by Eric Martin
While the policies of torture authorized by the Bush administration are garnering the lion's share of the attention - and outrage - at the moment, there are layers of dirty little secrets to the issue of torture and detention in America that need to be peeled back if sunlight is to properly apply its antiseptic. And what better time to make such an effort than now that the issue has been thrust into the forefront of American political discourse.
First, it should be recognized that torture was far more widespread following 9/11 than is commonly acknowledged, occurring in domestic facilities far and wide, and not limited to foreign and/or battlefield locales like Bagram air force base, Guantanamo Bay or the infamous CIA-run "black sites." Gary Farber recalls a story that appeared in the New York Times in 2004:
Before the World Trade Center attack, Javaid Iqbal was a Pakistani immigrant proud to be known as "the cable guy" to customers on Long Island, where he had lived for a decade and married an American. Ehab Elmaghraby, an Egyptian, had a weekend flea market stand at Aqueduct Raceway and a restaurant near Times Square where friendly police officers would joke, "Where's my shish kebab?"
But within weeks of Sept. 11, 2001, both had been picked up by federal agents in an anti-terror sweep. For 23 hours a day, they were locked in solitary confinement in the harsh maximum-security unit of a federal detention center in Brooklyn - the one cited by the Justice Department's inspector general last year for widespread physical abuse of its detainees. [...]
The accusations are similar to those now being made against military officers guarding prisoners in Iraq.
The lawsuit charges that the men were repeatedly slammed into walls and dragged across the floor while shackled and manacled, kicked and punched until they bled, cursed as "terrorists" and "Muslim bastards," and subjected to multiple unnecessary body-cavity searches, including one during which correction officers inserted a flashlight into Mr. Elmaghraby's rectum, making him bleed.
At that point, the papers charge, he was confined without blankets, mattress or toilet paper to a tiny cell kept lighted 24 hours a day, and was denied adequate medical care or communication with his public defender. He said his attempts to pray or sleep were disrupted by guards banging on his door. [...]
Unlike Mr. Elmaghraby, who spent his whole detention in the maximum-security unit, Mr. Iqbal was housed with the general inmate population for the first two months after his arrest. But on the evening of Jan. 8, 2002, he was told that he had a "legal visit" in a room on another floor.
Instead of a lawyer, he found more than a dozen federal officers waiting for him. As he and the lawsuit tell it, several officers picked him up and threw him against the wall. He said he heard one ask a senior person, "He's the one?" and when the reply was affirmative, an officer pressing Mr. Iqbal's head into the wall turned it around, looked him in the face and said, "Welcome to hell, buddy."
At that, he was dragged to the floor, kicked in the stomach with steel-toed shoes and punched in the face, he said, and the officers screamed death threats and curses as they beat him up. "Then the senior person said, 'Just take him out of my sight.' "
Hatred seemed to determine the rules on the unit in ways large and small, the men said. On cold days when it rained, Mr. Iqbal was left outside for hours without jacket or shoes. When he was returned to his cell drenched, officers turned on the air-conditioning, he said. At one point, the lawsuit said, Mr. Elmaghraby was mockingly displayed naked to a female staff member.
As Gary notes, the US Supreme Court just rejected the lawsuit of Iqbal and Elmaghraby in a 5-4 ruling.
But the problem is more pervasive than even the story outlined above. The torture and abuse of prisoners is a shockingly common occurrence in US prisons - and has been since the nation's inception. One such recent example was spotlighted in a report in 1999:
Sexual abuse is "virtually a fact of life" for female prisoners in the United States, many of whom are sold by prison guards as sex slaves to male inmates, according to a new report from Amnesty International.
The report released Thursday found sexual abuse of female inmates is rampant but said many cases go unreported for fear of retaliation. [...]
The report also charged prisons with providing inadequate medical care for incarcerated women, citing several cases in which leg shackles were attached to women while they were giving birth.
"The sexual abuse of women inmates is torture, plain and simple. Shackling and medical neglect of women in prison constitute cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment," said William Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA.
Other reports and exposes abound (a small sample to be sure). While those reports tend to focus on the levels of abuse and torture at the prisons themselves, the use of torture in connection with the interrogation and questioning of suspects is also tragically common - leading, as torture is prone to do, to false confessions and other erroneous admissions under duress. In fact, the latter practice is so prevalent that then Illinois State Senator Barack Obama pushed through a law requiring all such questioning to be videotaped in order to ensure compliance with the law.
Obama's success in overcoming stiff resistance in gaining the passage of that law is a testament to his political abilities, but also of the sharp disparity in political power between law enforcement on the one hand and prisoners/suspects on the other. For obvious, yet unfortunate, reasons, few politicians are willing to stick their necks on the line standing up for convicted (or even suspected) criminals, despite the gross violations of human rights involved.
Certainly, the United States needs to make a full reckoning of Bush-era torture as that tactic was used in conjunction with the ill-termed War on Terror. However, that necessary inquiry should represent the initial foray into state-sanctioned (or tolerated) torture, and not the end point, or we risk continuing to turn a blind eye to a shameful and reprehensible reality.