Nobody has done more to awaken people in the United States to our country's widespread adoption of torture in the context of our misguided response to the 9/11 attacks than Jane Mayer. Writing in the New Yorker and later in The Dark Side, she laid bare the torture policy long before our crimes became common knowledge. But choosing an unblinking gaze is dispiriting work; Mayer's current commentary on the Torture Report ends on a downbeat note.
Undoubtedly, Professor Rejali knows whereof he speaks. Dick Cheney is almost certain to avoid legal punishment for the atrocities he caused to be done to prisoners and to the values of this country. That contraption he uses for a heart will likely malfunction before justice gets to him.
But actually the history of countries that have adopted torture after ostensibly repudiating it is not as simple as Rejali suggests. Even if they fail to move against the crime during the short immediate window he identifies, that does NOT mean that the struggle to end impunity is over. It looks as if there are multiple windows, particularly as some of the more powerful perpetrators die off, in which national re-evaluation and even apology for past wrongs can be won.
Many current examples are in Latin America, where the 1970s and 80s were the heyday of militarily regimes that tortured and murdered in defense of oligarchy -- with U.S. connivance, I should add. And yet ....
- Who ever thought that Chile's dictator, Augusto Pinochet, would be indicted and arrested for his crimes against his people? But that time came, 25 years after his bloody overthrow of Chilean democracy. The present president, Michelle Bachelet, was one of the thousands of Chileans tortured under Pinochet.
- On December 10, the president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, wept while unveiling a report on a military torture in her nation. She too had been one of the victims of the ruling generals some 30 years ago. Brazil is discussed repealing its amnesty law in order to charge some of the 377 former officials named in their torture report.
- Uruguay too is coming around to prosecuting its surviving torturers from the era between 1981-85. These men turned the country into a behaviorist experiment in cruelty. I written before about these stunning developments here and here.
- The recent death, at age 95, of French General Paul Aussaresses who, like Dick Cheney, proudly defended the torture he perpetrated during Algeria's war of independence from France, has again brought to prominence that country's history of crimes against humanity. An accessible picture of those crimes is available in the haunting movie Battle of Algiers. Neil MacMaster tells the story of how France reassessed its torture war through an "open debate ... on the profound damage done by such institutionalised barbarity both to the victims and to the individuals and regimes that deploy it." It took forty years to open the can of worms, but torture was widely repudiated in the early '00s as a stain on the national record.