When Bad Things Happen (To “Bad People”)

Are we becoming hardened to reports of illegality (up to and including torture) on the part of our government?

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We’re not torturing people. (And even if we were … they’re bad people.)

This, essentially, is the logic of the Bush administration’s defense against the charge (by now conclusively documented) that the treatment of detainees in the war on terror has been, and continues to be, illegal. It’s a defense that was pressed into service once again this week, when a confidential International Committee of the Red Cross report was leaked to the press citing treatment of detainees at Guantanamo as “tantamount to torture.” The report states that the U.S. government and American military are intentionally using psychological and physical coercion such as exposure to loud, persistent noise and music as well as extended exposure to cold. (This, by the way, is in addition to plain old beatings.) It also cites the use of extended forced positions. Even more troubling, the report makes clear that doctors and psychologists at Guantanamo are participating in the planning of interrogations, the better to exploit the physical and mental weaknesses of individual detainees.

Alarmingly, news of the report’s findings didn’t create much of a ripple in the media, or stir much outrage in the public at large. Granted, the New York Times ran a significant story, but the Washington Post online relegated the news to a fewer than 400-word brief under the somewhat restrained headline, “Red Cross Has Concerns About Treatment at Guantanamo.” (This despite the fact that the report specifically uses the word “torture”.) A day after the news first broke, the Los Angeles Times ran a story on page 23.

The subdued reaction is testament, in part, to the Bush administration’s skill at spinning this kind of news. (God knows, they’ve had practice.) Officials from the Pentagon and Defense Department flat-out denied the allegations. And General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff made this stirring defense: “We certainly don’t think it’s torture…. Let’s not forget the kind of people we have down there. These are the people that don’t know any moral values.”

Maybe it doesn’t seem like torture because we don’t have pictures like we did at Abu Ghraib. Maybe it doesn’t seem like torture because it’s not as bad as the video-taped beheadings that have begun to dominate our news in recent months. And anyway, they had it coming, right? Better their discomfort than our destruction. A brief reality check: out of the 550 detainees in Guantanamo, only 4 have been charged. That’s 3 years, 4 charges, 550 people, and no protection under the Geneva Conventions, which call for the detainees to be treated as prisoners of war until a competent tribunal determines that they do not merit this protection.

The Bush administration has claimed it doesn’t need to abide by these conventions because the detainees are “enemy combatants.” But we’ve already been through this. U.S. District Court Judge James Robertson recently ruled that a formal court martial, rather than a military commission must be legally utilized in order to verify that a detainee is not a prisoner of war. In other words, this is a fight to uphold the law.

(War is hell, they say; bad things happen (especially to “bad people”.) But the international laws in question here were, in fact, designed precisely for times like these.)

Why aren’t reporters asking hard-hitting questions about all this? One of the few articles touching on the ICRC report offered up only one quote from the Bush administration: Lawrence Di Rita, spokesman for Rumsfeld, said that the Red Cross allegations were “their point of view.” White House spokesmen are no longer even extending themselves to put together a convincing lie.

The demand that someone answer for what is going on in Guantanamo seems to have fallen, by default, to a few legal specialists. Do Americans think justice is prevailing? Or are they just tired of fighting what looks to be a losing battle? The danger is that we become inured to the doings of an administration that flouts the law as a matter of routine: Guantanamo becomes just another incident. We first heard about it three years ago, but here it is again. The media has dubbed Iraq the new Vietnam. Here we are again. But just because we’ve seen these things before, or think we’ve seen these things before doesn’t mean they don’t require as emphatic and vigilant a response.

Our response needs to reflect that we aren’t pushing these new developments into the past, or measuring them against an ever- lowering bar. This struggle for demand accountability and legality deserves our unswerving commitment. And the media should demand answers every step of the way.

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