Pyle in the Sunday Republican: "War on Terrorism Shouldn't Stoop to Torture"

This opinion piece ran in the Sunday Republican on Sunday, February 29, 2004.

By Christopher H. Pyle

Here are two stories about our war on terrorism that deserve more attention than they have received.

The first is about Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian who was seized by our government while lawfully passing through Kennedy Airport and delivered to Syria, where he was interrogated under torture for 10 months. The second involves a little noticed report on the incarceration of hundreds of equally innocent immigrants rounded up by our government after Sept. 11.

Arar was a victim of an international watch list, indiscriminately generated by computers. He was not a terrorist. He didn't know any terrorists, but he was assumed to be one because of the remotest of computer-generated associations. According to the Canadian police a man who had witnessed the signing of Arar's apartment lease knew an Egyptian who knew a person mentioned in an al Qaida document. According to Syrian intelligence, a cousin of Arar's mother had joined the Muslim Brotherhood, years after Arar had left Syria permanently for Canada. That's all it took to make Arar a "person of interest."

But our government did not just question him, or send him on to Canada for more questioning. It put him on a private jet and flew him to Jordan, where Jordanian agents beat him before delivering him to Syrian intelligence. The Syrians questioned Arar under torture for 10 months before deciding he was not a terrorist.

The kidnapping of this Canadian citizen was not an isolated act by rogue American agents. It was part of a program, secretly approved by President Bush, called "extraordinary rendition."

In effect, Bush has secretly abrogated the laws and treaties governing extradition and deportation, and assumed for himself - and the CIA - total control over the fate of persons protected by our Constitution. He claims the power to make these people "disappear," as if he were an Argentine general rather than a president under our Constitution.

Attorney General John Ashcroft has refused to answer questions about this secret program, other than to say that the Syrians, whose use of torture is frequently protested by the State Department, had promised not to torture him. Ashcroft has not explained why it was necessary to send Arar to Syria, if our government's purpose was not to have him questioned under torture.

Arar is not the only victim of the Bush administration's lawless "war" on terrorism. The Justice Department's own inspector general has documented how thousands of innocent men from the Middle East were detained for months, on Ashcroft's orders, without charges or trial here in the United States.

Hundreds were held in a maximum security prison in Brooklyn, N.Y., where they were chained hand and foot, slammed into walls, strip-searched repeatedly, mocked as they prayed, and subjected to sustained periods of sleep deprivation.

The inspector general's first report on these abuses was released last June. It received some press coverage, but has yet to be the subject of hearings in the Republican-controlled Congress.

Although Ashcroft's detentions failed to uncover a single terrorist, the attorney general declared that he had "no apologies" for the abuses his inspector general had uncovered. Ashcroft's Civil Rights Division and the Bureau of Prisons undertook their own investigations, but quickly found no reason to prosecute or punish the guards.

So the inspector general's staff did some more investigating and eventually found the "missing" videotapes that confirmed the abuses. Among other things, the tapes prove that when the detainees were first delivered to the prison, guards shoved their faces into an American-flag T-shirt taped to the concrete wall. Eventually, our flag was stained with blood of these innocent men.

According to President Bush, al Qaida's terrorists "hate freedom," If they kill, torture or abuse our people, we will punish them for "war crimes."

Fair enough, but when his administration does the same to innocent people in the United States, in violation of their constitutional rights, what should we do?

Christopher H. Pyle teaches civil liberties at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley.