The long slog of rebuilding American democracy
By Ted Rall
Clearing House" -- -- NEW YORK--The
military tribunal lasted a week. At the end the 17
defendants were permitted to make a closing statement.
Alexei Shestov, 41 years of age, stood up and admitted
to being a terrorist and traitor.
"In that struggle," he confessed, "I employed every
loathsome, every filthy and every destructive method."
Coercive interrogation techniques--what effete and
weak-stomached liberals would call torture--loosened the
terrorist's tongue. "For five weeks I denied
everything," he said. "For five weeks they kept
confronting me with one fact after another, with the
photographs of my dastardly work and when I looked back,
I myself was appalled by what I had done."
Unlike his cowardly co-conspirators, Shestov proclaimed
himself ready to face the ultimate sanction. "Now I have
only one desire, to stand with calmness on the place of
my execution and with my blood to wash away the stain of
a traitor to my country." He got his wish. The Military
Collegium of the Supreme Court ordered him to be shot.
The great Moscow "show trials" of 1937, officially
bringing to justice the nefarious agents of the
"Anti-Soviet Trotskyite Centre," were the centerpiece of
Stalin's campaign to terrorize Soviet citizens from
their previous state of basic subjugation to absolute
submission. In truth, there was no such thing as the
Anti-Soviet Trostskyite Centre. Shestov wasn't even an
opponent of the regime. On the contrary, he was an NKVD
(predecessor to the KGB) employee, his bosses ordered to
pose as a suspect in order to inculpate the other men.
Stalin, as thorough as he was diabolical, had him
A trial without due process isn't justice. It's farce.
Newly leaked audiotapes of military tribunals held at
the Guantanamo Bay concentration camp shared the eerie
quality of the Soviet show trials of the 1930s. Once
again, the men are accused of membership in a shadowy
terrorist conspiracy. The evidence against them consists
of hearsay--the testimony of other miserables giving
them up in order to save themselves. They have been
beaten, abused and probably tortured.
Murat Kurnaz, 24, a German cititzen held for four years
without being charged with so much as a traffic
violation, described life at Gitmo to CNN after being
sent back to Germany. Among the "many types of torture"
he endured were "electric shocks to having one's head
submerged in water, (subjection to) hunger and thirst,
or being shackled and suspended [hung from the
"They tell you 'you are from al-Qaeda', and when you say
'no' they give the (electric) current to your feet ...
As you keep saying 'no' this goes on for two or three
In testimony consistent with that of other Gitmo
survivors, Kurnaz said he was suspended from the ceiling
for at least four days. "They take you down in the
mornings when a doctor comes to see whether you can
endure more. They let you sit when the interrogator
comes ... They take you down about three times a day so
you do not die."
Such precautions weren't 100 percent effective. "I saw
several people die," he said.
Now the United States is trying to burnish its nasty
image as one of the world's leading torture states--not
by eliminating torture, but by silencing its victims. In
a remarkable bit of legal sang-froid, the Bush
Administration has filed a brief in its case against
Majid Khan asking a federal court to seal its torture of
him as "top secret."
Khan is one of 14 alleged al-Qaeda suspects transferred
earlier this year from secret CIA torture chambers in
Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Pakistan to Gitmo. CIA
official Marilyn Dorn said in a Bush Administration
affidavit that Khan should be silenced lest he reveal
"the conditions of detention and specific alternative
"If this argument carries the day," The Washington Post
wrote in an editorial, "it will make virtually
impossible any accountability for the administration's
treatment of top al-Qaeda detainees."
"Sausage making," a right-wing blogger calls it. We
abandon American values to protect the American way of
life. But we don't want to hear about it, much less
watch it. A YouTube video of a volunteer undergoing
waterboarding--an illegal but frequently used CIA
torture technique that Dick Cheney agreed was a harmless
"dunk of water," a "no-brainer"--vanished hours after
When political leaders justify torture, it isn't long
before it goes mainstream. Mostafa Tabatabainejad, a
21-year-old college student at UCLA, was typing away in
the back of a campus library computer lab when security
guards demanded that he produce ID for a "random check."
What happened after he refused was caught on eight
agonizing minutes of video shot by another student's
cellphone. As he screamed and convulsed on the floor,
rent-a-cops repeatedly shot Tabatabainejad with a Taser
"Any student who witnessed it was left with an image you
don't want to remember," a witness told the UCLA student
newspaper. Asked whether Tabatabainejad resisted, the
witness said, "In the beginning, no. But when they were
holding onto him and they were on the ground, he was
trying to just break free. He was saying, 'I'm leaving,
I'm leaving.' It was so disturbing to watch that I
cannot be concise on that. I can just say that he was
willing to leave. He had his backpack on his shoulder
and he was walking out when the cops approached him. It
The video captures the security men ordering
Tabatabainejad to "get up or you'll get Tased," shooting
him when he complies and laughing as they repeat their
demand. "Here's your Patriot Act, here's your f----
abuse of power," he shouted at bystanders who were
visibly upset but too cowed to intervene.
The Democratic takeover of Congress has seen high hopes
of national moral redemption downgraded to more modest
goals: raising the minimum wage, allowing the Medicare
program to negotiate lower drug prices with the
pharmaceutical companies. No leading Democrat has called
for impeaching Bush, closing Guantanamo and other
torture camps or outlawing spying on American citizens
without a warrant. There is, however, a sign that
something remains of American morality.
Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd has introduced a bill to
defang the neofascist Military Commissions Act, signed
into law by Bush shortly before the elections. Under the
MCA, the president or secretary of defense can declare
anyone, including a U.S. citizen, an "enemy combatant"
and toss them into a secret prison for the rest of their
life, where they can legally be tortured. The MCA
eliminates habeas corpus, a legal right enjoyed by
Westerners since the 13th century that forces police to
file charges against an arrestee or let him go.
"People have no idea how significant this is," said
Jonathan Turley, professor of constitutional law at
George Washington University. "What the Congress did and
what the president signed ... essentially revokes over
200 years of American principles and values."
Dodd's Effective Terrorists Prosecution Act (S. 4060)
would eliminate the most heinous aspects of the MCA and
begin the restoration of American democracy before 9/11,
when it was supplanted by our current police state.
"I strongly believe that terrorists who seek to destroy
America must be punished for any wrongs they commit
against this country," said Dodd.
"But in my view, in order to sustain America's moral
authority and win a lasting victory against our enemies,
such punishment must be meted out only in accordance
with the rule of law."
As we've seen in Iraq, it's easier to destroy a society
than to rebuild one. Seven decades after Stalin's Great
Terror, Russia is still struggling to establish
democratic institutions. Unraveling the oppressive
legacy of Bush's post-9/11 security apparatus won't be
easy either. Even if it passes, Dodd's Bill faces an
almost certain presidential veto--yet another reason
impeachment should be Democrats' top priority in
Ted Rall, America's hardest-hitting editorial
cartoonist for Universal Press Syndicate, is an
award-winning commentator who also works as an
illustrator, columnist, and radio commentator. Visit his