Bush administration officials join ranks of tyranny

By Robert Zaller

06/24/05 "The Triangle"
- - The American playwright Lillian Hellman titled her memoir of the McCarthy years Scoundrel Time. A memoir of this period in American history might well be called Gestapo Time.

It is now more than a year since the revelations of torture and homicide against prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the showpiece of our efforts to "democratize" Iraq, shocked and outraged the world. Torture and suicide at Guantanamo Bay, the concentration camp aptly described by Amnesty International as the gulag of our times, has been on the record for three years. Foreign nationals, recategorized as enemy combatants by basement bureaucrats, have disappeared down these and other black holes around the globe. 

They have been denied legal process, access to counsel, and any contact with the outside world. This has no precedent in the law of nations, or in the practice of any but the most repressive dictatorships. Nor have American citizens themselves been spared this treatment. One, Jose Padilla, remains incarcerated without trial in defiance of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Another, Yaser Hamdi, was summarily deported to Saudi Arabia. Two others, Kashan and Zain Afzal, were imprisoned without charge for eight months in Pakistan, interrogated by the FBI, and threatened with deportation to Guantanamo. 

This is how fascism comes. It comes through creating legal nonpersons of citizens and noncitizens alike. It comes through violating human rights standards, sanitizing torture, and condoning murder. 

It comes through whitewash "investigations" of war crimes that leave the real perpetrators untouched, and a Congress resolutely determined to see and hear no evil. It comes through a press cowed by censorship and a judiciary impotent in the face of constitutional invasion. 

Once, Thomas Jefferson wrote of Americans as having a decent respect for the opinion of mankind. We know that the war on Iraq is a war of aggression, in contempt of domestic and international law and in the teeth of worldwide opposition. We know that it has proceeded from bloody conquest to brutal repression, and that its makers intend a permanent military occupation. We know that in pursuit of these objectives, we have established a covert torture network around the globe, using both secret CIA facilities and the good offices of tyranny in Egypt, Syria, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. 

There are many things we do not yet know, but the real scandal is how much lies in plain sight. Thanks to the work of such journalists as Seymour M. Hersh and Mark Danner, we can see clearly how torture evolved as the deliberate policy of our government, from presidential directives to Justice Department briefs to Pentagon and intelligence agency implementation. We know that such infamous techniques as hooding, waterboarding, electroshock, and the use of attack dogs on naked prisoners were not the sadistic improvisations of a few low-level guards or interrogators, but were devised under top civilian supervision and sanctioned by senior field commanders. We know that at least a hundred prisoners have died in American custody, though we can only guess at the toll in third-country prisons, where flogging, anal rape, fingernail extraction, amputation, submersion in boiling water, and mock execution are standard procedure, often under the eye of American agents. 

We know that the United States is in daily, deliberate, and systematic violation of the Geneva Conventions, and of Articles 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, and 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to both of which it is a signatory. We know that our officials are also violating the federal War Crimes Act, a 1996 statute that carries the death penalty. 

These facts were all before us in November 2004. Germans under the Nazis, Italians under Mussolini, and Russians under Stalin did not have the opportunity to repudiate the actions of their leaders at the polls. We nonetheless hold these people responsible for what they themselves often suffered, and even speak of their collective guilt for the crimes of their rulers. 

Our opportunity to vindicate the rule of law was unique. Yet Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay were never mentioned during last year's political campaign. There was no call for a moral, political, or legal reckoning of policies that had dragged our honor in the dirt and made us feared and loathed around the globe. Instead, our unelected President was given a new term of office. 

For the first time in history, a democratic electorate had certified a rogue state. Some of us did vote the other way. But this time, the guilt really is collective. Abu Ghraib belongs to all of us.

President Bush promptly nominated Condoleezza Rice, one of the principal architects of the Iraq war and its detainment policies, as Secretary of State. He then nominated Alberto R. Gonzales, the point man in the strategy to evade the Geneva Conventions, as Attorney General. Both were confirmed by the U. S. Senate. Somewhere, Ribbentrop and Himmler had to be smiling.

As I write, Abu Ghraib is still open for business. So is Guantanamo Bay. "Shut it down. Just shut it down," Thomas L. Friedman begged in The New York Times the other day. Friedman is one of the war's chief boosters. Even he has finally gotten the point. 

America is not only alone in the world, except for the tyrants it pays to do the worst of its torturing for it. 

It has deserted itself as well.

Dr. Robert Zaller is a professor of history. Dr. Zaller can be reached through

Copyright 2005 The Triangle and College Publisher

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