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Robert Scheer: Becoming What We Despise

Robert Scheer
Editor in Chief
Robert Scheer, editor in chief of Truthdig, has built a reputation for strong social and political writing over his 30 years as a journalist. His columns appear in newspapers across the country, and his…
Robert Scheer

Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen, has been tortured by his own government for the better part of three-and-one-half years, suffering years of systematic sensory deprivation documented in his attorneys’ filings and supported by photos of the prisoner published this week by the New York Times.

In that time, Padilla, who has been judged by professionals as mentally ill as a consequence of his brutal treatment, has been denied his Constitutional right to a fair and speedy trial and was permitted no legal representation for 21 months. The Bush administration’s excuse for this betrayal of our legal system was that Padilla was a dangerous al Qaeda agent, a big fish caught in the administration’s successful pursuit of its much ballyhooed war on terror. In the words of then-U.S. Attorney Gen. John Ashcroft, Padilla was “a known terrorist who was exploring a plan to build and explode a radiological dispersion device, or ‘dirty bomb,’ in the United States.” Those lurid claims were abandoned when the government, faced with a belated U.S. Supreme Court censure, finally charged Padilla with vague and lesser crimes carrying a maximum 15-year sentence.

Were this some isolated case of officially condoned sadism, say in a rural county jail, it could be minimized as an aberration. Instead, it is an all-too-accurate reflection of a presidential policy of dehumanizing anyone even suspected of being an enemy. The Times photos, taken from a government video, give evidence of a heavily manacled prisoner with masked eyes and muffled ears being walked down a corridor within a Navy brig, lending physical evidence to Padilla’s lawyer’s claims of a pattern of disorienting isolation. “There is nothing comparable in terms of severity of confinement, in terms of how Padilla was held, especially considering that this was pretrial confinement,” Philip D. Cave, a former Navy judge advocate general, told the Times.

Obviously, a prisoner who has been deliberately disorientated for so long is no longer in a position to exercise his right to confront his accusers. An examining psychiatrist wrote that “as the result of his experience during his detention and interrogation, Mr. Padilla does not appreciate the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him, is unable to render assistance to counsel, and has impairments in reasoning as the result of a mental illness … complicated by the neuropsychiatric effects of prolonged isolation.”

The excuse for this heinous treatment of a U.S. citizen is the same as that given for an entire orgy of despicable treatment of prisoners held in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo and a gulag archipelago of secret military facilities around the world: Our enemies, all linked through sophistry to the 9/11 terror attacks, are so vile and dangerous that the limitations on government power enshrined in our guiding documents and political culture no longer apply. Once the Twin Towers were knocked down, supposedly, we could no longer afford to be “nice guys” — as if the rule of law is an indulgence of only the most secure nations.

By that standard, any tyrant can justify the cruelest of actions by citing enemies, real or imagined, be it King George III blockading Boston Harbor to teach the rebellious colonists a lesson or Saddam Hussein killing Kurdish villagers after an assassination attempt on his life. The very uniqueness of our national experiment was the checks and balances put upon the government to prevent such convenient rationalizations for abuse of the individual. The Founding Fathers won a war, but their true contribution to human history was to tackle head-on the reality that humans and their institutions can so easily become that which they despise.

Even when an American is suspected of a “capital or infamous crime,” as was Padilla, the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution specifically says he still cannot “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” That is why the Supreme Court finally forced the Bush administration to give Padilla his day in court.

In the end, the administration has retreated from its hoary claims; Padilla’s trial, set to begin on Jan. 22, does not include any reference to dirty bombs, al Qaeda, or any specific plans to attack America. Instead, he faces lesser charges claiming he was the recruit of a “North American support cell,” whose interest was in jihad in Bosnia and Chechnya. As if it had no bearing on the disoriented state of mind of the defendant, the Bush administration’s lawyers have argued in motions that his treatment as a prisoner should not be presented before the jury.

The more important question now, however, is when will those who, like Ashcroft, used this case to shamelessly exploit our fears for political purposes face their own day of accountability in a court of law?

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