Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The Taint of Cruelty

I find it difficult to read the testimony of abused prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison. The testimony exemplifies why a military force, or a government in a democracy must never succumb to the temptation to abuse prisoners. To do so taints our men and women with an insidious evil that cannot but damage the fighting effectiveness of the troops. More seriously, the taint is contagious and if it goes unchecked at the military level, it will spread throughout the society. Consider this sample from the trial of Specialist (prison guard) Graner of the US Army.

Defense lawyer Guy Womack has maintained that Graner and other soldiers had no choice but to obey orders by military and civilian intelligence officers to soften up detainees for questioning.

Earlier Tuesday, an insurgent from Syria who went to Iraq in 2003 to fight U.S.-led forces told jurors about alleged abuse by Graner. Amin al-Sheikh, also testifying by video, said Graner forced him to eat pork and drink alcohol in violation of his Muslim faith, and on one occasion made him thank Jesus for keeping him alive at the notorious Baghdad prison.

Al-Sheikh described Graner as the "primary torturer" at Abu Ghraib and "a naturally aggressive man" - a characterization that led Graner, sitting in the courtroom, to roll his eyes and chuckle.

Asked if Graner appeared to enjoy hurting him, al-Sheikh said: "He laughed. He was whistling. He was singing."
There is more, including forced masturbation, urinating on prisoners and striking them on their wounds. As I said, it is difficult stuff to read.

I believe that the profession of arms is a noble profession in which to serve. In a democracy the military has the role of protecting us all from harm. It sometimes has to do so through the concentrated application of lethal force and, as such, the military must be constrained by rules of engagement which are consistent with the values of the society it serves. Adherence to this principle is what prevents the military from degenerating into a gang of armed thugs.

Something went terribly wrong at Abu Ghraib. The military guards claim they were simply carrying out orders to "soften up" the prisoners. This has the ring of truth and if it is true, then the government of the United States has a duty to determine who fostered this ethos and to root them out of the military and government .... period.

Much of this abuse is attributable, in my view, to the refusal to apply the Geneva Conventions to these prisoners. I happen to be among those who agree that many, if not most, of the prisoners fall outside the ambit of the conventions, as written. When this issue first arose, I was uncomfortable with the matter, but went along with US Government's decision not to apply the accords, as being driven by circumstantial necessity. Clearly, I should have paid more attention to the tweaks of my conscience and to the ramifications of ignoring internationally recognized constraints. We shall know the quality of the tree by the fruit it bears.

Now, in the cold light of experience, we need to look deeper at this issue. There are reasons why the nations of the world gathered together to formulate the Geneva conventions in the first place. The arbitrary detention of people, for extended periods of time, without resort to trial or legal counsel, fosters a climate in which abuse can (and does)flourish. If we believe we are truly a people that is governed by the rule of law, we cannot allow the executive branch of government unfettered powers of detention. This is a legal principle that goes all the way back to the Magna Carta and beyond. It finds its genesis in natural and divine law.

The fact that we are dealing here with our enemies (and yes they are Canada's enemies, as well) makes it more compelling that we hold to just means when detaining such men as these. We are not judged by how we treat the easy cases, but by how we react when faced with the hard ones. You may think me soft for writing so. You would be wrong.

This is not the stuff of wet, bleeding heart sensibilities, although superficially it may mimic that. It requires us to be tough on ourselves as well as our enemies. It requires us to accept that our principles are not matters of mere administrative convenience, to be jettisoned when times are difficult.

In my view, justice for all is a rock bottom conservative principle of good governance, and our ultimate strength, which we abandon to our peril.


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