Note: This commentary was delivered by Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley.
Maher Arar immigrated to Canada from Syria when he was a teenager, in part to escape the brutal regime of dictator Hafiz al-Asad. Thus, it was a nasty shock to him when Arar heard American agents say that he was on his way to Syria to be handed over to the authorities there. Why and how this happens to Arar and others like him should trouble every Christian.
Arar was detained at JFK airport on his way home from Tunisia because his name appeared on a “Watch List” of suspected terrorists. After questioning Arar for thirteen days, American officials handed him over to the CIA’s “Special Removal Unit.”
According to a recent New Yorker article, this unit “extradites” suspected terrorists to countries, such as Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, whose laws don’t prohibit torture. This governmentally sanctioned “outsourcing” of what our laws prohibit even has a name: “extraordinary rendition.”
In Arar’s case, “extraordinary rendition” meant having his hands repeatedly whipped “with two-inch-thick electrical cables.” Then, a year later, he was released. No charges were ever filed.
“Extraordinary rendition” isn’t the only instance in our war against terrorism of what the UN Convention Against Torture, which we signed, calls “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.”
Reports out of Guantanamo Bay and Iraq include allegations of detainees shackled to the floor in fetal positions for more than twenty-four hours at a time with no food and water. “Prolonged exposure to extremes of heat, cold, and noise,” growling dogs, and even sexual provocation have been used to break detainees’ wills.
The most controversial “approved” interrogation method is called “waterboarding.” The “victim is strapped to a board and lowered into a vat of water until he believes that drowning is imminent.”
The justification for “extraordinary rendition” and “aggressive interrogation” is utilitarian. As one expert told Mayer, these tactics “can save hundreds of lives.”
But Dan Coleman, a former FBI counter-terrorism expert, disagrees. He says there’s “no value” in the information obtained this way. People will say anything to stop the pain and humiliation.
Even if these tactics sometimes work, that doesn’t make it right. For every detainee who provides useful information, there’s a Maher Arar who knows nothing.
Even if there’s a good reason to believe that a detainee knows something, that can’t justify such a violation of humanity dignity. The war against terrorism is, in significant part, a war of ideas and values. We fight, not only to defend ourselves, but also to uphold our values.
Torture dehumanizes, and it is not consistent with the values of a nation that says it holds truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
With a nation at war, extraordinary steps have been taken. Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus in the Civil War. President Franklin Roosevelt sent thousands of Japanese into internment camps in World War II. But even those were not as extreme as deliberately degrading human beings with torture. That’s beyond the pale, and when we do it, the terrorists win because they weaken us morally.