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Halting the ruin of America’s moral edifice

To this day, the US has yet to meet the challenge of regaining the moral high ground that its former president Obama had attempted to secure during his tenure at the White House

Gulf News

The ghosts from Guantanamo Bay, Black Sites, Abu Ghraib and Extraordinary Rendition continue to haunt America with their prodigal presence. This despite the fact that the torture of terror suspects by United States intelligence agencies — a task made all the more tawdry and cruel for its feeble returns — was a demon that the 44th president was to have exorcised from the body politic by the time, in January 2017, he delivered his farewell speech.

“Americans must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are”, former US president Barack Obama had said. “That’s why, for the past eight years, I’ve worked to put the fight against terrorism on a firmer legal footing. That’s why we’ve ended torture [and] and worked to close Gitmo”

Has the demon returned?

At a Nevada campaign stop in February 2016, then Republican presidential aspirant Donald Trump vowed not only to keep Guantanamo Bay open and fill it with “bad dudes” but to re-institute waterboarding and other forms of torture. And at another campaign stop that year, he assured the crowd: “Torture works. OK, folks! Believe me, it works. And waterboarding is your minor form, and we should go much stronger than waterboarding.”

The ghosts reappeared last week when the chief executive of the US nominated Gina Haspel, a 32-year veteran of the CIA, to head the agency. Mike Pompeo, the outgoing director and now US Secretary of State designee, described her as having an “uncanny ability to get things done and to inspire those around her”. Haspel, who is linked to one of the darkest chapters in modern American history, is remembered differently by some of her colleagues, including John Kiriakou, a penitent former counter-terrorism officer in the agency, who, in an article in the Washington Post last Sunday, wrote: “Many of us who knew and worked with her at the CIA called her Bloody Gina”.

Gina ran a black site in Thailand — one in a network of secret CIA prisons that stretched all the way from that Southeast Asian nation to Poland — where detainees were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques — about whose cruelties the less said the better. Videotapes of the interrogations are among those Haspel and her chief-of-staff at the time, the notoriously mean-spirited former director of the Counter-terrorism Center, Jose Rodriguez, ordered destroyed in 2005 before they could be produced as incriminating evidence. Even Hollywood was in on the scheme. Recall, among other movies, the action-thriller Zero Dark Thirty, a dramatisation of the decade-long manhunt for Osama Bin Laden and the raid in Pakistan in 2011 that led to his killing, would not have been possible. Ergo, torture is OK.

But torture is not OK. Torture is not just morally wrong, it also happens to be proscribed by international law. Moreover, it is, more often than not, ineffective, since most of the information obtained from torture victims invariably turns out to be neither useful nor reliable. And lest we forget, most people abducted by the CIA under their programme of extraordinary rendition have turned out to be victims of mistaken identity — a discovery made after the subjects had been tortured savagely by the “host” countries to which they had been rendered.

Yes, consider also how not only does torture not work, but how at the end of the day it is in fact counterproductive. I quote again from Kiriakou’s outstanding piece in the Washington Post last Sunday, where he spoke about torture’s unintended consequences — as a case in point, what happened in Iraq. “The meaning of Haspel’s nomination won’t be lost on our enemies”, he wrote. “The torture programme and similar abuses at military-run prisons in Iraq were among the greatest recruitment tools that Al Qaida, Daesh and other bad actors ever had ... It energised them and gave them something to rally against. It sowed an even deeper hatred of the US among militant groups. It swelled their ranks. It was no coincidence that [Daesh] paraded its prisoners in front of cameras wearing orange jumpsuits (like those worn by Guantanamo Bay detainees), before beheading them.”

To this day, the US has yet to meet the challenge of regaining the moral high ground, that former president Obama had attempted to restore during his tenure as chief executive, by imposing on official America the humane sobriety of the American people’s own sense of decency and fair play. Should Gina’s nomination be confirmed, at an upcoming congressional hearing, it will mean that America is doubling down on the low ground.

“To this day, the US has yet to meet the challenge of regaining the moral high ground, that former president Barack Obama had attempted to restore.””
-Fawaz Turki
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And that matters to all of us, for what direction is taken by America, putative leader of the free world, affects the direction of the global dialogue of cultures and the forward march of history in our time.

Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.

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