Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Six out of the Seven


The fulfilment of a promise. That's a reasonable expectation for someone who voted for change in the past presidential election. But the same people who elected Barack Obama also gave Democrats comfortable majorities in both Houses of Congress, so it is safe to assume their desire for change was not limited to the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. They (*) surely expected something to change there as well. Were they (and the rest of the world that joined in the hope trip, so "we" applies here) wrong? Is the establishment too strong to be changed from within, as it seems to assimilate the ones who oppose it but still seem to condone, adapt and/or fear it? Are the imperfections of the system the one thing that keeps it from crumbling down? It appears to be that way.

President Obama promised three very important things during his campaign: to restore America's moral standing in the world by words and deeds. The three things that stand out in this promise: to regain the world's respect through diplomacy and acknowledging the end of unilateral reasoning in international affairs; to uphold and enforce the Law - both domestic and international; to break unequivocally from past uses of an administration that let fear, personal belief, greed and thirst for power become the main drivers of it's policy. This last part has a symbol, Guantanamo Bay, and a strategy, torture - of course, in the words of many, the infamous "enhanced interrogation techniques" strategy (sounds better that way, doesn't it?). From the beginning of time, torturing opponents served one purpose above all others: to instill fear in their hearts - a very effective (and barbarian) method of keeping power. Respect leaves room for dissent, albeit respectful, whereas fear leaves room for nothing but itself. We can be pretty sure this approach, still common in many places around the world, was not the corner stone of the torture rationale between 9/11 and the election of Barack Obama. Another important purpose of torture, however, does apply: the way it makes people say whatever the torturer wants them to say; from the Romans to the Catholic Inquisition, from the soviets to the Vietcong, from the Portuguese and Spanish totalitarian fascist regimes to the ones in their former American colonies, getting people to publicly admit to whatever the power that be wanted them to was common practice. So where does the 'information gathering" through torture comes to play?

According to Dick Chenney and his apologists, torture was very effective in preventing more than one serious threat to American lives that was thus thwarted; furthermore, it was not torture at all - the well being of those interrogated was paramount and they look all well and good after, so how could that be torture? Well, people can be beaten up pretty bad without leaving a single mark on them that shows proof of it, but still it is a beating, it just looks good after, so there is no evidence to show in a court of law and therefore no grounds for complaints. Isn't this, however, worse than just beating someone up without concern for posterior charges precisely because it proves the intent on the perpetrator to conceal the aggression? I am not saying concealing what was done to those subjected to torture under the Bush administration was the concern of it's defenders, hence the so called legal documents that support it's use and are supposed to justify them as lawful, but I am sure they would all be much happier if these facts never saw the light of day and even more happy if posterior administrations were to engage in such practices. They were not lucky on both counts.

We all know the position of the United States on torture before 9/11, and specifically waterboarding, from accounts of numerous occasions when people that used waterboarding on their prisoners were sent to trial and convicted, many by American authorities. It is a crime. When applied to prisoners of war, like it was during WWII by the Japanese or during the Korean War by the Chinese and north Koreans, it is a crime of war, clearly condemned by the Geneva Conventions. So why is this position now controversial? Because it worked and saved American lives? Because Al-Qaeda is not a regular combat formation from a country that acknowledges the Geneva Conventions and abides by them? Because Al-Qaeda does or will surely do much worse to their enemies if they catch them? The answers to these questions, although important, have nothing at all to do with the facts at hand: torture is wrong and illegal. Period. There are no mitigating circumstances. These are facts and that is why the defenders of this barbarian methods will time and again go back to the "waterboarding is not torture" defense, even after admitting it is - because once you admit it is, there is no defense.

The use of any means necessary to prevent future attacks of the same nature of those perpetrated in 9/11 cannot signify these means are unlawful - this was the rationale behind every legal opinion issued on the behalf of those willingly and knowingly going beyond the rule of law to achieve their goals, from petty corporate thieves to ruthless statesmen. So the right to act in self defense is always, exceptional times or not, based in the rule of law - unless the law is what one wants it to be depending where the wind blows, like in totalitarian regimes.
I come from a country that knew dictatorship in recent times, Portugal. I was almost 11 years old when democracy became a possibility, after the military coup of April 25, 1974, and went through the confused revolutionary process that eventually established it as real. Portugal is a democracy now. We lost almost all our wealth (that originated mainly from the African colonies of Angola and Mozambique), we have huge social problems that spawned after the loss of the Empire, the crime rate went through the roof and now we are just a small country that had to join the European Union to secure it's future as a modern nation (seems like a paradox but it is not). Bottom line is, Portugal seemed to be doing much better before April 1974 - there was practically no crime, we were rich, there was plenty of room for opportunity within the Empire, oil and diamonds were flowing from Africa and we proudly stood alone as the last colonial power in the world - there was a lot that was wrong, like literacy levels and freedom of speech, but people felt very safe and the disparity between rich and poor was nothing like it is today (still significant, but not insidious as well). All that changed with the advent of democracy. That is what an open and free society is like and that's what it should be. And yes, much less safe than a dictatorship. The difference is, obviously, that in a democracy rights and duties are the same for all under the law, and that means all, regardless of who you are and where you came from. Your freedom to do whatever you want within the law means everyone is free to do the same. This is the touch stone of democracy and both it's most amazing feature and it's most blatant vulnerability, but once you lose it, you have lost everything.

Now Americans, and also Europeans, are told by people that share Dick Chenney's beliefs that these are indeed extraordinary times and we are at war, so we must do battle and refrain from invoking citizenship rights that are only acceptable when all is well and peaceful, but now represent a clear and present danger to our societies, for they are weaknesses our enemies will use against us if they are presented with an opportunity to do so. What we are being told is there is no room for democracy and it's rule of law as long as there is someone out there willing to use their assets against us. What we must decide is if we are ready to abdicate democracy as we knew it and it's foundations so we can live free from fear - the only problem is, and this is painfully obvious, that fear is the only way to justify such an aberration. We are expected to abdicate democracy because we are afraid horrible things will happen if we keep it as it should be and we must do so until all threats are gone and the war is won - than we can have our freedom back. It's brilliant, I'll give them that, but it is also dark and ugly.

President Obama promised to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay because it is a scar on the face of democracy, because it places fear over justice and expedience over the rule of law. To do this, Congress must approve the necessary funds - it won't come cheap and it involves complex logistic problems that must be dealt with. We already knew where the Republicans stood on this matter, but to see only six Democrat Senators stand by the President was a surprise. They are afraid to have the prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay brought to mainland USA - not sure if they oppose them being sent to Alaska, Hawaii or even Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam or American Samoa - because they are apparently too dangerous to be allowed inside continental USA, which means, of course, America has no effective means to safely incarcerate potentially dangerous people. The headlines today read "1 in 7 Guantanamo detainees freed return to terrorism" based on "an unreleased Pentagon report provides new details concluding that about one in seven of the 534 prisoners already transferred abroad from the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has returned to terrorism or militant activity" (source New York Times). A simple calculation will let you know that over 450 of those detainees did not engage in terrorism or militant activity after being released from Guantanamo Bay, those being 6 in 7 Gitmo detainees. Another six. My wife brought my attention to this fact this morning and now I thought of it remembering the number of Senators that voted for the President's position: six. So what were those more than 450 people doing in Guantanamo Bay? How long were they there? Is the Intelligence community acting like fishermen these days? You catch whatever comes in the net and sort it out later? At least fishermen return unwanted catch to the sea immediately... These are people that shouldn't have been in Guantanamo Bay to begin with, either they are not terrorists or they are not a threat of any kind. That's what you get when you turn a blind eye to the rule of law.

We lived (hopefully we no more do, but the Patriot Act is still in force, isn't it?) in a nation that throws people in prison with no rights for unlimited time based on suspicions only - it's the Bush doctrine, remember, preemptive action. Closing Guantanamo Bay's detention facility and ending torture is but a step towards the rule of law. And that is why President Obama said today: "In dealing with this situation, we don't have the luxury of starting from scratch. We're cleaning up something that is, quite simply, a mess -- a misguided experiment that has left in its wake a flood of legal challenges that my administration is forced to deal with on a constant, almost daily basis (...)". Indeed.
There are many legal challenges still ahead, if we are to resume our lives in spite of the post 9/11 world we live in. It is a very different world than we have known before, but we cannot allow it to change our way of life forever. Today, when people talk about the rule of law and democracy they are accused of "pre-9/11 mentality", as if it is some kind of nasty infectious disease! We must go back to that mentality! Moving away from it is the main objective of all those who oppose our way of life. And guess who is winning.

So along comes this man that has the audacity to hope for a better way of life; one that will fight those who seek it's destruction not by destroying it himself, but precisely by holding it up high and proudly: we are a democracy and we should not surrender our way of life for anything, including safety; we are a society based on the rule of law with responsibilities within and outside it's borders and we should not sacrifice the law nor escape those responsibilities for the sake of defending both against those who do not know them, care for them or share them with us; we are the keepers of the flame and should never put it out in times of darkness with the excuse that it makes us visible to our enemies.
That will be our choice in this defining moment. To refuse to live in darkness knowing full well it is the light that attracts those who seek to destroy us. To stand up once and for all without fear or forever be afraid and on our knees.

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