Sitting alongside US senator John McCain at a White House press conference on December 15, announcing that he would support a new law banning cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of terrorist suspects, president George W. Bush looked the very picture of reassurance. “We’ve been happy to work with [McCain] to achieve a common objective,” he said. “And that is to make it clear to the world that this government does not torture and that we adhere to the international convention on torture, be it here at home, or abroad.”
Bush’s performance was yet another example of the remarkable ability of American politicians (and most politicians elsewhere, to be fair) to tell blatant and obvious lies that they know that almost everyone else knows are lies, with an absolutely straight face and no hint of shame or embarrassment. Bush knew, for starters, as did McCain sitting beside him, that his administration, and particularly vice-president Dick Cheney, had done everything that they could to prevent the law from being passed, or at least to have the CIA exempted from it on the grounds of national security. Apart from that, he must also know that almost no one in the world still believes that the US has not been involved in a systematic programme of torture of Muslim suspects, at the Baghram airbase and other camps in Afghanistan, at Guantanamo Bay, in the Abu Ghraib jail in Baghdad and other prisons in Iraq, in prisons run by the US’s allies in other Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and in secret prisons around the world whose existence has become known but whose locations remain unclear.
What is more, McCain must know it too, and must know that the passing of a single law will not change it. The fact is that the message that he wants to send, that “the United States is not like the terrorists”, is one that few in the world can accept. His self-righteous campaign appears to owe more to his own presidential ambitions in 2008 than any genuine desire to put an end to torture.
In this, as in so much else, the Bush administration is displaying a degree of hypocrisy remarkable even by American standards; nor is such hypocrisy limited to the US. Last month we also had secretary of state Condoleezza Rice touring Europe indignantly denying reports that the CIA had been kidnapping suspects and illegally transporting them across the world in unmarked aircraft, a process that has become known as rendition. The flights of these aircraft, which have been traced to the CIA, have been logged by amateur aircraft spotters around the world, and analysed by journalists to establish an unmistakable pattern of illegal activity in which most European governments are implicated to various degrees.
We also have the testimony of several victims of this procedure who have been freed by different processes and have proven courageous enough to speak out against their treatment despite threats against them. The Canadian Mahar Arar is one example. In Britain, we have Muazzam Beg, released from Guantanamo Bay after having been arrested in Pakistan, and in Germany there is the case of Khalid Al-Masri, kidnapped at the Serbian-Macedonian border in December 2003 and held for four months in the notorious “Salt Pit” prison in Afghanistan before being released.
After the lies told to justify the invasion of Iraq, the mass of revelations about the brutal and ruthless realities behind its hypocritical self-righteousness confirm that the US is no better, and in many ways much worse, than any of the authoritarian regimes and dictatorships that litter the recent history of humanity. It too must be toppled, as many of them have been and more will be, insha’Allah.