The Torture Society 

The long slog of rebuilding American democracy

NEW YORK--The military tribunal lasted a week. At the end the 17 defendants were permitted to make a closing statement. Alexei Shestov, 41 years of age, stood up and admitted to being a terrorist and traitor.

"In that struggle," he confessed, "I employed every loathsome, every filthy and every destructive method." Coercive interrogation techniques--what effete and weak-stomached liberals would call torture--loosened the terrorist's tongue. "For five weeks I denied everything," he said. "For five weeks they kept confronting me with one fact after another, with the photographs of my dastardly work and when I looked back, I myself was appalled by what I had done."

Unlike his cowardly co-conspirators, Shestov proclaimed himself ready to face the ultimate sanction. "Now I have only one desire, to stand with calmness on the place of my execution and with my blood to wash away the stain of a traitor to my country." He got his wish. The Military Collegium of the Supreme Court ordered him to be shot.

The great Moscow "show trials" of 1937, officially bringing to justice the nefarious agents of the "Anti-Soviet Trotskyite Centre," were the centerpiece of Stalin's campaign to terrorize Soviet citizens from their previous state of basic subjugation to absolute submission. In truth, there was no such thing as the Anti-Soviet Trostskyite Centre. Shestov wasn't even an opponent of the regime. On the contrary, he was an NKVD (predecessor to the KGB) employee, his bosses ordered to pose as a suspect in order to inculpate the other men. Stalin, as thorough as he was diabolical, had him executed anyway.

A trial without due process isn't justice. It's farce.

Newly leaked audiotapes of military tribunals held at the Guantanamo Bay concentration camp shared the eerie quality of the Soviet show trials of the 1930s. Once again, the men are accused of membership in a shadowy terrorist conspiracy. The evidence against them consists of hearsay--the testimony of other miserables giving them up in order to save themselves. They have been beaten, abused and probably tortured.

Murat Kurnaz, 24, a German cititzen held for four years without being charged with so much as a traffic violation, described life at Gitmo to CNN after being sent back to Germany. Among the "many types of torture" he endured were "electric shocks to having one's head submerged in water, (subjection to) hunger and thirst, or being shackled and suspended [hung from the ceiling]."

"They tell you 'you are from al-Qaeda', and when you say 'no' they give the (electric) current to your feet ... As you keep saying 'no' this goes on for two or three hours."

In testimony consistent with that of other Gitmo survivors, Kurnaz said he was suspended from the ceiling for at least four days. "They take you down in the mornings when a doctor comes to see whether you can endure more. They let you sit when the interrogator comes ... They take you down about three times a day so you do not die."

Such precautions weren't 100 percent effective. "I saw several people die," he said.

Now the United States is trying to burnish its nasty image as one of the world's leading torture states--not by eliminating torture, but by silencing its victims. In a remarkable bit of legal sang-froid, the Bush Administration has filed a brief in its case against Majid Khan asking a federal court to seal its torture of him as "top secret."

Khan is one of 14 alleged al-Qaeda suspects transferred earlier this year from secret CIA torture chambers in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Pakistan to Gitmo. CIA official Marilyn Dorn said in a Bush Administration affidavit that Khan should be silenced lest he reveal "the conditions of detention and specific alternative interrogation procedures."

"If this argument carries the day," The Washington Post wrote in an editorial, "it will make virtually impossible any accountability for the administration's treatment of top al-Qaeda detainees."

"Sausage making," a right-wing blogger calls it. We abandon American values to protect the American way of life. But we don't want to hear about it, much less watch it. A YouTube video of a volunteer undergoing waterboarding--an illegal but frequently used CIA torture technique that Dick Cheney agreed was a harmless "dunk of water," a "no-brainer"--vanished hours after being posted.

When political leaders justify torture, it isn't long before it goes mainstream. Mostafa Tabatabainejad, a 21-year-old college student at UCLA, was typing away in the back of a campus library computer lab when security guards demanded that he produce ID for a "random check."

What happened after he refused was caught on eight agonizing minutes of video shot by another student's cellphone. As he screamed and convulsed on the floor, rent-a-cops repeatedly shot Tabatabainejad with a Taser stun gun.

"Any student who witnessed it was left with an image you don't want to remember," a witness told the UCLA student newspaper. Asked whether Tabatabainejad resisted, the witness said, "In the beginning, no. But when they were holding onto him and they were on the ground, he was trying to just break free. He was saying, 'I'm leaving, I'm leaving.' It was so disturbing to watch that I cannot be concise on that. I can just say that he was willing to leave. He had his backpack on his shoulder and he was walking out when the cops approached him. It was unnecessary."

The video captures the security men ordering Tabatabainejad to "get up or you'll get Tased," shooting him when he complies and laughing as they repeat their demand. "Here's your Patriot Act, here's your f---- abuse of power," he shouted at bystanders who were visibly upset but too cowed to intervene.

The Democratic takeover of Congress has seen high hopes of national moral redemption downgraded to more modest goals: raising the minimum wage, allowing the Medicare program to negotiate lower drug prices with the pharmaceutical companies. No leading Democrat has called for impeaching Bush, closing Guantanamo and other torture camps or outlawing spying on American citizens without a warrant. There is, however, a sign that something remains of American morality.

Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd has introduced a bill to defang the neofascist Military Commissions Act, signed into law by Bush shortly before the elections. Under the MCA, the president or secretary of defense can declare anyone, including a U.S. citizen, an "enemy combatant" and toss them into a secret prison for the rest of their life, where they can legally be tortured. The MCA eliminates habeas corpus, a legal right enjoyed by Westerners since the 13th century that forces police to file charges against an arrestee or let him go.

"People have no idea how significant this is," said Jonathan Turley, professor of constitutional law at George Washington University. "What the Congress did and what the president signed ... essentially revokes over 200 years of American principles and values."

Dodd's Effective Terrorists Prosecution Act (S. 4060) would eliminate the most heinous aspects of the MCA and begin the restoration of American democracy before 9/11, when it was supplanted by our current police state.

"I strongly believe that terrorists who seek to destroy America must be punished for any wrongs they commit against this country," said Dodd.

"But in my view, in order to sustain America's moral authority and win a lasting victory against our enemies, such punishment must be meted out only in accordance with the rule of law."

As we've seen in Iraq, it's easier to destroy a society than to rebuild one. Seven decades after Stalin's Great Terror, Russia is still struggling to establish democratic institutions. Unraveling the oppressive legacy of Bush's post-9/11 security apparatus won't be easy either. Even if it passes, Dodd's Bill faces an almost certain presidential veto--yet another reason impeachment should be Democrats' top priority in January.

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