18 June 2005
I still have my notes from a man who knew all about torture, a Druze friend in the 1980s, during the Lebanese war, pleased with himself because he'd just caught two Christian militiamen trying to plant a car bomb on the Beirut seafront. "I saw two Phalangists over there. I knew who they were. They had a bomb in their car. I called the PSP [Walid Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party] and they took them off for questioning." What happened to them? "Well, they knew what would happen to them; they knew there was no hope. They were questioned here for a couple of days and then they were taken up to Beit Eddin."
Ah, Beit Eddin, one of the prettiest villages in Lebanon, the palace of the Emir Bashir the Second, site now of one of the country's finest music festivals - run by Jumblatt's glamorous wife Nora. But Beit Eddin was different in the 1980s. "The guys are always told that they are going to die, that there's no point in suffering - because they are going to be killed when they've talked," my Druze friend told me. "There's a centre. They don't survive. There are people there who just press them until they talk. They put things into a man's anus until he screams. Boiling eggs, that sort of thing. They kill them in the end. It's only a few days and it's all over. I don't really like that sort of thing. I really don't. But what can I do?"
It's a good question again now. What can we do? What can we do when an American president dispatches "suspects" to third countries where they will be stripped, wired up, electrocuted, ripped open and tortured until they wish they had never been born? What can we do with a prime minister - ours - who believes that information from torture victims may be of use to us and may be collected by us? How can we clean our hands when we know that men are being subject to "rendition" through our own airports? Doesn't a policeman have the right to go aboard these CIA contract jets that touch down in Britain and take a look at the victim inside and - if he believes the man may be tortured - take him off the plane?
I started thinking about this more seriously in the beautiful little town of Listowel in Co Kerry - not far, by chance, from Shannon airport - where I went to give a talk at the recent writers' festival. I was handed a flyer by a bearded man in the audience. "Who was on board the CIA-chartered plane Reg No N313P that landed in Shannon on 15 December 2003 en route from Iraq?" it asks.
Now, a little fact-checking suggests that the Tralee anti-war group got the details right. And planes have also gone in the other direction - to Uzbekistan and Egypt and other countries where Geneva Conventions - already disregarded by the lads and lassies in charge of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib - are used as lavatory paper. In Uzbekistan, they boil "suspects" in fat. They take out their nails. In Egypt, they whip prisoners and sometimes sodomise them. In one Egyptian prison complex a local human rights group found that guards forced prisoners to rape each other. But no friendly Garda walks up to find out who's aboard at Shannon. The Irish government will not investigate these sinister flights. Outside, Irish eyes may be smiling. But they won't be allowed a peek into these revolting aircraft.
It's not difficult to trace our journey to this perdition. First, we had Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara, who in November 2003 was ranting away at a joint press conference with George Bush, that "in the face of this terrorism, there must be no holding back, no compromise, no hesitation in confronting this menace". No holding back? In tandem with this drivel, we had writers such as David Brooks at the New York Times perniciously asking readers what would happen to "the national mood" when "the news programmes start broadcasting images of brutal measures our own troops will (sic) have to adopt... The president will have to remind us that we live in a fallen world, that we have to take morally hazardous action..." Indeed.
Already there's an infamous case in Canada of a Syrian-born Canadian citizen who was transiting the United States, who was arrested and put on a plane to Damascus where he was duly tortured until the Syrians decided he had nothing to tell them. Then he came back to Canada - only to find that the Canadian authorities might have tipped off the US spooks that he was a wanted man. Now I'm quite an expert on Syrian torture. A beating is about the best you can expect. But there exists in one of their "mukhabarat" basements an instrument known as the German chair, installed long ago by the now defunct German Democratic Republic. The victim is strapped down and the back then moves inwards until the prisoner's spine is snapped. A home-made version - the Syrian chair - was nastier. It broke prisoners' backs more slowly.
And as we all know - and Saddam's torture boys were also experts at this - prisoners' families can be brought to prisons to be beaten, raped and sodomised if the inmate still refuses to talk. With all this are we now complicit. As long as we send men off to this physical hell, we have the electrodes in our hands; we are the torturers. As long as our government accepts information drained out of these emasculated creatures, it is we who are pulling out the fingernails; it is we who are holding the whips.
Mind you, our American friends are already, it seems, dab hands at smearing prisoners with excrement and beating them and - given the evidence I've heard from a prisoner who was at Bagram in Afghanistan - sticking brooms up men's anuses, and, of course, just killing them. Thirty prisoners have now died in US custody. I don't believe in the few bad apples line. It's happened on far too great a scale. And how do we excuse all this filth? How do we excuse ourselves for this immorality? Why, we say Saddam was worse than us.
Saddam had women raped; he shot them down into mass graves. He was much worse. But if Saddam's wickedness has to be the tuning fork against which all our own iniquities are judged, what does that say about us? If Saddam's regime is to be the moral compass to define our actions, how bad - how iniquitous - does that allow us to be?
Saddam tortured and executed women in Abu Ghraib. We only sexually abused prisoners and killed a few of them and murdered some suspects at Bagram and subjected them to inhuman treatment in Guantanamo and sent others off to be boiled and fried and killed off by our "friends" without the embarrassment of being present. Saddam was much worse. And thus it became inevitable that the symbol of Saddam's shame - Abu Ghraib - subsequently became the symbol of our shame too.