I hung out in the city today for an hour or so handing out these pamphlets. I was met with a little bit of support, a bit more disagreement, but almost unanimous disinterest. Not the response I would hope for to the fact that our allies in this never-ending war have forced unimaginable horror on completely innocent people. Do people think that the recent spate of Islamist terrorist attacks have come out of nowhere? One lady did stop and talk for a while. She asked me what we could do about it. “I don’t know”, I said, “but we have to try”.
In December, Australian Attorney-General George Brandis gave an address at the human rights awards at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. After he had finished speaking, a man from the audience stood up. He said “Hey, my name is David Hicks! I was tortured for five-and-a-half years in Guantanamo Bay in the full knowledge of your party! What do you have to say?”
That day, the US Senate’s report on torture in the war on terror had been released. Though most of the report is not available to the public, what we got still contained reports of a person left naked and chained to a cement floor until he died of pneumonia, people being anally force-fed without any medical necessity (pretty sure that’s called rape), and innumerable other torture techniques that will give you nightmares just from reading about them.
After recounting the horrific details of the torture techniques used, the senate report unbelievably concludes “there is no evidence that terror attacks were stopped, terrorists captured or lives saved through use of torture.” In fact, because most of the people arrested and tortured by the US were completely innocent, to stop the torture they had to fabricate information. Which of course, would then lead to more innocent people being arrested, tortured or killed.
The torture report shines an unkind light on America’s self image as the defenders of the free world. It shows up a government which funds, develops and implements sadistic torture techniques as bad as you could find anywhere in the world. That kept on doing so even when it wasn’t gaining any useful intelligence. That will trample all over any human right just to maintain its place as the world’s superpower. And like the smaller kid who latches himself on to the school bully, there are a decade’s worth of Australian governments pledging unequivocal support, even when it was Australian citizens like David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib that were on the recieving end.
Thirteen years ago today, on the 11th of January 2002, the US opened its offshore military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. As well as these two Australians, at its peak it held over 600 prisoners. Most of whom were arrested in questionable circumstances, suffered things most of us could never imagine, then were released without charge.
Detainees at Guantanamo have been beaten, drugged, sexually assaulted, sleep deprived, and forced into solitary confinement for extended periods. Those who were devout Muslims had the Qu’ran destroyed in front of them, or had female interrogators rub breasts in their faces or pretend to smear them with menstrual blood.
Barack Obama pledged to close Guantanamo if he was elected in 2008, but like many other promises made during that election campaign it hasn’t come to pass. In 2013, most of the 160 remaining detainees, who had at that point been imprisoned there for over 10 years without ever being charged, went on a hunger strike to try to force action on their cases. Some of them stayed on hunger strike for over 150 days. Guantanamo staff responded by force feeding them, sticking tubes up their noses. In 2014, 28 detainees were transferred to other countries to try to resume the life that has been taken from them. But there remains 128 men detained at the prison.
The real effect of torture is that when the US government dehumanises these men, it diminishes the humanity of us all. For every moment that we allow torture to go on, we injure ourselves by denying the rights that belong to all people.
Barack Obama has called Guantanamo Bay “a sad chapter in American history.” Policies like these torture camps have probably prolonged the war on terror by acting as a recruitment tool for more anti-US militants. But the US government has not been willing to loosen its grip on the power that a legacy of torture has given them.
To stop torture we need fundamental changes to a system based on violence and domination. We need everyday people challenging their governments and standing up for the dignity and humanity of our brothers and sisters across the world, whatever their race or religion. We can live in a world without torture, but we will need to create it.