Sunday, October 28, 2007

You Want to Leave Decisions on Torture to THESE Guys?

Latest Newspaper Column:

Boy, those Republicans do love their torture.

Of course, they don't call it that. President Bush insists that "we don't torture" -- and backs it up by the simple expedient of redefining the word.

"Oh, simulated drowning? That's not torture! That's, uh, enhanced interrogation! Yeah, that's it, that's the ticket."

Anyone who thinks so-called "waterboarding" isn't torture, by the way, is invited to try it. Let's start with the Republican presidential candidates who, in one debate, seemed to be trying to outdo one another in claiming how far they'd go to emulate Jack Bauer, the torture-happy government agent on TV's "24."

I'm not sure why they have this fixation on "24." Despite all the finger-chopping, plastic bags on the head, and such, the bad guys in the show still seem to manage to pull off stuff like detonating a nuke in Valencia, Calif. Seems to me, the message of "24" is that torture doesn't keep us safer.

The problem with all this torture mania is that it assumes that everyone who's in custody is actually a terrorist.

Abdallah Higazy, an Egyptian studying engineering in America, is the classic example of a guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time -- specifically, the Millennium Hotel, across the street from the World Trade Center, on Sept. 11, 2001. During the attack on the WTC, Higazy and the other guests were evacuated, leaving their luggage behind.

Later, as hotel staff were inventorying guests' belongings, they found, supposedly in Higazi's room safe, a radio which could be used to communicate with airliners in flight. When Higazi came to get his stuff, he was taken into custody by the FBI.

Higazi at first denied owning the radio or knowing anything about it. So the FBI ratcheted up the pressure by threatening his family. If he didn't come clean, the agents said, the U.S. would "make sure Egyptian Security gives [his] family hell." Everyone knew exactly what that meant, including the agent doing the questioning, who later stated that he was talking "yeah, probably about torture."

Higazi's parents are in their 60s. He has a young sister in Egypt, and Egyptian security is reputed to be particularly creative with female prisoners. Faced with that threat, Higazi broke. He confessed and signed a statement written by the FBI saying he'd stolen the radio from the Egyptian military.

Three days later, an airline pilot showed up at the hotel. He wanted his radio back.

The FBI verified that the radio belonged to the pilot, not Higazi. The hotel began backpedaling about the radio being found in Higazi's safe. The government released him after 34 days in custody and dismissed all charges.

Where does all this information come from, you may ask? Some liberal blog? Nope, the above information is taken directly from the text of the opinion of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which dismissed some of Higazi's claims in his lawsuit against the agents and the hotel who'd originally reported the radio. Not, it should be noted, because the claims were untrue, but because the government, even if dead wrong, is entitled to "qualified immunity" from consequences for some of their actions in the case.

At least that's what the original opinion said. Later the court issued a so-called "redacted" opinion that took all the details of Higazi's ordeal out for "national security" reasons, replacing them instead with a bland "the government has stipulated that the confession was coerced." Guess threatening an innocent man's family is some sort of top-secret government technique we can't let the bad guys find out about.

In some respects, Higazi was lucky. At least he got a lawyer, a bail hearing, and some reasonable chance to contest the charges, something that suspects were still entitled to at the time, before the Bushistas started asserting that the government could lock anyone up for national security reasons.

He's certainly luckier than Maher Arar, the Canadian citizen who was picked up while passing through Kennedy Airport, then "deported" -- not to Canada, but to Syria. There, he was tortured for months by being lashed with steel cables, then released without ever being charged. A Canadian investigation found no evidence that Arar had any ties to terrorists.

Here's the thing: Jack Bauer is fictional and thus is never wrong. But no government is infallible, and this one is much less infallible than most. When you're thumping your chests and talking about how you'd be tough like Jack Bauer, you might think of Abdallah Higazi and Maher Arar and wonder how many others like them are undergoing "enhanced interrogation" right now, without ever having done anything wrong.


Jim Winter said...

Yes, Jack Bauer is fictional. But don't you get the impression that even President Logan would say to George W. Bush, "Um... Dude? Tone it down, will ya? You're making us look bad."?

David Terrenoire said...

Not to mention those to afghan writers who were jailed in Gitmo for a couple of years for writing a joke about Bill Clinton. They were later released when someone with a sense of humor actually read the joke.

Being jailedfor writing something the government doesn't get? Man, we're all in trouble.

Mark Terry said...

The only season of "24" I've seen pretty much all the way through was Season 2, and in that case they were even torturing, I believe it was, the President's Chief of Staff. Hmmm...