In this morning’s New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof responds to Major General Antonio Taguba’s call for accountability in the Preface to Broken Laws, Broken Lives.
When a distinguished American military commander accuses the United States of committing war crimes in its handling of detainees, you know that we need a new way forward.
“There is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes,” Antonio Taguba, the retired major general who investigated abuses in Iraq, declares in a powerful new report on American torture from Physicians for Human Rights. “The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”
The first step of accountability isn’t prosecutions. Rather, we need a national Truth Commission to lead a process of soul searching and national cleansing.
That was what South Africa did after apartheid, with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and it is what the United States did with the Kerner Commission on race and the 1980s commission that examined the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Today, we need a similar Truth Commission, with subpoena power, to investigate the abuses in the aftermath of 9/11.
Kristof lists some of the reasons why a truth commission is called for:
It’s a national disgrace that more than 100 inmates have died in American custody in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantánamo. After two Afghan inmates were beaten to death by American soldiers, the American military investigator found that one of the men’s legs had been “pulpified.”
Moreover, many of the people we tortured were innocent: the administration was as incompetent as it was immoral. The McClatchy newspaper group has just published a devastating series on torture and other abuses, and it quotes Thomas White, the former Army secretary, as saying that it was clear from the moment Guantánamo opened that one-third of the inmates didn’t belong there.
McClatchy says that one inmate, Mohammed Akhtiar, was known as pro-American to everybody but the American soldiers who battered him. Some of his militant fellow inmates spit on him, beat him and called him “infidel,” all because of his anti-Taliban record.
Kristof mentions in passing the fundamental problem:
[T]he US military taught interrogation techniques borrowed verbatim from records of Chinese methods used to break American prisoners in the Korean War — even though we knew that these torture techniques produced false confessions.
The SERE program, through which such techniques were adapted and disseminated as a matter of policy, fostered an environment in which torture appears to have become standard operating procedure. As PHR President Len Rubenstein has said, “once torture starts it can’t be contained.” Despite the many earlier revelations, Broken Laws, Broken Lives provides medical evidence of such abuses. With only 11 former detainees as the subjects, the report may only be scratching the surface.
The truth must be told, the criminals prosecuted and, as PHR CEO Frank Donaghue emphasizes, reparations to the victims must be made, including compensation and medical and psycho-social services.