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Ways of the “civilized” West

Tahir Mahmoud

The West insists that it is “civilized”; so civilized in fact that it wants to export its values to the rest of the world. Those unable to appreciate Western values must be uncivilized, especially Muslims, who cling to such primitive notions as religion. One of the things the West points to that shows how civilized it is, is the abolition of the death penalty in most Western countries. Only in the US is the death penalty still applied but it has devised a very “civilized” way of killing people: by lethal injection. Hanging is considered too barbaric. It is a different story that each year, 30,000 Americans kill each other using guns.

There are other aspects that the West says reflect its civilized nature. Its cities are well planned; traffic runs smoothly because people obey rules; trains and buses run on time and there are shiny tall buildings all pointing to the West’s superiority and progress. Similarly, politics are conducted in a civilized manner. Governments elected for a four- or five-year term are allowed to complete their term; political leaders do not have to be driven out of office by force as in most third world countries. Western armies do not stage coups and generals do not lord over politicians. It is all very organized and civilized.

There are other signs of its “civilized” behaviour. Even before the Second World War had ended, the victors of the war led by the US, Britain and France created the United Nations so that the affairs of the world are managed properly. To make sure the UN functioned smoothly, the civilized nations (that is, the victors of the War that had resulted in the killing of 60 million people, mostly in Europe and Russia) also established the Security Council and gave themselves veto power. The five permanent veto-wielding members decide how the rest of the world should behave. Initially, these included America, Britain, France, the Soviet Union (now Russia) and China but not the People’s Republic of China because the Chinese under Mao Tze Dung had led a communist revolution and behaved in an uncivilized manner by driving the pro-American Chiang Kai Shek regime from power and confined him to the island of Formosa (now called Taiwan). So the Chinese seat on the Security Council was occupied by Taiwan until 1971 when America established cordial relations with the People’s Republic of China following Henry Kissinger’s visit to Beijing in July 1971. That visit, facilitated by then Pakistani military dictator, General Yahya Khan, earned Pakistan a promise that should India attack Pakistani forces in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) where the army was involved in putting down the Awami League-led rebellion, the American Sixth Fleet would come to their aid. When the Indians launched their invasion in November 1971, 90,000 Pakistani soldiers waited for three weeks for the marines to show up but when they did not, the Pakistanis surrendered to the invading Indian army on December 16, 1971, watched by billions of people on television.

But let us continue with the story of the West’s civilization. After the Second World War, the victorious Western governments also established what is known as the Nuremburg Tribunals to put on trial the defeated Nazis and Japanese. Their leaders and military officers were tried for war crimes and duly executed. The Japanese in particular were punished for torturing western prisoners by waterboarding. After the War, the West also enacted a number of laws called the Geneva Conventions that established rules of conduct in war, humane treatment of prisoners and also a Convention against Torture. Western countries signed these conventions to show how civilized they were. During the Vietnam War, when the Vietnamese tortured some American prisoners, they were roundly condemned as barbarians and uncivilized.

At the end of 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and communism was declared a failure. Western liberalism had “won”, Francis Fukuyama, an American professor of Japanese origins, triumphantly proclaimed in The End of History. By defeating communism, liberal democracy had arrived at the perfect solution to organize human societies. There was no further need to think of other ideas. The West’s model, free from such “superstitions” as religion could now be applied to all societies to achieve nirvana. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a group of American academics — strange how American academics always come up with such ideas — got together to establish the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). In 1997, they outlined a plan for America’s future by declaring that no power would be allowed to emerge to rival America’s military might. Further, to maintain its supremacy, America should wage wars, even multiple ones simultaneously if needed to maintain its pre-eminent position. Aware that the American people would not support multiple or endless wars, they argued that such a policy would be easy to implement if America were faced with a Peal Harbour type attack (the December 1941 Japanese attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor that brought America formally into the Second World War). That is where the attacks of 9/11 come into the picture. We will not go into details about 9/11 at this time. Suffice it to say that it served America’s purpose well to launch multiple wars simultaneously, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. The plan was to continue the war into Iran, Syria and Pakistan but the resistance in Afghanistan and Iraq has frustrated these plans.

The war against Afghanistan was launched ostensibly to defeat al-Qaeda and drive their hosts, the Taliban from power. Tens of thousands of people were killed and thousands of others were rounded up, many by the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance whose lea-der Ahmed Shah Masoud was killed two days before the 911 attacks, and handed over to the Americans. Pakis-tani leaders, military and civilian, also played a major role in arresting and handing over suspects to the Ameri-cans for huge re-wards. General Per-vez Musharraf was one who proudly stated so in his book, receiving millions of dollars in bounty from the Americans. The captured people were interrogated and if they did not give the answers the Americans wanted, they were tortured. But torture was and is illegal, according to the conventions and laws drawn up by the Americans and the civilized West. So what should be done?

This is where another set of American academics came into the picture. Two names stand out prominently: Jay Bybee and John Yoo, this last one, of Korean origins, an American professor of law. Both were working at the Office of Legal Counsel in the US Justice Department. The al-Qaeda suspects — Arabs, Afghans, Pakistanis, Chechens, and Uighurs (Chinese Muslims from Eastern Turkestan) — were not providing the kind of information the Americans were interested in. They wanted to make a connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam Husain of Iraq because the Americans really wanted to attack Iraq. As former US president Dick Cheney said, “they have our oil under their soil.” To maintain the American way of life, it needs endless supplies of cheap oil. For a 5 percent global population, North America consumes 40 percent of the world’s energy resources. To secure these resources, wars have to be waged against other people.

The people captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan were shipped to the notorious torture camp at Guantanamo Bay, an island illegally occupied by the Americans since 1898. Until 1960, there was a kind of legality because American and Cuban governments had a lease agreement whereby the Americans could use it. Initially, the Americans paid a rent of $2,000 annually. Gradually, it was increased to $4,085 per year where it stands today. In 1960, when the Cuban revolution occurred and Fidel Castro demanded the return of the island, the Americans refused. They said the lease agreement stipulated agreement of both parties before it could be terminated. Since 1960, the Cuban government has refused to cash the cheque the Americans send for lease of the island because doing so would legitimize American occupation.

Meanwhile, in the US, top officials including president George Bush, vice president Dick Cheney, Bush’s legal advisor Alberto Gonzales who later became the attorney general, secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, and his deputy Douglas Feith, CIA director George Tenet, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and her legal advisor, John Bellinger, and other officials got together to formulate a strategy on how to get the prisoners in Guantanamo to reveal “information” that would be useful to the Americans, to prove that Saddam had links with al-Qaeda. The lawyers, Jay Bybee and John Yoo, joined by Stephen Bradbury, another lawyer working for the CIA, were asked to give legal rulings about the maximum force American soldiers and CIA operatives could use before it became torture. These highly qualified lawyers, professors of law in respected American universities before their appointment at the Justice Department, produced four memos. The first was written in March 2002 and the other three in May 2005. Contents of these memos have now been released that give a glimpse into the mindset of these people. President Barack Obama had to release these memos because the American Civil Liberties Union had launched a court challenge under the Freedom of Information Act. Failing to do so would have put Obama in a very difficult legal position.

In 2002, the legal experts told their political bosses that waterboarding, sleep deprivation, stripping prisoners naked and setting dogs upon them, holding them in stress positions for several days, banging their heads against the wall or suspending them by their wrists from the ceiling did not constitute torture. Let us consider the language used by the learned professors, one of whom, Jay Bybee, is now a judge in San Francisco, appointed by Bush before he left office, and John Yoo is professor of law at the prestigious University of California at Berkeley. In one of their memos, they wrote, “We conclude that - although sleep deprivation and use of the waterboard present more substantial questions in certain aspects under the statute [that prohibits torture] and the use of tile waterboard raises the most substantial issue — none of these specific techniques, considered individually, would violate the prohibition in sections 134:0•2340A.”

Close attention must be paid to the words used, “substantial questions”, “substantial issue” and “specific techniques”. The word torture is never used to make these acts look benign. Waterboarding creates a horrible sensation of drowning causing deep convulsions and coughing. Similarly, the memos use other exotic language to avoid the word torture. For instance, torture is referred to as “enhanced interrogation technique”. Sleep deprivation is referred to as “frequent flyer program.” Most Americans are familiar with frequent flyer programs because they fly regularly and all airlines in the US offer incentives for travellers to fly and accumulate miles. Once a large number of miles are accumulated, they can be traded for a free ticket. What could be wrong with prisoners being subjected to a “frequent flyer program”? It is like taking joy rides on planes, except that it was not.

Of the different methods of torture, waterboarding is the worst. Two persons in particular were tortured repeatedly in this manner: Abu Zubaydah, captured in Pakistan in March 2002 and Khalid Shaikh Muhammad, captured in Pakistan in March 2003. Khalid Shaikh Muhammad was forced to give himself up when Musharraf’s agents kidnapped his young children and terrorised and tortured them. It is incredible that Musharraf still walks around presenting himself as an elder statesman. He even propounded the notion of “enlightened moderation”. If this is enlightenment and this is the kind of moderation Musharraf and his American masters offer, is it any wonder that most Pakistanis wish to have nothing to do with them?

Abu Zubaydah was subjected to waterboarding 83 times in August 2002 while Khalid Shaikh Muhammad suffered waterboarding 183 times in March 2003, often four or five times a day even after they had given all the information they had, according to CIA officials present in the torture sessions. One CIA analyst told Vanity Fair magazine, 90 % of what Khalid Shaikh Muhammad revealed was rubbish (he used extremely foul language that cannot be repeated here). When evidence of torture from Abu Ghraib emerged in the form of photos in April 2004, American officials dismissed these as the work of “rogue soldiers”. Rumsfeld in particular lied in front of a Congressional committee even though he was the one who had specifically ordered the notorious general, Geoffrey Miller from Guantanamo Bay in August 2003 to go to Abu Ghraib to deal with prisoners to extract better intelligence information. Miller was the one who had developed the various techniques of torture in Guantanamo.

Despite the mounting evidence, for years, officials in the Bush administration had memorized this mantra, “The United States does not torture.” After George Tenet resigned as CIA director, he was asked specifically in a TV interview about torture, and he repeatedly lied, “We did not and do not torture people”. The memos that have just been released shed ample light on what went on from 2002 to as recently as 2006 and perhaps is still going on in some ghost prison somewhere in Europe or Southeast Asia. America also contracted torture out to other regimes: Egypt, Morocco, Poland and others. Binyam Muhammad, an Ethiopian refugee in England, who was released from Guantanamo only this March, said that he was first tortured in Pakistan and then taken to Morocco. There, the Moroccans stripped him naked and then took blades to slit his skin. They even cut his genitals. Binyam Muhammad’s statements have been corroborated by a female CIA officer who had witnessed these sessions. She said she felt so horrified by what was done to him that she could not remain silent.

Obama is trying to limit the damage; he does not want Americans demanding the trial of those involved in ordering torture or those acting on them. But only three months ago, Americans and Europeans pushed a resolution through the Security Council demanding the trial of President Omar Hasan al-Bashir of Sudan for war crimes because of the tribal killings in Darfur. Obama has described the torture inflicted on prisoners as a “dark and painful chapter in our history” and said that the “interrogation techniques” (consider Obama’s words carefully) would never be used again. His attorney general, Eric Holder described waterboarding as “illegal torture” but Obama is opposed to a lengthy inquiry into the torture program, saying that “nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.” Instead, he says he wants to look ahead because dealing with the past through an investigation into the practices of torture or putting those on trial who indulged in it would be “divisive” and damaging to US interests. On May 6, Holder announced that nobody would be put on trial for either indulging in torture or authorizing it.

Successive US administrations have demonstrated a peculiar sense of right and wrong. Others indulge in torture; Americans do not; but if it occurs, it is immediately called the work of “rogue elements” that must be quickly forgotten to move on. After all, America as leader of the Western world is the most civilized country in the world. It can do no wrong even if it kills a million people in Iraq in the process of liberating them or tortures people in Guantanamo Bay, Bagram and Abu Ghraib. When torture is referred to as “enhanced interrogation techniques”, it makes that much more palatable.

How civilized!

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 38, No. 4

Jumada' al-Akhirah 08, 14302009-06-01

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