Torturous Silence


By Leonard Fein

Published May 27, 2005, issue of May 27, 2005.
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There are times he speaks with genuine passion, this president of ours. That’s what he did on the video he sent to the meeting of anti-Castro protesters in Cuba the other day, as also when he pledged to veto any bill that Congress might send to him calling for fetal stem-cell research.

But there was no way to read passion into his voice when, at a brief press conference at the conclusion of his Oval Office meeting with Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, he spoke of America’s treatment — mistreatment, to be more precise — of prisoners. The question that was put to him made no reference to that morning’s horrific report in The New York Times on conditions at the Bagram prison in Afghanistan, but the issue was plainly on people’s minds, and it is inconceivable that the president himself had not been briefed on it that morning.

Here’s the question (the reporter who asked it is not identified in the transcript): “Mr. President, how do you react to the continuing reports about mistreatment of prisoners held by American military around the world, and also the perception abroad that the ones that are paying for it are low-ranking soldiers, but that nobody higher up is taking any responsibility?”

The Times report that morning was based principally on a hitherto secret, excruciatingly detailed 2,000-page government report on the 2002 murder of two Afghani prisoners by American soldiers . Murder by torture, dehumanizing and inhuman torture. As one correspondent put it in a letter to the editor the next day, a day in which many papers were filled with news about the sinking image of the United States not only in Islamic countries but also in nations around the world, the report’s reference to “young, poorly trained soldiers” was not persuasive.

“What age and level of training are needed to understand that torturing innocent people to death is not such a good idea?” (In fact, of course, the idea of torturing guilty people to death is not much better.) The report began on the front page and took up all of two inside pages. And every paragraph delivered a new hammered blow, each gruesome detail right there with your morning coffee.

One might have supposed that the president of the United States would have, immediately on reading the story, convened the press corps to speak of his outrage, his sorrow, his determination to bring those responsible — all those responsible — to justice. He might even have spoken of the possibility of reparations to the families of the two men whom we — sorry, but it’s we who did it — murdered.

Yes, a snappy reporter might have asked whether he really hadn’t known of the episodes until he read about them in The Times (or in whatever digest of such things he is provided each morning), and if the president were equally alert he’d have said that yes, this was the first he’d heard of it — and heads would roll on that one, too.

But no, not this ever-moralizing president. Instead, this is what we got: “I think the world ought to be — pay attention to the contrast between a society which was run by a brutal tyrant in which there was no transparency and a society in which the whole world watches a government find the facts, lay the facts out for the citizens to see, and that punishment, when appropriate, be delivered.”

And, Bush went on: “If I’m not mistaken, I think over 20% of the people thus far that have been held to account as a result of the Abu Ghraib issue have been officers. There have been, I think, nine investigations, eight or nine investigations by independent investigators that have made the reports very public. I’m comfortable that we’re getting to the bottom of the situation, and I know we are doing so in a transparent way. Obviously, ours is a country that respects human rights and human dignity, and if those rights and dignity have been denied, we will hold people to account.”

All this delivered in a tone as flat as a polished skipping stone.

Yes, there have been, just as the president said, nine separate investigations — none, however, independent — of the Abu Ghraib incidents so notoriously brought to our attention in photographs slightly more than a year ago. And yes, more than 20% — actually, exactly 20% — of the people who have so far been “held accountable” have been officers. One of them, a general, was demoted; one, a colonel, has been reprimanded and fined $8,000. And then one sergeant and seven privates, the kids who go off to war not because they love war but because the army is a way out of the small-town poverty they have known. So two out of 10 — 20% — have been officers.

And Bagram? According to Human Rights Watch, “at least six detainees in U.S. custody [in Afghanistan] have been killed since 2002.” So far, no charges of homicide have been brought against any American personnel, and the army’s investigation of these matters remains classified. Transparency?

Why bother to review all this? Because the heart of the matter is not that the “image” of the United States around the world is at risk. Nor even that the president, may heaven help us, no longer can say blithely that ours is “obviously” a country “that respects human rights and human dignity.” The whole damned point is that this is no longer self-evident, no longer obvious. The reason to review all this is that the image of the United States in our own eyes and in the eyes of our children is skidding out of control, day by lack-of-outrage day. His absent outrage, and ours.

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