Preventive Detention and Torture–The Morality of the Civilized Savage


Dick Cheney believes that the torture of terror suspects prevented another attack on US soil.  Barack Obama believes that terror suspects should be held indefinitely without charges.  Both men claim that the measures they support are allowable in the United States because the country is at war.  Since the current enemy is a nebulous ever-changing foe, this rationale provides a cover for the aforementioned practices and a potential cover for a multitude of other practices that go against the principles Americans want to believe their military is fighting to uphold. 

Commentators supporting Obama’s plan refer to historical instances like the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War Two, the round up and imprisonment of  leftist and anarchist organizers in the early 20th century and the preventive detention of individuals by the military in wartime.  This latter example is important because, like those who support Cheney and his support for torture, these individuals accept the argument that the United States is at war and is therefore allowed to suspend the constitution when it comes to those in its custody considered to be the enemy.  What this argument fails to acknowledge is that this so-called war is a war against what can be characterized at best as a very large gang of ideologues willing to use violence.   It is not a war in the sense that it is against another nation’s military nor is it a battle against a definable force fighting for independence from outside domination (as in Vietnam).  Indeed, its very nebulousness allows those waging it to rationalize any act in their pursuit of some ill-defined victory in the future..

If one is looking at history for precedents for preventive detention, they should look at the British experience in the 1970s and 1980s with regard to the IRA.  Hundreds of IRA fighters were arrested and detained for years in an effort to destroy the movement against British rule in northern Ireland.  Even then, the British law insisted that after fourteen days the detainees had to be charged or released, even if the charges were bogus.  During this period, the violence between the IRA and the  British military and its Unionist allies did not end or even decrease.  Nor did the IRA fade into oblivion.  In fact, the fact of preventive detention and the harsh conditions the IRA prisoners were kept in actually garnered support for them and their organization.  One sees a similar scenario played out the past seven years across the Muslim world in regards to the detainees being held in Guantanamo and other US prisons around the globe.

Many opponents of Mr. Obama’s plan point to the US constitution and its Bill of Rights.  Preventive detention, they point out, is against the fifth and sixth amendments and violates one of the basic principles of the United States.  This argument is useful and correct, but parochializes the situation.  The fact is, preventive detention is not merely against the US Bill of Rights, it is against the UN Charter of Human Rights.  This is not a case of American exceptionalist self-righteousness.  Opposing preventive detention and torture is much more than that.  It is a universalist recognition that all humans have rights, not because they are being held on US soil but because they are human.  Recognizing and acknowledging this makes the struggle against the destruction of the US constitution a struggle for all of humanity.

The potential for abuse in Obama’s plan is huge.  If brought to its ultimate end, any person that can be considered  a violent threat to US plans could be arrested before they even committed a crime.  Even barring this scenario, the possibility that those deatinees being held indefinitely would be subject to  systemic and personal abuse by the staffs of the high-security prisons they would be hidden away in is high.  The difficulty that human rights lawyers and others have experienced when it comes to visiting the prison in Guantanamo is well-documented.  One wonders how much easier it would be if those detainees were relocated to maximum-security prisons on US soil.  From my understanding of prisons like Pigeon Bay in California or Marion in Illinois there is not only no chance of escape, the inmates are kept under conditions at least as harsh as those in Guantanamo.  US prisoners who have been held in the "control units" in these places tell of psychological torture reminiscent of that experienced by the RAF prisoners in Germany.  Prisoners in these units are often confined to their solitary cells at least 22 hours a day and permitted no group dining, education or religious worship; no contact visits; minimal property; and limited access to the telephone.  As for personal abuse by guards who feel they have a score to settle with prisoners they believe to be terrorists, the potential is frightening, especially if the prisoners have no chance of release and contact with those on the outside is nonexistent.

There is no upside to torture or preventive detention, despite Mr. Cheney and Mr. Obama’s claims to the contrary.  Not only do these tactics provide those willing to commit violence against US citizens with a recruiting tool, they negate the very principles of freedom that Obama and Cheney have told members of the US military they are fighting for.   Of course, in a nation that insists on continuing wars whose original publicized purpose has been lost in the murky aftermath of death and destruction, the support for these tactics by its leaders comes as no surprise.

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