Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The Politics of Cruelty

On the recommendation some months ago of Michael Nutkiewicz, executive director of the Program for Torture Victims in Los Angeles, I have been reading Kate Millett's 1994 book, The Politics of Cruelty: An Essay on the Literature of Political Imprisonment. It is an excellent book, one that seems particularly relevant now when Americans are--or at least ought to be--dealing with torture and lesser forms of cruelty perpetrated by Americans in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and other prisons established to hold those swept up in the "war on terror."

I will be quoting from and discussing Millett's book from time to time over the next several days as I try to examine the matter of torture systematically in a series of posts. For now, however, I want to point out that The Politics of Cruelty deals with many different abuses related to political imprisonment and not torture alone. Torture may be the worst of the crimes a state can commit against those it incarcerates, but it is not the only one. This is worth remembering as we think about Alberto Gonzales and the "torture memos," abuse of the Koran at Guantanamo, or extraordinary rendition. Even if no one acting under the authority of the United States had ever committed an act of torture in the context of the "war on terror," there would still be much to remind outsiders of the French colonial administration in Algeria, the South African government's policies during the apartheid era, or other textbook cases of the abuse of state power.

Consider, as Millett does, the matter of arbitrary detention: holding prisoners without charge and without access to attorneys and legal recourse for long periods of time. The "Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus" in Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution establishes a barrier to the arbitrary detention of U.S. citizens (or others held in the sovereign territory of the United States) as does the Sixth Amendment, which states,

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

Sadly, until the Supreme Court ruled in Rasul v. Bush that detainees in the "war on terror" were required to have their designation as "unlawful enemy combatants" confirmed by a military tribunal, the United States was routinely holding "suspected terrorists" at Guantanamo without charges, without trials, and without access to attorneys. Prisoners transported from Afghanistan to Guantanamo were effectively "disappeared."

Here, writing about Kenyan political prisoner Ngugi wa Thiong'o, is what Millett has to say about arbitrary detention:

Detention is efficient and expeditious; in fact, it is probably the only way to maintain the pretense of legalism. For above all else, detention is how to "deal with" the innocent. There is neither crime nor evidence, there cannot be a trial; a trial would be embarrassing. So one is simply jailed without accusation. And since there is no trial, there can be no appeal. The state has expressed itself in its power. (The Politics of Cruelty, 205)

As the terse Pentagon announcements regarding actions of the Combatant Status Review Tribunals indicate (go here to see them), reviews (even though highly flawed according to many attorneys) have resulted in the release of scores of detainees. As an April 19, 2005, announcement notes, eighteen detainees were released because they were "found to no longer be an enemy combatant." Three years of confinement (and, in all probability, degrading treatment or punishment) at Guantanamo followed by a hearing that establishes that one is "no longer" an enemy combatatant. It is hardly calculated to promote respect for the United States' commitment to justice.