executions, beatings, electrical shocks, forced nakedness, sexual humiliation, the infliction of hypothermia and heat injuries, waterboarding, accidental killings? It’s all Good.

If this is the work of a few bad apples, their names are Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, Powell, Tenet and Ashcroft.

One can argue against torture on utilitarian grounds. Torture begets information, but not all of that information is “reliable”. Confessions obtained under torture are not admissible in a court of law; we might have to release some potentially very real terrorists if their confessions are forced (Google Mohammed al-Kahtani, for instance). And torture goes against our word of honor — we did sign the Geneva Convention, we did sign the United Nations Convention against Torture.

Ultimately, there is a deeper precept.

Torture is the ultimate possession. You carve a person’s flesh. Their mind, their identity, their future, their fate rest in your hand, and yours alone. You twist their very soul until it breaks. They are — wholly — yours. Yours to toy with, yours to maim, and yours to kill. You own this human being like a slave-owner owns his slaves. This is not a metaphor. This human being is your slave; he has no recourse, no mercy, no law, than the recourse, the mercy, the law that is you.

This is the twenty-first century. Torture should be as unthinkable as slavery.

In my country, it is not. Here, we consider torture an acceptable form of human intercourse.

We do know this is wrong. We all know it. We brag about precision bombings; we show them on TV. We glorify the surgical precision of our military missions in movies and in novels; we embed reporters in our marches through the desert. But we do not brag about torture. We hide the evidence; we burn the tapes. We do not even want their blood to soil our soil; we outsource the violence to Cuba, to Yemen, to Egypt, to Gambia and Malawi, to Mauritania and Morocco, to Sudan, Zimbabwe, Indonesia and Pakistan, to Bulgaria, Germany, Bosnia, and Romania — and we hope the evidence will never surface. We do know this is wrong. We all know it.

History will not judge us kindly. But just as we are not immune to history, history is not immune to us. Power is not the only truth that matters. We, the people, are better than this. We can speak up. We can refuse to take part in what is done in our name, with our money, in this day and age. We have freedom of expression. We have the right to vote.

I do agree with President Bush: If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning.

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