Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Torture in Afghanistan

Just a little over a week ago, I wrote about new allegations of torture by Americans in Mosul, Iraq. Today the Los Angeles Times has a long story about allegations of torture--and murder by torture--at the hands of U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan. Here is a brief excerpt from the Times article:

Alleged American mistreatment of the detainees included repeated beatings, immersion in cold water, electric shocks, being hung upside down and toenails being torn off, according to Afghan investigators and an internal memorandum prepared by a United Nations delegation that interviewed the surviving soldiers.

The article also offers details concerning the death of 18-year-old Jamal Naseer in American custody. When Naseer's body was turned over to Afghan authorities, it was covered with bruises consistent with prolonged beatings.

I am at a loss to describe my feelings on hearing yet another story of Americans as torturers. Knowing that the United States is engaged in a battle for the hearts and minds of Muslims, I am frightened by what these stories tell me about how that battle is going. Knowing that war--and postwar occupation--is a nasty business and that we owe a debt of gratitude to those serving in the armed forces, I am nonetheless disgusted by the actions of those who, wearing the flag of my country on their uniforms, would torture another human being. And, knowing that the United States has, at least in its better moments, stood for human rights and the rule of law, I am deeply saddened by what our nation has become in the eyes of the world.

It would be easy to attribute acts of torture in Abu Ghraib, in Mosul, and in Gardez, Afghanistan to the mistakes--or the crimes--of a few individuals. It would be wrong, however, to take the easy way out. Why? First, because there is evidence that allegations of torture have been covered up. (See the Times article for details.) Second, because torture has been rationalized and defined away by the United States Government since shortly after 9/11. Consider this conclusion from a legal memorandum prepared by the Department of Justice and dated August 1, 2002:

We conclude that for an act to constitute torture as defined in Section 2340 [the U.S. Torture Victims Protection Act], it must inflict pain that is difficult to endure. Physical pain amounting to torture must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death. For purely mental pain or suffering to amount to torture under Section 2340, it must result in significant psychological harm of significant duration, e.g., lasting for months or even years.

The Department of Justice concluded, in other words, that it is very difficult to get to the point at which inflicting pain on another human being qualifies as "torture" under the law. Sadly, attorneys for the Department of Defense reached similar conclusions. There is, I believe, a connection between the legal opinions that have been circulated at the highest levels of the government and the actions of Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan. If not, then the United States has an even more serious problem that falls under the heading of command authority.

(I posted links to this and other memoranda--along with links to a Human Rights Watch report and photos from Abu Ghraib--in an earlier post on torture.)