Taking liberties

Thomas Raftery traces the historic aggregation of civil liberties in the USA, showing the scant regard for the principles on which their country was founded

I imagine that it was with some trepidation that 40 English Barons accosted King John, bundled him into a rowing boat and took him out to Runnymede Island with the promise he would not be returned to the safety of the mainland until he had signed their “Great Charter of English Liberties”. More popularly known as the “Magna Carta” this was the first time legislation was forced onto a King by his subjects. Had it not been for the courage of this handful of noblemen to place the King under such duress that he signed the famous piece of yellowed parchment world history would read very differently from how it does today.
Thomas Jefferson famously said that, “When the government is afraid of the people, there is liberty, but when the people are afraid of the government, there is tyranny”, and it was on this principle that the Barons of England hatched their plan over 700 years previously, the same principle that motivated leaders across Europe to convene as the “European Convention on Human Rights” in the wake of World War II. And it was the belief in this very same principle that brought together thousands of people in protest on the streets of London in April of last year.
In 2006, defence lawyers representing Jose Padilla released footage of a group of masked guards, in full riot gear, entering his cell, shackling his arms and legs, forcing a hood, blackout goggles and industrial sound-proof earphones onto his head, and marching him down the corridor. If you didn’t know, you would be forgiven for assuming that Mr. Padilla poses an immediate threat to the lives of the guards, or is a maximum-security prisoner charged with high-profile acts of terrorism or mass murder, or is at least from some fearsome terrorist cell or army. These assumptions would be most tragically incorrect. Instead the footage shows Mr. Padilla, an American citizen accused of being an “enemy combatant” (and by means of this accusation, stripped of his civil liberties), being taken to the dentist. Perhaps Mr. Padilla’s warden most succinctly describes the level of threat he poses when he says that he is so docile and utterly inactive, that he could be mistaken for a “piece of furniture”.
The purpose of these measures then, is not risk limitation, but rather to mercilessly maintain the conditions under which he has been held for the past four years: total sensory deprivation. Jose Padilla has lived in his blacked out cell, unable to hear or see anything beyond it, allowed no human contact whatsoever, if you overlook the occasional beatings. The forensic psychiatrist who examined him said that he “does not appreciate the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him, is unable to render assistance to counsel, and has impairments in reasoning as a result of a mental illness, i.e. post-traumatic stress disorder, complicated by the neuropsychiatric effects of prolonged isolation”. By means of social isolation it appears that Mr. Padilla, against whom charges of building a dirty bomb were found to be spurious and dropped and replaced by something vaguer and to do with “conspiracy”, has been lobotomised.
If the results weren’t so harrowing, you might marvel at the creative ability of human beings, after thousands of years of practise, to devise new and more effective ways of totally destroying each other. Of course Jose Padilla is not alone, but is one of thousands of men and women detained, without any charge other having the shady and legally indefinable characteristics of an “enemy combatant”, indefinitely. It seems to me a strange Christian country that believes in neither forgiveness nor redemption. The fact that the US (with the assistance of the UK) routinely and systematically tortures “enemy combatants” while prosecuting its “war on terror” is no longer even disputed. The Detainee Abuse and Accountability Project (DAA) has documented the abuse or killing of 460 inmates of US military prisons in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, and notes that this is a conservative figure considering the CIA’s ability to censor records, or move prisoners to one of its foreign oubliettes.
The New York Times reported that prisoners at the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan were made to stand for up to 13 days with their hands chained to the ceiling, naked, hooded and unable to sleep. The abuse included rape, sexual humiliation, sleep deprivation and mock executions. The Washington Post alleges that prisoners at the same airbase were often “blindfolded, thrown into walls, bound in stressful positions, subjected to loud noises and deprived of sleep.”
Though the instances of torture seem well documented, it is only thanks to the soldiers stupid enough to film the abuse that any record exists at all, and the DAA points out that no officer has yet been held accountable for the actions of his subordinates. Aside from the institutionalised torture that is an intrinsic part of the “war on terror”, the treatment of Mr. Padilla foregrounds another growingly popular incarceration technique: solitary confinement. Some 25,000 prisoners are currently held in isolation, and in some cases have been in this state for over 20 years. In the more extreme examples, solitary confinement can mean not seeing, hearing, or touching another human being for years at a time. At Pelican Bay in California where 1200 prisoners are held in isolation, over 10% are now in the psychiatric wing and the waiting list is growing. Dr. Henry Weinstein, a psychiatrist who studies prisoners in isolation, suggests that they suffer “memory loss to severe anxiety to hallucinations to delusions…people go crazy”. While they go in bad, they come out mad.
Predictability, the reaction to these revelations by the conservative Right is “the ends justify the means”, or some similarly boring or hypothetical “Jack Bauer” situation where you can torture one to save a million.
This reaction is of course completely ridiculous given the evidence that torture will eventually make anyone say anything. This behaviour can instead be understood in terms of power and control. It is the result of the discovery that under the right conditions, one man’s power over another is unlimited. As the journalist George Monbiot said, “it is an indulgence that turns its perpetrators into everything they claim to be confronting”. In the wake of 9/11, George Bush said that he was fighting against threats to the “values of civilised nations”. The true horror of terror is how it changes what a “civilised nation” will deem acceptable in the face of adversity, and if this is the routine abuse of prisoners, then I fear the change in our values may be irreversible.
If this abuse continues, the terrorist’s mission to mutate our society so far from its principles will have been achieved. Bush charged his nation’s soldiers and interrogators to find where the evils of extremism are hidden. Perhaps they should congratulate themselves, as it appears they have succeeded – and they’re much closer to home than anyone might have thought.