• October 13, 2007

The Un-American Way of Torture

The Un-American Way of Torture

One man’s waterboarding is another man’s torture.

Most people would consider simulated drowning — otherwise known as waterboarding — to be a form of torture. What, besides torture, could describe the combination of waterboarding with head-slapping and exposure to frigid temperatures? President George Bush disagrees.

“This government does not torture people,” he insisted last week, after reports emerged that in 2005, the U.S. Justice Department had secretly endorsed such painful interrogation techniques. Claiming that highly trained individuals from the CIA conducted the interrogation of terrorism suspects in keeping with U.S. and international law, Bush offered that it was all done for the sake of protecting the American people.

It is time for those same American people to pay attention to what is being done in their name.

Never mind the unjustified wars launched in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Those wars were “over there” and many Americans started to pay real attention only when the numbers of American casualties started to get uncomfortably close to the numbers slaughtered during the 9/11 attacks.

And attacks on civil liberties? Their victims were mostly the brown and the Muslim. They were the ones detained and deported on the slightest immigration violations. It was brown and Muslim men who were visited by the FBI shortly after 9/11 and asked if they knew anyone who had celebrated the attacks. My brother was one of those men asked.

Those brown and Muslim men were the ones who had to submit to the humiliation of Special Registration, being fingerprinted and photographed like common criminals for the files of Homeland Security. Again, my brother, a physician, was one of those men.

But don’t forget: What is done to the brown and Muslim today can be done to all Americans tomorrow.

And where to start with the prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the U.S. continues to hold hundreds of Muslim men without charge or trial for close to six years now? Or the CIA’s use of secret prisons overseas to question terrorism suspects? Bush claims they are for the sake of the American people.

For those who share Bush’s fondness for wordplay over torture I remind them of extraordinary rendition, the process by which U.S. secret service agents abduct terrorism suspects and take them to friendly, compliant countries where human rights records leave much to be desired and limited enough to do what the U.S. administration claims it won’t do — torture.

Egypt, my country of birth, has the dubious distinction of being the number one destination for renditions. Robert Baer, the former CIA agent, described the rendition pecking order thus to the British magazine The New Statesman in 2004: “If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear — never to see them again — you send them to Egypt.”

Ever since 9/11, I have looked on in horror as the United States — my home since 2000, and which for years condemned human rights violations in Egypt — has used the same slippery justifications the Egyptian regime uses to erode civil liberties and to commit abuses for the sake of protecting people from terrorism.

To know that my country is doing the U.S. administration’s dirty work, it becomes incumbent to make clear to all Americans the damage their administration has wrought to their national conscience — both here and abroad. Particularly so, as I prepare to become an American myself.

Some Americans, to their credit, have long protested “not in my name,” including one young man I met on my first visit to the White House at the end of 2005. He was kneeling outside the president’s residence wearing an orange Guantanamo-style jumpsuit with his hands tied behind him and with a hood over his head. In front of him was a large white sheet of paper with the words “End torture now” written across it.

Countless brave Egyptian human rights activists have spoken out against torture but such a demonstration would be impossible outside the Egyptian president’s residence. I wanted to thank the young man but as I walked up to him a girl, probably on a school trip, approached him.

“Do you hate President Bush?” she asked him.

“Umm, no. I’d have to say I hate what he does but I don’t hate him.”

“Because of Iraq?”

“Yeah. We’ve killed a lot of people over there, a lot of women and children,” all this said from under his hood.

“Well they’ve been mean, too,” the girl replied.

“The women and the children?”

At this point, an adult chaperoning the children took her away. I stepped in and thanked the demonstrator, explaining that torture was systematic in Egypt. He asked me to tell that to the chaperone.

I found him and told him about Egypt, torture and renditions and said that I appreciated what the demonstrator was doing.

“So maybe we should send them all picnic baskets and flowers, then,” the chaperone said, referring to the men held at Guantanamo.

“No, but torture doesn’t help.”

“They kill women and children in your country too,” he said.

“I know and that’s why I’m telling you that torture doesn’t help. It hasn’t ended any of that.”

“Well then maybe you should try democracy,” he said.

“We want to. Maybe if your administration stopped supporting my dictator we could,” I replied and walked away to tell the demonstrator of our conversation.

“Yes!” he cried. “Thank you!”

We often hear that 9/11 changed everything. It would be unconscionable if it changed the United States for the worse by allowing the administration to run roughshod over the civilized world’s definition of torture.

That would be the true danger to Americans.

Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning New York-based journalist and commentator, and an international lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues.