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Yes We Can Say No to Torture

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Not only CAN we say "No" to torture, we MUST say "No" to torture. Much of the torture "debate" has focused around the policies, legitimation, and use of torture under the Bush Administration. President Obama has repeatedly stated that he thinks that torture does not reflect our values. Indeed, he has said the he "believes" that waterboarding is torture. However, since taking office, he has increasingly shifted his rhetoric to "soften" the issue of torture. He increasingly refers to "enhanced interrogation." In his press conference marking his first hundred days in office, he referred to torture as a "shortcut." This conceptual and linguistic shifting is more than worrisome - it is downright alarming. In the 100 days press conference (April 30, 2009), President Obama responded to Jake Tapper's question "Torture is a violation of international law and the Geneva Conventions. Do you believe that the previous administration sanctioned torture?" was a follows (transcript courtesy of The Huffington Post) :
What I've said -- and I will repeat -- is that waterboarding violates our ideals and our values. I do believe that it is torture. I don't think that's just my opinion; that's the opinion of many who've examined the topic. And that's why I put an end to these practices. I am absolutely convinced it was the right thing to do, not because there might not have been information that was yielded by these various detainees who were subjected to this treatment, but because we could have gotten this information in other ways, in ways that were consistent with our values, in ways that were consistent with who we are. I was struck by an article that I was reading the other day talking about the fact that the British during World War II, when London was being bombed to smithereens, had 200 or so detainees. And Churchill said, "We don't torture," when the entire British -- all of the British people were being subjected to unimaginable risk and threat. And then the reason was that Churchill understood, you start taking short-cuts, over time, that corrodes what's -- what's best in a people. It corrodes the character of a country. And -- and so I strongly believed that the steps that we've taken to prevent these kinds of enhanced interrogation techniques will make us stronger over the long term and make us safer over the long term because it will put us in a -- in a position where we can still get information. In some cases, it may be harder, but part of what makes us, I think, still a beacon to the world is that we are willing to hold true to our ideals even when it's hard, not just when it's easy. At the same time, it takes away a critical recruitment tool that Al Qaida and other terrorist organizations have used to try to demonize the United States and justify the killing of civilians. And it makes us -- it puts us in a much stronger position to work with our allies in the kind of international, coordinated intelligence activity that can shut down these networks. So this is a decision that I'm very comfortable with. And I think the American people over time will recognize that it is better for us to stick to who we are, even when we're taking on an unscrupulous enemy.
I would agree with President Obama that the use of torture and the abuse of prisoners "erodes our character." However, I strongly disagree with his seemingly tacit acceptance of the framing that torture is an efficient way of getting information. In using the word "shortcuts" in relationship to torture, he is essentially saying: "There are two ways of getting necessary information from a prisoner. There are legal interrogation methods, and there is torture. Torture will get to the information quicker, but we are too good a people to use it." In other words, there are times when torture may be used. This perception is reinforced by Obama's repeated response to the Bush administration use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" as a "mistake." In other words, "There is a place and a time for torture, they just made a poor choice." In the press conference analysis by Olbermann and Maddow, Maddow captures some key points of concern by stating:
I thought his (Obama's) framing of the issue was surprising. He was sort of accepting (I thought) of the sort of Jack Bauer (of the Fox show 24) Dick Cheney framing of the issue in a way that I think liberals will be very disappointed in.
(See the video clip: Olbermann & Maddow Disagree With Obama On Torture! First 100 Days Press Conference. ) The questions, the discussion, to this point in time, have focused around the policies and practices of the Bush administration in relationship to torture. In that regard, Obama has consistently reiterated his preference (and one assumes the pressure being applied) is to "move forward" and not address the past. While such an approach essentially leaves future permission for the acceptability of a President ordering torture if he/she feels it necessary, it does not address a newly emerging issue. Namely that the abuse and torture of prisoners within the care of the United States is still going on. According to a new report by Jeremy Scahill - "Little Known Military Thug Squad Still Brutalizing Prisoners at Gitmo Under Obama" from 5/15/09, Immediate Reaction Force (IRF) or Emergency Reaction Force (ERF) teams are still being employed at Guantánamo. Known as "Extreme Repression Force" inside the Guantánamo facility, these units and methods are still operating under the Obama administration.
"The IRF team is intended to be used primarily as a forced-extraction team, specializing in the extraction of a detainee who is combative, resistive, or if the possibility of a weapon is in the cell at the time of the extraction," according to a declassified copy of the Standard Operating Procedures for Camp Delta at Guantánamo.
The characterization of IRF team action by "human rights lawyers, former prisoners and former IRF team members" is chilling:
"They are the Black Shirts of Guantánamo," says Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has represented the most Guantánamo prisoners. "IRFs can't be separated from torture. They are a part of the brutalization of humans treated as less than human." Clive Stafford Smith, who has represented 50 Guantánamo prisoners, including 31 still imprisoned there, has seen the IRF teams up close. "They're goons," he says. "They've played a huge role."
Under the section of Scahill's article "IRF-ing Continues Under Obama" he states that the Center for Constitutional Rights has found a continuing use of these teams under Obama. In fact, there seems to be an escalation in the use of such teams.
But one month later, the Center for Constitutional Rights released a report titled "Conditions of Confinement at Guantánamo: Still In Violation of the Law," which found that abuses continued. In fact, one Guantánamo lawyer, Ahmed Ghappour, said that his clients were reporting "a ramping up in abuse" since Obama was elected, including "beatings, the dislocation of limbs, spraying of pepper spray into closed cells, applying pepper spray to toilet paper and over-force feeding detainees who are on hunger strike," according to Reuters. "Certainly in my experience there have been many, many more reported incidents of abuse since the inauguration," Ghappour said. While the dominant media coverage of the U.S. torture apparatus has portrayed these tactics as part of a "Bush era" system that Obama has now ended, when it comes to the IRF teams, that is simply not true. "[D]etainees live in constant fear of physical violence. Frequent attacks by IRF teams heighten this anxiety and reinforce that violence can be inflicted by the guards at any moment for any perceived infraction, or sometimes without provocation or explanation," according to CCR. In early February 2009, at least 16 men were on hunger strike at Guantánamo's Camp 6 and refused to leave their cells for "force feeding." IRF teams violently extracted them from their cells with the "men being dragged, beaten and stepped on, and their arms and fingers twisted painfully." Tubes were then forced down their noses, which one prisoner described as "torture, torture, torture." In April, Mohammad al-Qurani, a 21-year-old Guantánamo prisoner from Chad managed to call Al-Jazeera and described a recent beating: "This treatment started about 20 days before Obama came into power, and since then I've been subjected to it almost every day," he said. "Since Obama took charge, he has not shown us that anything will change."
We cannot allow President Obama to continue to soft pedal the issue of torture. For all kinds of reasons, it is not acceptable to just "move forward." The conditions at Guantánamo (and given the systematized nature of abuse and torture that has been employed "in the past") likely continue elsewhere. The investigation of past policy and practice must be addressed, or current and future Presidents will use this precedent. Ongoing practices under the Obama administration are a continuation of those "mistakes" Obama points to. I supported Obama. I voted for Obama. With all my heart I hope for a substantive change from Obama. However, I cannot give him - or any other politician - a free pass. People say, "Well, he's only been in office less than four months." Indeed this is true. However, every day of those four months, as Obama pursues a reframed "war on terror," people are being terrorized, traumatized, and killed IN OUR NAME. No politician, no matter how loved or hated, can get a free pass. As Howard Zinn urges in his article "Changing Obama's Mindset," it is we who must stand up. The citizens of a nation, any nation, are ultimately the ones who must "keep them honest." We are the one's who must lead, and we are the one's who must demand accountability. Other people in other nations seem to know this, and to practice it. Whether it is the people of Burma living under essentially military totalitarianism, or the workers of France in the streets, other peoples know that they must stand up to the abuses and actions of their governments. We need to do the same. We need to speak out and shout out. We need to let our elected representatives know that we are watching them even more closely that they are watching us. We were told over and over again by the Bush administration that we needed "boots on the ground" and to "fight them over there so we don't have to fight them over here." Well, we need "boots on the ground" by the citizens of the United States to reclaim and protect this nation. For if we do not fight for democracy and justice here, then any fighting anywhere else is nothing but imperialism. More Information Contact the President Center for Constitutional Rights Report: Current Conditions of Confinement at Guantánamo Still in Violation of the Law


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Rowan Wolf is an activist and sociologist living in Oregon. She is the founder and principle author of Uncommon Thought Journal, and Editor in Chief of Cyrano's Journal Today.

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