Are Americans really torturing people?

Your war questions answered

As sure as the handcuffs in my dresser drawer are fur-lined, Americans enjoy inflicting pain on others. In a January 2004 article about the popularity of sadomasochism, Time estimated that the United States is home to 250 S&M organizations. What the article didn’t mention was that two of those organizations are the CIA and the U.S. Department of Defense.

The example you’ve all heard about, of course, is Abu Ghraib, the Iraqi prison where American soldiers and CIA agents replaced Saddam with sodomy - regularly torturing, beating, and sexually assaulting Iraqi prisoners.

An example you may not have heard about is Maher Arer. That’s not a prison; he’s a Syrian-born Canadian engineer who was arrested at New York’s Kennedy Airport in September 2002 on his way home from a vacation with his wife and kids. U.S. officials suspected him of being a terrorist, so they arrested him and shipped him to a Syrian prison for a year, where he says he was locked in a small underground cell and regularly beaten.

Other than T.W.A. (Traveling While Arab), Arer committed no crimes and had no ties to terrorists. Syria confirmed that when officials released him without charges in October 2003. Canada also confirmed it when the country welcomed him back. Arer is now suing the U.S. government for sending him to Syria to be tortured.

I’m not a lawyer (really, I’m not), but Mr. Arer has a point. Congress has made it illegal for the U.S. to send prisoners to countries where they’re likely to be tortured. Wouldn’t you know it, our very own State Department has issued an annual report on human rights (every year, no less!) that for as long as anyone can remember has criticized Syria for, among other things, the torture that goes on in Syrian jails.

Arer may want to consider going class-action with his lawsuit because, sadly, he’s not the only person this has happened to. Since 9/11, the U.S. has sent what The New York Times describes as “scores” of people to foreign countries for imprisonment and interrogation. Depending on where you read about it, the process is either called “rendition” or “extraordinary rendition.”

Rendition works like this: The White House gives the CIA blanket authority to nab foreign nationals suspected of being terrorists. The suspects are sent to foreign countries for imprisonment and interrogation. These suspects are frequently brutalized in their destination countries in a way U.S. law would not allow.

I’ll repeat one point in case you missed the critical detail: These aren’t proven terrorists. They’re people whom a clumsily run governmental agency considers suspect. Instead of investigating or interrogating them on our own, we’re shipping them out to places like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Syria and Egypt, where the “truth” is tortured out of them.

The only problem, though, is that professional interrogators say over and over again that torture produces false confessions. Hurt someone enough and he’ll confess to assassinating Lincoln if he thinks you’ll stop hurting him.

Another notorious example of a “suspect” that we’ve “extraordinarily rendered” is an Egyptian man named Mamdouh Habib. We grabbed him in Pakistan in late 2001 and sent him to Egypt, where he says he was tortured - and threatened by his captors with rape by rape-trained German shepherds if he didn’t confess. After a while, Egypt gave him back to us and we let him go, without charge.

You can find more examples by Googling the phrase “extraordinary rendition.” The White House nonetheless denies that it’s knowingly sending people overseas to be tortured. The most the government will admit, in off-the-record chats with reporters, is that some of the people extraordinarily rendered may have been tortured. That’s the kind of understatement that further undermines America’s position as a paragon of human rights.

Also consider this: It’s possible that many, hell, maybe even most, of the people we’ve been rendering are actually guilty of something related to terrorism. But are we gonna start convicting people of crimes based on confessions that are beaten out them? Flagrantly trampling the human rights of a suspect can make it next to impossible to convict him in an American court, even if he is guilty. That doesn’t make us safer.