ALL human beings--whether soldiers, civillians or those accused of terrorism--are protected under international treaties from torture.
December 10th is recognized as Human Rights Day around the world. In 2006, the U.S. continues to occupy Iraq and only a handful of American soldiers have been convicted of committing torture in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison. The architects of that policy have retroactively exonerated themselves in the Military Commissions Act passed by Congress in October. One of the most notorious torturers of the 20th century, General Augusto Pinochet of Chile died of a heart attack at the age of 91, after a life of wealthy comfort. Pinochet said on his birthday this year, that he would not apologize for anything he'd done. I could not help but think of George W. Bush and his petulant refusal to acknowledge any mistake,any wrong, any harm to other human beings, in any decision he's made.Bush's dogged claim that torture is not the policy of the United States should sicken any emotionally-sentient person. But, most of the American people seem to have easily gone along with Bush's denial about torture. Too many of our fellow citizens have embraced former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's minimizing of most of what those infamous photographs of naked Iraqi men, as something akin to 'fraternity pranks'. Too many Americans cannot put themselves in the place of those exposed Iraqi men being sexually humiliated and sexually abused. But, I can,having survived such things and I can say unquivocally, it is undeniably a kind of torture that scars the soul. The photos of naked Iraqi men being threatened by snarling dogs immediatly reminded me of the famous photos of Birmingham, Alabama sheriff, Bull Connor setting police dogs on civil rights protestors. Why didn't other white Americans make that connection? I have no doubt that African-Americans did. Many of those who are willing to acknowledge the U.S. torture policy almost gleefully argue for its necessity in the so-called 'war on terrorism' and even assert that the people that Bush labels "terrorists" simply have no rights under the Geneva Convention, to NOT be tortured. And so ends what has passed for "debate" about torture when America has long said it 'fights for human rights all over the world'. The problem is that all these arguements are first and foremost wrong and based on lies. ALL human beings--regardless of whether they are soldiers, civillians or those accused of terrorism--are protected under international treaties against being tortured. No exceptions to that protection and then U.S. has signed these treaties. Bush, Rumsfeld and others who devised the torture policy--just like General Pinochet--have violated those treaties and are liable under internatinal law to be charged as such. Torture has long been used by the U.S.--to keep it simple, look since the post-WWII creation of the CIA and the infamous U.S. Army School of the Americas. Both have trained and 'supervised' torturers around the world--when not actively doing the deed themselves. But, most Americans are ignorant of their own county's foreign policy of covert and over invasions, installation of military dictatorships, arming of death squads and invention of torture techniques like 'waterboarding', where the victim is submergegd in water just up to the point of death over and over. Not knowing this history, Americans can comfort themselves with the idea that Abu Ghraib was simply the work of 'a few bad apples'. It's a common phrase one hears regularly used to dismiss the systematic brutality and murder committed by domestic law enforcement. Yet, those 'bad apples'are never held to any accountability, not even fired from their jobs. Torture is actually a regular feature of American life, but, like U.S. foreign policy, most white Americans remain indifferent. Police regulary beat, choke, use Taser electric shock and shoot civillians, most of them unarmed, most of them people of color and the poor. Corporate-owned newspapers and local TV news only report some of these incidents and mostly report from the perspective of the perpetrators--not the victims or if they've been murdered, their family-members. Occassionally, there's a video camera that captures the violence perpetrated by those we pay to protect us from violence. Occassionally, the victim is considered "deserving" enough of white, middle-class America's concern--a child, an elder like the 91 year-old-woman recently shot to death in her own home. Rarely, a victim gets approximate justice: a settlement of the tax-payers' money forthe "violation of civil rights". I've never heard of an American police officer charged, tried and convicted for the torture or murder of a civillian. What we must begin to always say is that this ordinary, regular brutality by the State violates human rights, which are protected under international treaties that the U.S. government has signed and is bound to. Mostly my fellow white Americans accept this violence, blame the victim and excuse the perpetrator, just as they have with the Abu Ghraib torture. I believe that Abu Ghraib is a direct outgrowth of not only the history of U.S. foreign policy but, the casual, everyday violence by American police, jailers, prison guards and border patrol. It's no coincidence that Sgt. Charles Graner Jr, who got 10 years for his role at Abu Ghraib, was a prison guard at the super-max prison in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, with a record of brutalizing prisoners. But, my concern is with us. You and me. Ordinary, white citizens who turn away, make the same excuses over and over or say nothing at all. These reactions to the torture on our streets and in our communities, in our jails and prisons, are complicity in the brutality, the murder, torture under-cover of "fighting crime"---like Bush's torture under "fighting terrorism". The excuses and silences about American-made torture are complicity becasue as long as white, middle-class Americans will support--directly or implicity--police brutality and torture, they will continue. As long as the victims of these State-sponsored human rights abuses at home and abroad are not seen as worthy of our concern, protection and demand for justice, the United States' claims to uphold the highest human rights standard in the world are a sham and a self-delusion. Some in the peace movement are outraged about Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and the secret prisons holding hundreds or perhaps thousands more victims of torture. But, too few of these white activists make the connection to police brutality and murder of unarmed civillians at home. I see no difference between Sean Bell, murdered the night before his wedding day, by undercover NYC police--who never identified themselves as police when they approached his van holding guns--and the U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib. I heard the story of Mr. Bell's murder and thought of the over 50 other people murdered by police, who's cases I've worked on as an activist or journalist. I thought of my friend, Fred Paez, shot, execution-style by a Houston police officer June 25, 1981. I can too easily imagine people I love lost to police violence. The silence and excuses and exonerations of the torturers and thug cops is complicity that creates the impunity that allows Abu Ghraib abroad and at home. Where is your voice?
Lydia Howell is a Minneapolis journalist, poet, activist and producer/host of "Catalyst:politics & culture" on KFAI Radio, all shows archived for 2 weeks after braodcast at www.kfai.org