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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Small mercies.

My grandmother Audrey, an immigrant to the United States, used to tell me that the amazing thing about the U.S. is that anyone can grow up and become president. In my youth I believed her, and in my early adulthood I regarded her perspective as a charming but naive ideal. Today, listening to the current U.S. President deliver a speech to the United Nations, I realize to my horror that she was right. Any idiot can become president.

It never ceases to amaze me that Bush is as brazen as he is. His address to the United Nations called on it to fulfill its role of promoting peace in the world. Yet, a few years ago, his administration was goading the United Nations to do just the opposite- to go to war. Moreover, that effort was a travesty on a scale that boggles the mind.

As if that isn't enough, we're actually having a heated debate in this country over whether or not to adhere to the Geneva Conventions. However many Republicans argue that tresting prisoners humanely hamstrings the war on terror, I must confess that I'm not that concerned about terrorists. I don't honestly believe that terrorist organizations have any intention of complying with the conventions and, as such, we certainly have little motivation to extend them the courtesy. However, I do think that our behavior towards the terrorists will be taken by other nations as an indicator of our probable behavior towards them and, as a result, I believe that ignoring the laws of war places our own servicemen and servicewomen in grave peril.

And if all that isn't enough, what about the mistakes that are inevitably made? What about the Canadian man who was wrongly identified as a terrorist? What about his wife who was likewise marked for surveillance? What about his pointless detention and torture:

Canadian intelligence officials passed false warnings and bad information to American agents about a Muslim Canadian citizen, after which U.S. authorities secretly whisked him to Syria, where he was tortured, a judicial report found Monday.

The report, released in Ottawa, was the result of a 2 1/2-year inquiry that represented one of the first public investigations into mistakes made as part of the United States' "extraordinary rendition" program, which has secretly spirited suspects to foreign countries for interrogation by often brutal methods.

The inquiry, which focused on the Canadian intelligence services, found that agents who were under pressure to find terrorists after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, falsely labeled an Ottawa computer consultant, Maher Arar, as a dangerous radical. They asked U.S. authorities to put him and his wife, a university economist, on the al-Qaeda "watchlist," without justification, the report said.


Arar, now 36, was detained by U.S. authorities as he changed planes in New York on Sept. 26, 2002. He was held for questioning for 12 days, then flown by jet to Jordan and driven to Syria. He was beaten, forced to confess to having trained in Afghanistan -- where he never has been -- and then kept in a coffin-size dungeon for 10 months before he was released, the Canadian inquiry commission found.

O'Connor concluded that "categorically there is no evidence" that Arar did anything wrong or was a security threat.


Since Sept. 11, the CIA, working with other intelligence agencies, has captured an estimated 3,000 people in its effort to dismantle terrorist networks. Many of them have been secretly taken by "extraordinary rendition" to other countries, hidden from U.S. legal requirements and often subject to torture.

Those renditions are often carried out by CIA agents dressed head to toe in black, wearing masks, who blindfold their subjects and dress them in black. The practice is generating increased opposition by other countries; Italy is seeking to prosecute CIA officers who allegedly abducted a Muslim cleric in Milan in February 2003, and German prosecutors are investigating the CIA's activities in their country.

Although details of the renditions and the destinations of those held are secret, President Bush has confirmed the existence of CIA-run prisons throughout the world. Some of the subjects of renditions have been held in those prisons.

Ultimately, if simple human decency (which, allegedly, separates us from the terrorists) is not a sufficient reason to refrain from such practices, then simple practicality is. By engaging in underhanded methods like these we generate poor to useless intelligence and risk destroying the lives of an unknown and, likely, unknowable number of innocent people. In a country where one is considered "innocent until proven guilty," such a risk seems intolerable. Finally, by treating our enemies well we ultimately protect our own citizens and soldiers. But none of that seems to matter anymore. Decency, practicality, and even ideology seem to have fallen before blind terror and sheep-like conformity.

I suppose all I can say is that I'm glad my grandmother isn't alive to see her beloved adopted country stoop so low.


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