Monday, December 15, 2014

Beyond impunity for torturers

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.

[Darius] Rejali, [professor of political science at Reed College] who has studied the tension between torture and democracy around the world, says that “there’s a five- or six-year window for any kind of accountability. We’re now past that window. The two sides are entrenched.” Without a mutual acknowledgment of the mistakes made, and some form of accountability, he warned, another reversion to torture may be difficult to prevent: “Nothing predicts future behavior as much as past impunity.”

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.
The history of the last century tells us that impunity for crimes of torture does not last forever. Dick Cheney may not live to see justice; for that matter I may not live to see justice affirmed. But continuing the struggle against impunity is not a fool's errand; in this case, history will likely condemn those we cannot today put on trial.
Erudite partner Rebecca's commentary on the issuance of the Torture Report, US Torture Didn’t End When Bush Left Office is up at The Nation.


Hattie said...

This is very cool! Glad to see Erudite Partner's input.
I guess Rejali is pessimistic. I'm just an amateur on the subject, andI'm not convinced that justice will prevail. In any case, so many people have been damaged, murdered, and there is no sufficient restitution for them.
However, this doesn't mean we can give up and stop working for justice. Kudos to you and your partner for your dedication to this cause. Anyone I can donate to? Amnesty International, maybe?

Rain Trueax said...

What bothered me today was reading that 51% of Americans approved of the torture. Seriously! Who are Americans?

janinsanfran said...

Hattie: Amnesty is not bad. In the US, both the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights have done good work.

Rain: Yes -- I've seen a Pew poll that says 51 percent say torture is justified. Worse, 58 percent think torture has helped keep them safe. We're a nation scared out of our wits -- and our grip on human decency.

Hattie said...

God that Cheney guys is a horror, with a teenage girl's heart implanted into him. Shot a friend in the face and what happened to that man? He is a ghoul.