The Inquisition Strikes Back

"And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee." – John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII, 1623

We have by now all seen much of this material before, but reading it all in one piece, told by human voices in this book-length interview, is not easy to take. "Guantánamo: What the World Should Know" (Chelsea Green) – by Michael Ratner and Ellen Ray – becomes a heart-stopper once you cross the line and realize that you could be any of these victims.

Michael Ratner, President of the Center for Constitutional Rights, is co-counsel in Rasul v. Bush, the historic case of Guantánamo detainees now before the U.S. Supreme Court. His interviewer, Ellen Ray, is President of the Institute for Media Analysis, and a widely published author and editor on U.S. intelligence and international politics.

It's hard to say which is more disgusting, the descriptions of the torture or the bone-chilling analyses of how the president of the United States gave himself the powers of an absolute military dictator. Under Military Order No. 1, which the president issued without congressional authority on November 13, 2001, George W. Bush has ordered people captured or detained from all over the world, flown to Guantánamo and tortured in a lawless zone where, the White House asserts, prisoners have no rights of any kind at all and can be kept forever at his pleasure. Despite the at-best marginal intervention of the American courts so far, there is no civilian judicial review, no due process of any kind.

While any military force will routinely violate the civil rights of anyone who gets in its way, Ratner's descriptions of how victims wound up in Guantánamo reveal wanton cruelty and callousness that will nauseate any sane human being.

Ratner writes: "A lot of the people picked up by warlords of the Northern Alliance were kept in metal shipping containers, so tightly packed that they had to ball themselves up, and the heat was unbearable. According to some detainees who were held in the containers and eventually released from Guantánamo, only a small number, thirty to fifty people in a container filled with three to four hundred people survived. And some of those released said that the Americans were in on this, that the Americans were shining lights on the containers. The people inside were suffocating, so the Northern Alliance soldiers shot holes into the containers, killing some of the prisoners inside."

Some prisoners were captured in battle; many others were picked up in random sweeps for no reason at all except being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As usual in these kinds of operations, some were turned in as a result of petty revenge or as an excuse to steal their property. When asked in court to explain the criteria for detention, the government had no answer. There were no criteria, it appears. "The government even made the ridiculous argument before the Supreme Court that the prisoners get to tell their side of the story, by being interrogated," Ratner reports.

Ratner notes that 134 of the 147 prisoners later released from Guantánamo were guilty of absolutely nothing. Only thirteen were sent on to jail. He believes it is possible that a substantial majority of the Guantánamo prisoners had nothing to do with any kind of terrorism. One prisoner released after a year claimed he was somewhere between ninety and one hundred years old, according to Ratner. Old, frail and incontinent, he wept constantly, shackled to a walker.

So what did the authorities get from those who survived? We will never know, but we can guess from at least one incident in this book. Ratner reports that the Guantánamo interrogators showed some of his clients' videotapes supposedly depicting them with Osama bin Laden. At first they denied being in the videos, but they confessed after prolonged interrogation under harsh conditions. Yet British intelligence proved to the American government that the men were actually in the United Kingdom when the tapes were made.

If many of these people who died in custody or were tortured had committed no crime, there is no doubt that they were all victims of crime, whether guilty or not. Despite White House arguments to the contrary, torture is a crime under international and United States law.

Under United Nations Convention Against Torture, an international treaty that almost every country in the world, including the United States, has ratified, torture is an international crime. The United States has made it a crime even if it occurs abroad.

"The Convention Against Torture also establishes what is called universal jurisdiction for cases of torture," Ratner explains. "So, for example, if an American citizen engaged in torture anywhere in the world and was later found in France, let's say, that person could be arrested in France and either tried for torture there or extradited to the place of the torture for trial. To the extent U.S. officials were or are involved in torture in Guantánamo or elsewhere, they should be careful about the countries in which they travel."

He continues, "In addition, torture committed by U.S. soldiers or private contractors acting under U.S. authority is a violation of federal law, punishable by the death penalty if the death of a prisoner results from the torture. Even if one argues that al Qaeda suspects are not governed by the Geneva Conventions, the Convention Against Torture and other human rights treaties ratified by the United States prohibit torture as well as other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

"The convention is crystal clear: under no circumstances can you torture people, whatever you call them, whether illegal combatants, enemy combatants, murderers, killers. You cannot torture anybody ever; it's an absolute prohibition."

While many well-meaning people on both left and right profess to be shocked by the stories that continue to pour out of Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib and other detention centers, they usually fail to understand that these atrocities are
well-rooted in American culture.

"None of what is known to have happened in Guantánamo is alien to American prisoners." says Paul Wright, Editor, Prison Legal News. Sexual assault, long term sensory deprivation, abuse, beatings, shootings, pepper spraying and the like are all too familiar to American prisoners. Coupled with overcrowding, this is the daily reality of the American prison experience."

Perhaps the only real difference is that the White House argues more forcefully than usual that no court can forbid it to arbitrarily detain and torture anyone it designates an unlawful enemy combatant, a definition that it has applied not only to foreigners but also to American citizens. We have seen how the drug exception to the Constitution has nullified basic American rights such a freedom from illegal search and seizure. But the war on drugs was merely a test run. Some rights remained intact. Now comes the permananent war against terrorism in which all human rights are
annihilated.

Rasul v. Bush could be a legal turning point, but it remains to be seen whether or not the White House will respect any inconvenient court decision, no matter how high the bench. Michael Ratner and Ellen Ray could be merely eloquent early witnesses to the inevitable future. Thus ends democracy in the United States. The most hope that one can express is a question mark. Thus ends democracy in the United States?

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