Torture, American Style

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

February 11, 2005

Maher Arar is a 34-year-old native of Syria who emigrated to Canada as a teenager. On Sept. 26, 2002, as he was returning from a family vacation in Tunisia, he was seized by American authorities at Kennedy Airport in New York, where he was in the process of changing planes.

Mr. Arar, a Canadian citizen, was not charged with a crime. But, as Jane Mayer tells us in a compelling and deeply disturbing article in the current issue of The New Yorker, he "was placed in handcuffs and leg irons by plainclothes officials and transferred to an executive jet."

In an instant, Mr. Arar was swept into an increasingly common nightmare, courtesy of the United States of America. The plane that took off with him from Kennedy "flew to Washington, continued to Portland, Maine, stopped in Rome, Italy, then landed in Amman, Jordan."

Any rights Mr. Arar might have thought he had, either as a Canadian citizen or a human being, had been left behind. At times during the trip, Mr. Arar heard the pilots and crew identify themselves in radio communications as members of "the Special Removal Unit." He was being taken, on the orders of the U.S. government, to Syria, where he would be tortured.

The title of Ms. Mayer's article is "Outsourcing Torture." It's a detailed account of the frightening and extremely secretive U.S. program known as "extraordinary rendition."

This is one of the great euphemisms of our time. Extraordinary rendition is the name that's been given to the policy of seizing individuals without even the semblance of due process and sending them off to be interrogated by regimes known to practice torture. In terms of bad behavior, it stands side by side with contract killings.

Our henchmen in places like Syria, Egypt, Morocco, Uzbekistan and Jordan are torturing terror suspects at the behest of a nation - the United States - that just went through a national election in which the issue of moral values was supposed to have been decisive. How in the world did we become a country in which gays' getting married is considered an abomination, but torture is O.K.?

As Ms. Mayer pointed out: "Terrorism suspects in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East have often been abducted by hooded or masked American agents, then forced onto a Gulfstream V jet, like the one described by Arar. ... Upon arriving in foreign countries, rendered suspects often vanish. Detainees are not provided with lawyers, and many families are not informed of their whereabouts."

Mr. Arar was seized because his name had turned up on a watch list of terror suspects. He was reported to have been a co-worker of a man in Canada whose brother was a suspected terrorist.

"Although he initially tried to assert his innocence, he eventually confessed to anything his tormentors wanted him to say," Ms. Mayer wrote.

The confession under torture was worthless. Syrian officials reported back to the United States that they could find no links between Mr. Arar and terrorism. He was released in October 2003 without ever being charged and is now back in Canada.

Barbara Olshansky is the assistant legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing Mr. Arar in a lawsuit against the U.S. I asked her to describe Mr. Arar's physical and emotional state following his release from custody.

She sounded shaken by the memory. "He's not a big guy," she said. "He had lost more than 40 pounds. His pallor was terrible, and his eyes were sunken. He looked like someone who was kind of dead inside."

Any government that commits, condones, promotes or fosters torture is a malignant force in the world. And those who refuse to raise their voices against something as clearly evil as torture are enablers, if not collaborators.

There is a widespread but mistaken notion in the U.S. that everybody seized by the government in its so-called war on terror is in fact somehow connected to terrorist activity. That is just wildly wrong.

Tony Blair knows a little about that sort of thing. Just two days ago the British prime minister formally apologized to 11 people who were wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for bombings in England by the Irish Republican Army three decades ago.

Jettisoning the rule of law to permit such acts of evil as kidnapping and torture is not a defensible policy for a civilized nation. It's wrong. And nothing good can come from it.