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Alfred McCoy: Perfecting Illegality

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After a decade of intense public debate over torture, in the last two years the United States has arrived at a questionable default political compromise: impunity at home, rendition abroad.

This resolution does not bode well for future U.S. leadership of an international community determined to end the scourge of torture. Italy's prosecution of two-dozen CIA agents for rendition in 2009, Poland's recent indictment of its former security chief for facilitating a CIA black site, and Britain's ongoing criminal investigation of intelligence officials who collaborated with alleged torture at Guantanamo are harbingers of continuing pressures on the U.S. to comply with international standards for human rights.

Meanwhile, unchecked by any domestic or international sanction, Washington has slid down torture's slippery slope to find, just as the French did in Algeria during the 1950s, that at its bottom lies the moral abyss of extrajudicial execution. The systematic French torture of thousands during the Battle of Algiers in 1957 also generated over 3,000 "summary executions" to insure, as one French general put it, that "the machine of justice" not be "clogged with cases."

In an eerie parallel, Washington has reacted to the torture scandals of the Bush era by generally forgoing arrests and opting for no-fuss aerial assassinations. From 2005 to 2012, U.S. drone killings inside Pakistan rose from zero to a total of 2,400 (and still going up) -- a figure disturbingly close to those 3,000 French assassinations in Algeria. In addition, it has now been revealed that the president himself regularly orders specific assassinations by drone in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia off a secret "kill list."  Simultaneously, his administration has taken just one terror suspect into U.S. custody and has not added any new prisoners to Guantanamo, thereby avoiding any more clogging of the machinery of American justice.

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Absent any searching inquiry or binding reforms, assassination is now the everyday American way of war while extraordinary renditions remain a tool of state.  Make no mistake: some future torture scandal is sure to arise from another iconic dungeon in the dismal, ever-lengthening historical procession leading from the "tiger cages" of South Vietnam to "the salt pit" in Afghanistan and "The Hole" in Somalia. Next time, the world might not be so forgiving. Next time, with those images from Abu Ghraib prison etched in human memory, the damage to America's moral authority as world leader could prove even more deep and lasting.

Alfred W. McCoy is the J.R.W. Smail Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A TomDispatch regular, he is the author of A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, From the Cold War to the War on Terror , which provided documentation for the Oscar-winning documentary feature film Taxi to the Darkside . His recent book, Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation (University of Wisconsin, 2012) explores the American experience of torture during the past decade.

Copyright 2012 Alfred W. McCoy

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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