A Test on ‘Tyranny’

“We were blindfolded and our hands were tied behind our backs. . . . They made me sit on the floor. When I tried to speak, they said ‘Are you here to talk? Shut up, you are a terrorist. Just confess to being one of the Mahdi Army.’ They poured cold water over me and applied electric shocks to my genitals. I was also beaten by several people with cables on my arms and back.”

Perhaps it’s some consolation to know that the quotation above does not come from an investigation of U.S. prisons in Iraq. Nor, you will be glad to hear, does it herald another CIA prisoner-abuse scandal.

Your sense of relief should nevertheless be short-lived, because that story is extracted from a report on Iraqi police abuse of Iraqi citizens, published yesterday by Human Rights Watch. The report, which finds evidence of “serious and widespread human rights violations by Iraqi police” — including torture, long detentions without trial and horrific prison conditions — is based on interviews conducted last year with more than 90 Iraqis. Detained as suspected insurgents or criminals, they were interviewed in courts, prisons and holding facilities. Some may have been guilty, but many were freed, without apology. The man quoted above was arrested along with four other men, two of whom “confessed” under torture, all of whom were later released for lack of evidence.

No grand theory is needed to understand why prisons are chaotic, and why prisoners are abused in Iraq. In a war that pits civilians against civilians, any bystander can be an insurgent. Iraqi police, more of whom died yesterday, know that any one of them might be the next victim.

Although the higher levels of the Iraqi government were “de-Baathified,” many of the people working in the Iraqi prison system now were working in the Iraqi prison system before the U.S.-led invasion. Under Saddam Hussein, torture was not just condoned, it was rewarded. And while Human Rights Watch found no evidence of the bizarre forms of torture Hussein favored — the use of acid, sexual abuse, group executions — the organization found plenty of evidence that Iraqi jailers simply use, out of habit, the same “interrogation methods” they did before: beatings, electric shock, hanging prisoners by their wrists.

What is less understandable — indeed, incomprehensible — is why the reaction has not been louder. According to Sarah Leah Whitson, the report’s editor, prisoner abuse is no great secret in Iraq: “Routine, naked-eye observation” reveals fresh wounds and bruises and crowded prisons, she told me. Yet Iraqi officials have so far shrugged off the issue. One Interior Ministry official told a reporter this week that “we’re not reacting in any way to this report because it’s our policy that all laws are observed.” Another simply said that “security” comes first. On at least one occasion, U.S. soldiers intervened to stop abuse, yet Human Rights Watch has had no reaction from U.S. authorities either.

But even if it is embarrassing for us — our pedestal here is pretty shaky — there are some purely practical reasons to start talking openly and publicly about Iraqi prisons, and to prevent the official tolerance of human rights violations from becoming part of our legacy in Iraq. Clearly, if arbitrary arrest and abuse remain accepted practice, the Iraqi insurgency is unlikely to weaken: The best way to create a new terrorist, in the Middle East or anywhere else, is to torture his brother.

More to the point, torture, if it persists, and human rights violations, if they continue, will eventually destroy the legitimacy of the U.S. presence in Iraq altogether. Myself, I never needed weapons of mass destruction, and I accept the idea that the destruction of a regime such as Hussein’s can sometimes be just cause for invasion. But it is illogical to expect anyone, anywhere, to accept the straightforward substitution of one hideous regime for another. For these reasons alone, the Human Rights Watch report should not be treated as the final word. It should inspire a public U.S. government investigation and, if necessary, a public U.S. government condemnation — even if that means a public disagreement with our new allies in Iraq just after their elections.

In the end, though, there is a deeper moral issue, too — one that our president laid out last week when he spoke of the need to fight “tyranny” wherever it occurs. When I heard him say that, I wondered how his rhetoric would affect him the next time he had to make a hard choice between opposing a tyrannical regime and pursuing some pragmatic cause. I had no idea he might be faced with precisely such a hard choice, in such an important place as Iraq, so very soon.

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