One reason I’ve always been proud to be an American is that I could go anywhere in the world – and I’ve been many places – and say it’s better back home in the States. We believe in free speech and human rights, in open government and due process – concepts that are the essence of liberty.
Now, however, I hesitate to travel anywhere. And not for fear of a terrorist attack.
I hesitate because these days we’re not only no better than other folks around the globe, we’re increasingly worse.
People no longer speak in hushed tones about the Russian KGB or the Cambodian Khmer Rouge. These days, people whisper about us – about Americans kidnapping people, torturing them, starving them, murdering them – in a pattern that goes beyond Guantanamo, beyond Abu Ghraib.
On Aug. 28, 2002, near Lwara, Afghanistan, Mohammad Sayari was fatally shot by American soldiers when, they alleged, he lunged toward a weapon. Later, however, army investigators found cause to believe that the five soldiers had murdered Sayari. They recommended that the soldiers be prosecuted for murder and other crimes. But ranking military officials decided to take no action, on the grounds of insufficient evidence. One soldier received a letter of reprimand.
Nagem Sadun Hatab, 52, died in Nasiriya, Iraq on June 6, 2003, three days after his arrest, as a result of “asphyxia due to strangulation.” An autopsy also revealed six fractured ribs and a broken hyoid bone. Army investigators found that two days earlier, he had been hit and kicked in the chest by American soldiers. When he was found, on the following day, to be lethargic and covered in his own feces, the jail commander ordered that he be stripped; investigators said Hatab was left “naked outside in the sun and the heat for the rest of the day and into the night.” In September 2004, a Marine reservist was convicted of assault and dereliction of duty, reduced in rank, and sentenced to 60 days’ hard labor. The camp commander was convicted of dereliction of duty and maltreatment and dismissed from the army. Charges against the jail commander and six other Marines were dismissed.
On June 21, 2003, in Asadabad, Afghanistan, Abdul Wali died in United States military custody after a civilian contractor working with the CIA reportedly assaulted him using his hands, feet, and a large flashlight. The Justice Department charged the contractor with assault, not murder, and in court proceedings this year, the contractor claimed that the “interrogation methods” he used had been at least indirectly authorized by the Bush administration because it maintains a moral, legal, and ethical indifference towards the issue of torture.
On Nov. 4, 2003, at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, Manadel al-Jamadi died after being bound by his wrists and ankles and beaten severely during an interrogation. Fractured ribs, bruised lungs, and a hood placed over his head and neck combined to stop his breathing. Al-Jamadi’s captivity was also an alarming example of what’s come to be known as a “ghost detainee”: Brought to Abu Ghraib by the CIA, he was held without formal registration or explanation. Seven Navy Seals have confessed to assaulting him, and the case has been referred to the Naval Criminal Investigation Service.
On Jan. 31, 2004, in Baghdad, Iraq, prominent Iraqi scientist Mohammed Munim al-Izmerly, 65, died of blunt-force trauma to the back of the head after being handcuffed, hooded, carted off, and held for nine months at an unknown location. Rod Barton, an Australian member of the CIA-led teams that questioned Al-Izmerly and other Iraqi scientists, suggested that prisoners like Al-Izmerly may have been victims of the United States’ futile but frantic search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
I list these people’s names because they have names. They’re human beings, no less worthy of humane treatment than you or I would be, even if we had committed a crime. And there have been hundreds and maybe thousands just like them. Opposition soldiers, military personnel, scientists, and religious figures are being seized, brutalized, and murdered with shocking impunity and a blatant disregard for human rights. And now, because of the bad press of Abu Ghraib and mettlesome media attention, American coercion operatives have taken their show on the road: Terror suspects captured in Europe are being flown on government-hired jets to places like Egypt, where torture during interrogation will receive less attention.
U.S. Sen. John McCain said that the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers is hurting our nation’s image abroad. It’s worse than that. What is being done in our name runs contrary to everything we stand for as a people, undermines every ideal we aspire to. Such deeds are like radioactive waste; they will foul the landscape for decades to come. If unchecked, they will eclipse our good intentions (if we ever had any) in the Middle East.
The Bush administration continues to downplay or deny these incidents and to sidestep the charges of abuse by denying that the detainees have any legal status. But clever words won’t spare us the repercussions when the malevolence behind these crimes is revealed.
The men and women we asked to commit these sins will return home haunted. The torture survivors will return home brutalized and horrified and will whisper their stories about America. And our days as a benevolent power on this planet will be numbered.
E. R. Bills is a Fort Worth construction worker and part-time writer.