Monday, December 05, 2005

Where Is the Line?

WAS THE SOVIET UNION'S GULAG ARCHIPELAGO a violation of international human rights agreements because people were tortured in those secret prison camps? Or was it a human rights violation because the people who were tortured in those secret prison camps were innocent writers, artists, political activists, and others who were not actually a threat to the Soviet system? Did the Soviet government know they were disappearing and torturing and killing people who were not, in reality, a threat to them? Or did they sincerely believe that those arrested and sent to the gulag were dangerous people, and that by detaining them in secret prisons and labor camps they were saving innocent lives? Supposing for a moment that many of the prisoners who passed through the Soviet gulag were dangerous, and threats to the Soviet government, would that have justified the existence of the gulag?

The Bush administration will not confirm that the United States has a network of secret prisons scattered across Europe, and elsewhere; but Condoleezza Rice has tacitly acknowledged these secret prisons do exist, by telling European leaders, when they ask for clarification, about the benefits of cooperating with the U.S. on anti-terrorism efforts, and by denying that the U.S. tortures detainees or sends them to other countries where they might be tortured.

Rice is, in effect, saying that secret prisons in which interrogation methods and conditions of detention are unknown to all but a handful of individuals are acceptable if such prisons keep innocent people safe. But she also insists that the U.S. does not torture detainees. Of course, the Bush administration defines torture differently from the way torture is defined in international law. But let's assume for the sake of argument that subjecting prisoners to extremes of heat and cold, intimidating them (severely, like with snarling dogs, for example, or putting them in cells with rats), and "other techniques" (like waterboarding, because bringing a prisoner to the point of suffocation and back, repeatedly, is not torture in the Bush definition) are not sufficient to induce the prisoner to give interrogators the information they want, or confess to what the interrogators want them to confess. Since the all-important, overriding priority is to keep innocent people safe, wouldn't interrogators have to resort to more ... persuasive methods? Would interrogators be justified in pulling out fingernails or kneecapping with an electric drill, or putting the detainee in boiling water, if that was the only way to get him to talk and thus save the lives of innocent people? And if not, why not?

Put another way, my question is this: Where is the line between public safety and actions that cannot be justified under any circumstances? How much goodness and decency do you have to sacrifice before you've sacrificed too much? When you go over to the dark side for a good purpose, can you ever travel too far into the other side? Does it ever get too dark? If you do go too far, will you even know it? Or is the definition of going too far that you lose the ability to know that you have gone too far?

Setting moral philosophy aside, there is also the issue of credibility. As I mentioned above, Condi Rice has indirectly admitted that there are secret U.S.-run prisons in European countries. She has also acknowledged the practice of renditioning suspected terrorists to third countries. But she denies that detainees' human rights are thereby violated:

Terrorists are often captured far from their homes, in lawless areas. They can be dangerous people. In addition, some may "have information that may save lives, perhaps even thousands of lives," said Rice.

In this context, the US does practice "rendition," said Rice, meaning the practice of taking detainees to third countries.

But in doing so the US complies with all laws and treaty obligations, including those under the Convention Against Torture, said Rice. The US does not transport detainees for the "purpose of interrogation using torture," nor does it transport them to any country where US officials believe the detainee might be tortured.

But how can anyone trust the United States to tell the truth about anything anymore?

...the negative effect of the images of US mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq and elsewhere, plus the unpopularity of the Iraq war among many Europeans, may make it difficult for her to win over the region.

"The real issue here is that no one trusts the United States anymore," says Hurst Hannum, a professor of international law at the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

I'm even wondering how the Bush administration can make a serious argument that people can be detained and interrogated in secret prisons without torturing them and without breaking international law. Are secret prisons and humane treatment even compatible? Once upon a time, the courts in this country argued that "separate but equal" was a legitimate concept in regard to black and white children going to school together. That notion was blown out of the water by the Brown decision in 1957. Separate is inherently unequal. Secret prisons are inherently abusive.

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