Monday, May 23, 2005

Real Damage from Prisoner Abuses

There were a trio of interesting articles on CSM today. First, this story on the marked decline of class mobility in America. A troubling trend that underscores, again, the danger in relying on capitalism to deliver social justice. There tends to be an implicit assumption that in a free market everyone gets what they deserve. If there are structural barriers to class mobility, that assumption becomes less valid.

The next story, a happy one for a change, discusses various much-needed efforts at reforming the jury system. As the article notes, there is a great deal of variation among the states (and some are doing nothing at all). Hopefully some of these programs will prove successful and spread to other states.

The story I most wanted to comment on, however, discusses the frightening perceptions among Arabs of our treatment of prisoners in the war on terror. The story focuses on recently leaked pictures of Saddam in his underwear. It also comments on the Newsweek Koran flushing story and the recent NYT story on abusive treatment leading to the deaths of two prisoners, as well as the light sentences and lack of high level accountability for Abu Ghraib. While the Newsweek retraction provided a high profile opportunity for the scoring of political points, I hope that we haven't lost sight of the very real problem that our cavalier treatment of prisoners is creating. These are not isolated incidents. University of Miami law professor Michael Froomkin has been keeping a watch for torture stories on his blog. A sampling:

- U.S. takes hostages to coerce relatives into surrendering
- Guantanamo prisoner claims to have suffered violent sexual assaults and near drowning during his captivity.
- Guantanamo prisoner claims that Gitmo tapes would be as explosive as the Abu Ghraib photos
- Guantanamo prisoner claims innocence, details physical mistreatment
- Guantanamo prisoner claims prisoners were handcuffed naked and attacked by dogs
- 15-year-old Guantanamo detainee claims abuse
- Pentagon inquiry confirms use of sexual tactics in interrogations
- Military lawyers at Gitmo try and fail to end physical abuse of prisoners.
- Afghan prisoner, left exposed to the elements by the CIA freezes to death.
- Gitmo prisoner claims torture, assault, near-suffocation
- Mother Jones story details many claims of torture at hands of U.S.
- Navy disgusted by abusive treatment at Gitmo.
- Terror prisoners claim to have been beaten and abused at New York's Metropolitan Detention Center.
- Iraqi prisoner hung from the wrists until dead (Abu Ghraib related)

These are stories that may not get much play in the U.S., and to be fair, many of them are unconfirmed allegations. However, they almost certainly draw attention from Al-Jazeera and other Arab outlets. As the CSM story notes, U.S. treatment of prisoners is having a strong impact on Arab public opinion. It is difficult to believe that high level decisions (such as the DoD memos exposed after Abu Ghraib) within the administration are not fostering such treatment. Unless I've been grossly misinformed, these sorts of actions do not typify American treatment of prisoners in past conflicts. Moreover, it is difficult to see what we gain from all of this. There have been few claims that we've gained critical intel from this abuse, and many claims to the contrary. I simply don't understand why we aren't doing anything about this. Abu Ghraib never got any real reaction within the administration or the DoD, and all of these stories roll by without attracting any significant attention. Aside from the fact that this treatment is shameful in view of Americans' generally shared values of human rights and human dignity, it seems ruinous from a strategic PR standpoint. But no one in the administration, and few in the press, are paying attention. Whatever stupid things Newsweek may have done, that's the real story here.

No comments: