Torture and Impunity

Will government-sponsored torture remain a shocking anomaly in U.S. public life? Or will it become an accepted precedent, one of the many tools of power in the hands of our rulers?

I believe the United States is approaching a crucial shift from the first state to the second. It can be called the torture transition.

As this is written, our rulers have built Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, a string of secret gulags, and a vast clandestine infrastructure to support them. Their inmates, who number in the thousands, have no legal protections. As the outlines of this system of suffering have been revealed, its architects have trumpeted their open and flagrant defiance of our own laws, international treaties, and the preponderance of informed world opinion.

I spent six weeks in Europe last spring, giving talks about the need for international action to dismantle this torture system. Along the way, I got a taste of just how repelled most thoughtful people on that continent are by this sordid spectacle. And while there, I came to understand better the torture transition and the importance of stopping it.

To be sure, each country I visited has its own shameful history of torture and abuse. Yet the reactions I experienced are not to be confused with hypocrisy. These people know their own countries’ failings well enough. That’s part of the reason for their dismay: they expected better from the United States, the self-proclaimed bastion of freedom and justice.

Nevertheless, most of those I spoke with were holding their breath, and still are, waiting for the rapidly approaching change of administration in Washington. Things are certain to get better then, they seem to feel; how could they possibly get worse?

I’ll tell you how. Things could get worse if the U.S. makes the torture transition.

What’s that?

The answer can be summed up in two words: impunity and precedent.

Impunity means getting away with it. If those who created the torture system and those who managed it are not held to account, they will have achieved impunity, which is now their primary goal.

And with impunity will come a shift

Charles Fager

Chuck Fager is director of Quaker House, a Friends peace witness in Fayetteville, N.C. He is a member of State College (Pa.) Meeting and attends Fayetteville Meeting.