Evil In Our Time, Done In Our Name

In early May I visited S-21, the notorious Khmer Rouge interrogation center in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Suspected "enemies of the state" were brought there to be photographed, tortured, forced to write confessions, and then taken to the killing field of Cheoung Ek, where they were bludgeoned to death and buried in mass graves. Of fourteen thousand known detainees at S-21 (men, women, and children), only six are known to have survived.

As a museum, the interrogation center has been left largely intact; a visit is a chilling experience. There are torture implements, display cases of smashed human skulls, and graphic paintings of torture techniques. Since my visit, I've spent a few sleepless nights as my mind reviewed the unspeakable brutalites that were committed upon mostly innocent victims (it has been estimated that 90% of S-21 detainees were not guilty of the crimes to which they were forced to confess.) Vann Nath, one of the six known survivors, said that detainees arriving at the center had come to "a place many times worse than hell."

I'm having difficulty coming to terms with what I saw at S-21.

Into the swirling waters of my troubled mind this week dropped an article from last Sunday's Wall Street Journal. It described a classified U.S. Defense Department report which concluded that "the president wasn't bound by laws prohibiting torture and that government agents who might torture prisoners at his direction couldn't be prosecuted by the US Justice Department." The report was written by military and civilian lawyers for US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Where did this Defense Department report come from? Did it just drop out of the sky?

It would obviously be unwise for the president to explicity order U.S. Government employees to use torture on detainees held by our military or security services. That would be a smoking gun (but considering that President Bush unilaterally withdrew the United States from the International Criminal Court, at least he would still probably be safe from international prosecution.)

Last month when photographs and stories first surfaced about brutalities committed by Americans at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib Prison, top military and Administration officials were quick to dismiss these acts as the work of "a few bad apples."

But David Chandler, who has studied torture at S-21, believes that "most of us, I suspect, could become accustomed to torturing or killing people when people we respected told us to do it and when there were no institutional constraints on doing what we were told." For me, this puts the Defense Department report into context. Until the Abu Ghraib photographs appeared in the press, American soldiers and civilian contractors were apparently routinely torturing Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib (and probably at Guantanamo Bay as well, we just haven't seen the photos yet.) If they questioned the ethics or legality of doing so, they were probably told that "No problemo, we got the green light from the Pres and Rummy." Bush or Rumsfield or Bremer didn't NEED to tell them to torture prisoners; it was only important for the torturers to be aware of the Defense Department report.

The United States has joined the small group of modern nations which have sanctioned state torture: Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, China during the Cultural Revolution, Argentina during the "dirty war" and Democratic Kampuchea. But it's OK, we're doing it for Freedom. Hallelujah.

Chris Pforr, June 10, 2004

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