Torture and the rule of law, 2009

For those of us in the torture treatment field, the release of the Bush Administration “torture memos” in the past week provided no real surprises. That US government personnel (contracted and not) were engaged in torture is not news. We knew that from various memos that had already been released, from forensic health colleagues who had interviewed detainees from Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Baghram Airbase, and CIA “black sites” for lawsuits, and, like millions around the world, from seeing those infamous photos from Abu Ghraib. And we knew that John Yoo and Jay Bybee attempted to legally justify acts that in any reasonable person’s mind would be classified as torture, and we knew that psychologists and other healthcare professionals were involved in designing these acts. What really strikes me as so disheartening regarding the current release of documents is not the content of the documents, but the reaction, which seems to have involved–primarily from the right but not solely from the right–more attempts to somehow justify not following the law.

One of the most surprisingly wonderful parts of working with torture survivors who have fled to the US is hearing them tell me about how they are amazed that they don’t have to pay the police to protect them. One of my first clients ever was robbed in his cab, and when he told me about it most of his story was about how nice the police were. I got all teary-eyed with pride–it was almost silly, really. But to assume that the police are there to protect ordinary people is a luxury that the majority of Americans (of course not all Americans) enjoy without even questioning that there might be another way. And yet is relatively uncommon among the 6 billion people in the world.

When I first learned that US government personnel were involved in what looked like torture, my shock was as much about the brutal breakdown of the protection of liberty as it was about the actual acts themselves. And then when I first learned that government lawyers were trying to twist torture statutes in order to justify these acts, my horror turned to disgust. It turned out that we were to be ruled by base emotions, that somehow “revenge for 9/11” rather than justice and security would be our new way in the world. In other words, we were going to abandon–at least as far as how we treat people in custody–two centuries of building a nation of liberty and protection of that liberty above all.

To some, I realize that all that might sound a little naive. Of course I’m not naive to the need for security and information from people who want to us harm, and of course I’m not naive to the brutal history of how we’ve treated other detainees in the past. But the public airing of widespread abuses was something different, and the by-and-large acceptance by lawmakers and the public was also new.

But we are a nation of laws. And the best primary prevention for torture is the rule of law. The rule of law trumps our emotional reactions, guides us in situations where our destructive emotions are too strong for us to control. It allows us to take some time, and balance right and wrong as best we can, evidence for and against the perpetration of wrongdoing. The work I do has shown me how precious this really is. Torture survivors are people who have not been able to trust the law in their own countries, and have ultimately been damaged by its fragility. Let it not be so in our country. So, amid the accusations and political back and forth, I have a suggestion, one that I feel is ultimately refreshing: let the legal system work here. We owe it to ourselves, to our values, and to those around the world for whom it is not an option.

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