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ROSA BROOKS

America tortures (yawn)

February 23, 2007|ROSA BROOKS

IT WAS MUCH LIKE the usual Nigerian e-mail scam, but it had a dispiriting twist.

"Greetings," went the e-mail, "I am Captain Smith Scott of the US Marine Force ... in Baghdad-Iraq. On the 10th day of February 2007

Apparently, savvy e-mail scammers now assume that a reference to U.S. Marines torturing prisoners lends credibility to their come-ons.

Well, why not? Thanks to Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, "extraordinary renditions" and "black sites," many people now take for granted the image of the American as torturer. At least 100 prisoners have been killed while in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many more have been beaten, humiliated and abused. Still others have been secretly handed over to our even less-scrupulous friends in various Middle Eastern intelligence services. And though the vast majority of our troops and officials abide by both the spirit and the letter of U.S. and international laws, such abusive tactics have been authorized by officials at the highest level of the U.S. government.

In November 2001, 66% of Americans said they "could not support government-sanctioned torture of suspects" as part of the war on terrorism. And when photos of abuses at Abu Ghraib surfaced in the spring of 2004, the U.S. news media treated it -- rightly -- as a major scandal. In October 2005, the U.S. Senate voted 90-9 in support of legislation prohibiting the inhumane treatment of prisoners, sponsored by Arizona Sen. John McCain.

But over the last year, we seem to have lost our former sense of outrage, though prisoner abuse has hardly ended. A handful of low-ranking people have been convicted for their roles in abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, but the bigger fish carry on as usual. In September, President Bush gave a speech defending the use of "alternative" interrogation methods; a poll shortly after that found public opposition to torture was down to 56%. In October, Congress obligingly passed the Military Commissions Act, which permits the use of coerced testimony in trials of suspected enemy combatants and restricts the ability of U.S. courts to examine allegations of abuse.

Lately, news relating to torture has been greeted by a collective yawn. On Jan. 31, German prosecutors issued a warrant for the arrest of 13 CIA operatives involved in the illegal abduction of Khaled Masri, a German citizen who was taken to Afghanistan for a little "alternative" interrogation -- and then unceremoniously abandoned in Albania when the CIA realized that it had grabbed the wrong guy. On Feb. 16, an Italian court indicted 26 U.S. intelligence operatives and contractors accused of kidnapping an Islamic cleric and taking him to Egypt, where, he says, he was tortured.

It should be huge news when two of our European allies demand the arrest of U.S. government agents -- but these stories were rapidly superseded on the front pages by news of Anna Nicole Smith's embalming and matters of similarly pressing national interest. (This newspaper learned the names of several of the indicted officials but declined to print them "because they have been charged only under their aliases.")

If you need any more evidence that the American public has gotten blase about torture, consider the hit Fox action drama "24." The show featured 67 torture scenes during its first five seasons, and most of those depicted torture being used by "heroic" U.S. counter-terror agents.

In this week's New Yorker, Jane Mayer reported on the efforts of human rights groups, interrogation experts and military leaders to persuade the show's producers to stop glamorizing torture. A few days after her story was posted on the New Yorker's website, executive producer Howard Gordon announced that "24" will indeed have fewer torture scenes in the future -- but not because of the complaints. The reason for the shift? Torture "is starting to feel a little trite," Gordon explained. "The idea of physical coercion or torture is no longer a novelty or surprise."

We've come a long way since 1630, when John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, told the settlers on the Arabella that "we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us." If we failed to live up to the high standards we set for ourselves, warned Winthrop, "we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world."

His prediction, it turns out, was absolutely right. Just ask the Nigerian e-mail scammers.

rbrooks@latimescolumnists.com

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