Torture Impunity and Police Shootings

A danger from the “war on terror” was always that it would encourage the spread of an authoritarian U.S. state, ignoring international law abroad and constitutional rights at home, a process that is now growing more apparent with impunity for both torturers and police who kill minorities, writes Nat Parry.

By Nat Parry

The international fallout from last week’s long-delayed release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 500-page executive summary of its still-classified 6,000 report on CIA torture could hardly be more intense, with calls coming from the United Nations, foreign governments and the human rights community for prosecutions of those who carried out or authorized the torture techniques described in the report, including senior officials from the Bush administration.

But judging from the self-assured comments of CIA and former administration officials, there is no real concern over the possibility of any criminal liability, a lack of accountability which has led to a palpable arrogance among those who would be behind bars if laws were actually enforced on an equal basis in the United States.

President George W. Bush signing Military Commissions Act of 2006.

President George W. Bush signing Military Commissions Act of 2006.

The above-the-law sense of entitlement was perhaps most clearly on display in former Vice President Dick Cheney’s appearance this Sunday on “Meet the Press,” stating that when it comes to using torture, “I’d do it again in a minute.”

When presented with gruesome details from the Senate report on torture for example the newly revealed “enhanced interrogation technique” of “rectal feeding,” i.e., anal rape and asked for his definition of what might constitute “torture” in a legal sense, Cheney retorted that torture is “an American citizen on his cellphone making a last call to his four young daughters shortly before he burns to death in the upper levels of the Trade Center in New York on 9/11.”

Short of this rather high bar, nothing, by definition, that the United States does to its detainees could conceivably be considered torture.

Similarly, when asked about the large number of innocent people (26 out of 119 CIA detainees, according to the report) who had tragically been detained and tortured in error, for example Gul Rahman a victim of mistaken identity who was chained to the wall of his cell, doused with water and froze to death in CIA custody Cheney stated indifferently that these individuals essentially don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. The only problem that Cheney had was “with the folks that we did release that end up back on the battlefield.”

“I’m more concerned with bad guys who got out and released than I am with a few that, in fact, were innocent,” he said. Taken to its logical conclusion, Cheney’s reasoning would seem to hold that it is preferable to indefinitely detain and torture a million innocent people than to allow one “bad guy” to slip through the cracks. The implications of this logic are, needless to say, chilling (not to mention completely at odds with the legal principle of presumed innocence).

A Courtroom Defense

At times, watching Cheney make these cold rationalizations on “Meet the Press,” it may have occurred to viewers that the more appropriate venue for this interview would have been on the witness stand of a courtroom. After all, what Cheney was defending was not just controversial policy choices, but clearly defined crimes of torture and murder.

Although he was sure to emphasize that “All of the techniques that were authorized by the President were, in effect, blessed by the Justice Department,” the fact remains that providing the cover of law to a crime makes it no less of a crime.

This is a point that UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counterterrorism Ben Emmerson specifically made last week following the release of the report. In a statement, Emmerson said, “The fact that the policies revealed in this report were authorized at a high level within the U.S. government provides no excuse whatsoever. Indeed, it reinforces the need for criminal accountability.”

Emphasizing that all individuals responsible for “the criminal conspiracy” described in the Senate report “must be brought to justice, and must face criminal penalties commensurate with the gravity of their crimes,” Emmerson noted that “international law prohibits the granting of immunities to public officials who have engaged in acts of torture.”

Judging from Cheney’s arrogant display on “Meet the Press,” however, there appears to be very little appreciation for the niceties of international law such as its expressed prohibition on official immunity when it comes to the crime of torture. He seems to be quite confident, indeed, that official immunity is unnecessary when there is an implied unofficial immunity that is granted to public officials in the United States, this being the case whether it pertains to CIA torture or police brutality.

Police Shootings

The same arrogance that Cheney is so casually displaying can also be seen in the closely paralleled story of the recent spate of police shootings and killings of innocent or unarmed African-Americans, and the remarkable wave of demonstrations that has taken hold across the United States in response.

With large-scale protests happening in most major American cities over the past month particularly since grand juries decided not to indict the police officers who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City one might think that cops would be extra careful these days not to come across overly arrogant or obdurate. This, however, would not be the case.

In response to the NFL’s Cleveland Browns’ wide receiver Andrew Hawkins taking the field on Sunday wearing a T-shirt protesting recent police shootings in Ohio reading “Justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford” on the front and “The Real Battle for Ohio” on the back Jeff Follmer, president of the Cleveland police union, claimed the shirt was disrespectful and he disparaged the very idea of athletes holding opinions about anything other than sports.

“It’s pretty pathetic when athletes think they know the law,” Follmer said in a statement. “They should stick to what they know best on the field.” In other words, keep your opinions to yourself, boy, and just play football. Follmer also demanded an apology from the Clevelend Browns organization, which to their credit, the Browns did not extend.

Instead, the Browns fired back with a statement saying the organization endorses the rights of players “to project their support and bring awareness to issues that are important to them if done so in a responsible manner.”

Hawkins also weighed in with comments to the media that revealed, in fact, a deep knowledge and understanding of what law and justice mean (or should mean), contrary to Follmer’s condescending remarks. “Justice,” he said, “is a right that every American should have. Justice means that the innocent should be found innocent. It means that those who do wrong should get their due punishment.”

His six-minute locker-room monologue to reporters ended with him choking up while drawing a parallel between his own young son and the tragic death of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy shot by police in Cleveland on Nov. 22 while holding a toy gun.

“My number one reason for wearing the T-shirt was the thought of what happened to Tamir Rice happening to my little Austin. And that scares the living hell out of me,” he said.

Protests and Fears

This genuine, personal fear of police violence is one that has been widely expressed over the last several weeks of protests taking hold across the country. As Democracy Now’s Aaron Maté reported from New York’s “Millions March” on Saturday, one of the dominant themes being expressed on the streets was “a sense of not feeling safe, not feeling safe themselves and not feeling safe for their loved ones, people of color in heavily policed communities.”

Interviewing protester Darrell Greene, Maté asked him to explain his sign, which read “Me, my father, my son. Who’s next?”

Greene responded, “At this point, I know I’m a productive citizen, and I don’t feel safe in my own community. I’ve never been in trouble with law enforcement. And from what I’m seeing on the news and what’s been going on, I really wonder: Am I next? I’m wondering if the people in my community are next. We’re all productive citizens, and we’re in fear for our life. We feel like it’s open season on all minorities, and we want to know if we’re really safe.”

Protester Nilan Johnson echoed these sentiments. “I’m here because Americans, period, are being preyed on, right now,” he said. “African-Americans are once again fighting for the right to be human, and I think that’s horrible.”

Asked whether he feels, as a person of color, whether he is unsafe in his community, Johnson replied, “That’s I feel that daily, so I feel that’s a preconditioned nature now. I feel threatened and marked and cornered. And everybody here feels the same way. And we’re trying to keep our humanity.”

If not a direct byproduct of the war on terror’s excesses and the impunity that law-breakers at the highest levels of government enjoy, this feeling of powerlessness, insecurity and injustice is certainly closely related. Indeed, as far back as 2007, civil rights leaders were drawing these connections, in particular in a report prepared for the United Nations entitled “In The Shadows Of The War On Terror: Persistent Police Brutality and Abuse of People of Color in the United States.”

Since 9/11, the report explained, “there have been dramatic increases in law enforcement powers in the name of waging the ‘war on terror,’” while simultaneously, counter-terrorism policies have “created a generalized climate of impunity for law enforcement officers, and contributed to the erosion of what few accountability mechanisms exist for civilian control over law enforcement agencies.”

This has led to an erosion of public discussion and accountability with respect to the use of excessive force against people of color, while at the same time, “systemic abuse of people of color by law enforcement officers has not only continued since 2001 but has worsened in both practice and severity,” according to the report. As a representative of the NAACP put it, “the degree to which police brutality occurs is the worst I’ve seen in 50 years.”

Troubling Trend

Even establishment publications such as the Wall Street Journal have noticed the troubling trend of rising police violence and its connections with the war on terror. As a feature article in WSJ put it in August 2013, “the war on drugs and, more recently, post-9/11 antiterrorism efforts have created a new figure on the U.S. scene: the warrior cop armed to the teeth, ready to deal harshly with targeted wrongdoers, and a growing threat to familiar American liberties.”

This threat to liberties is compounded when the justice system fails to hold accountable those who break the law and violate people’s rights. Whether it is Eric Garner in New York or Gul Rahman in Afghanistan, the victims of injustice must have redress, and “those who do wrong should get their due punishment,” in the words of Cleveland Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins.

As human rights advocates and civil libertarians have warned since the early days of the “war on terror,” human rights violations of terror suspects will eventually set the United States on a slippery slope in which authorities deem it optional whether to respect the human rights of anyone, including U.S. citizens. At that point, anyone is fair game, and all of us, including law-abiding Americans, may find ourselves at the mercy of an unsympathetic authoritarian state.

Nat Parry is the co-author of Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush.[This story previously appeared at EssentialOpinion.]

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9 comments for “Torture Impunity and Police Shootings

  1. Gregory Kruse
    December 16, 2014 at 5:29 pm

    The strength of authoritarianism and dehumanization has waxed and waned throughout history, but it has never come close to expiring. We in the US have tried to believe that the founding of this nation would at long last extinguish them with a constitutional and democratic government. We can’t even try to believe it anymore when we see a mountain troll elected as Vice President, Alfred E. Neuman as President, and so on, right up to the present day. We lost civilian control of the military before Dwight Eisenhower left the presidency, and have now lost civilian control of the police; and the scariest thing about it is that the military and the police seem to think it’s a good thing.

  2. william veale
    December 16, 2014 at 6:50 pm

    How about a letter to Chuck Todd or his producer along these lines?

    Immunity for Cheney? Now there is an odd idea. He is one of the most despised men on the planet, and therefore beloved by probably close to one half of Americans, but why precisely is he entitled to immunity? You haven’t heard about his being granted immunity? Okay, so he hasn’t been granted immunity in the traditional sense, as a testifying or cooperating witness. He has been granted immunity from being questioned about the subject that he apparently thinks absolves him of any responsibility to act as decency and humanity ordinarily dictate—–9/11.

    Cheney’s answer to Chuck Todd’s question, “what is torture?” was a recounting of the horrors of 9/11. More than once. And of all of the human beings in the world, the most painfully prominent who should not be allowed that refuge is Dick Cheney. Why? Because whether it knows it or not, the world has the goods on him. He was complicit in the attacks in a more demonstrable way, based on far more powerful evidence, than any other soul alive,… or dead; Osama bin Laden comes to mind. The U.S. never even tried to prove his guilt to the Taliban, which was all they were asking for as a prerequisite to turning him over thereby alleviating the necessity of a 10-year war in Afghanistan.

    How bad is it exactly? Does Chuck Todd know the truth but hasn’t the stones to inquire? Is he uncertain, possibly, or has he found Cheney innocent after exhaustive investigation? Does he know that Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta testified to the 9/11 Commission that he was in the PEOC with Cheney before the Pentagon was hit on the morning of 9/11? Does he know that Mineta gave a detailed account of Cheney confirming orders which either allowed the attack to succeed–we call that treason–or were not followed, leaving the building undefended? If it were the latter, military history and military law and military standard operating procedure dictate that there would have been a Board of Inquiry, courts-martial, demotions, reprimands, or prosecutions for failure to obey orders. Instead, there were, in the wake of this nation’s worst single event, promotions across the board. Whatever Todd’s state of mind, aren’t MTP’s viewers entitled to their own conclusions?

    Is this Mr. Todd’s ignorance at work, his failure to raise the obvious questions? Or is this just the grandest display of intimidation by a truly evil man in the history of journalism, surpassing Rather’s quailing at the scour of Bush in the dark episode known as Iran-Contra? It may be reasonably suggested that this Todd/Cheney interview had a different focus, and it would have been journalistically inapt to pursue even such an egregiously flaunted provocation. Might we have a commitment to have the villain return so we may have what we justly deserve.

    • JWalters
      December 16, 2014 at 9:51 pm

      An excellent prep for Chuck, hope he’ll take advantage of your research! Cheney and the gang are hoping the public discussion will falter during the talk of torture and not make it to 9/11. Chuck might also ask – Why did the original report on 9/11 have NO MENTION of the third building (WTC7) that also pancake collapsed that day? That seems like a rather large omission. The eventual report on that building’s collapse said its collapse was “progressive”, a wave traveling from one end of the building to the other. But multiple video tapes show a perfectly symmetrical, simultaneous collapse of the entire perimeter. I can see why Cheney would rather not be questioned about that. A professional analysis of the WTC 7 collapse –
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZEvA8BCoBw

    • Zachary Smith
      December 16, 2014 at 10:22 pm

      A professional analysis of the WTC 7 collapse…

      Well sir, I went to your video and looked at the text beneath it, for I’m not too impressed with a 15 minute youtube video presented by an enthusiast as a source. Right off I spotted his name – “Architect Richard Gage” – so I googled the guy.

      xxxx://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2014/03/21/jonathan-kay-911-truther-richard-gage-is-a-preacher-to-a-dying-breed/

      Gage does seem to be a bit of a cornflake. But I found anther clue – the mention of NIST writing up a “definitive report” on the subject of WTC7. So next I search for THAT. First find was this:

      xxxx://www.nist.gov/el/disasterstudies/wtc/faqs_wtc7.cfm

      As a non-engineer, this left me impressed.

      Finally the actual report.

      http://www.nist.gov/customcf/get_pdf.cfm?pub_id=861610

      It’s my non-professional opinion there is no longer any mystery about the collapse. Cheney has plenty to sweat about the events beforehand, though.

      • Abe
        December 17, 2014 at 3:17 pm

        Good heavens, Zachary Smith! Why are you behaving like a bellicose bumpkin?

        Spare us the asinine ad hominem attacks from the nattering ninnies at Canada’s National Post.

        Spare us the addlepated analysis from the negligent nincompoops at NIST.

        Don’t be a maladroit mental midget mired in malicious misinformation and mystery.

    • Abe
      December 17, 2014 at 4:11 am

      Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth have pointed out the many inaccuracies of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) reports on the collapse of 7 World Trade Center:

      http://www.ae911truth.org/en/news-section/41-articles/927-nists-wtc-7-reports-filled-with-fantasy-fiction-and-fraud-intro.html

      Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth represents more than 2,000 degreed/licensed architects and engineers who have signed a petition calling for a new, independent investigation, with full subpoena power, into the destruction of the Twin Towers and the 47-story World Trade Center Building 7 on 9/11.

      The more than 17,000 non-A/E signatories include many scientists, attorneys, and other responsible, educated citizens in the US and abroad. They cite overwhelming evidence for explosive controlled demolition.

      Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth expresses concerns that evidence related to the destruction of the World Trade Center could have been distorted and covered up by NIST, which conducted a building and fire safety investigation, one of the official investigations into the event.

      According to the group, and NIST themselves who considered it unnecessary, NIST did not look for physical evidence of explosives and did not include the eyewitness accounts from first responders and from people who escaped the buildings in their investigation.

      Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth also alleges that much of the physical evidence, apart from a few selected samples of the steel, would have been destroyed.

  3. Zachary Smith
    December 16, 2014 at 8:57 pm

    It’s my opinion that neither American torturers nor US police forces are going to be seriously inconvenienced by any restrictions on their illegal activities. What both groups are doing is mighty useful to the current bunch of Power Elites.

    The link is titled “Torture works”, and subtitled “A brief guide for the perplexed.”

    http://www.leninology.co.uk/2014/12/torture-works.html

    Sample:

    iii) It intimidates and punishes enemies of the state. This does not necessarily break resistance movements. The IRA, for example, understood torture as part of their national struggle, and prepared for it and symbolised it as such. However, it’s an open question how much this demoralises potential supporters, as opposed to inciting further resistance. Obama’s critique of such methods upon taking the White House was that it merely provided further incitement. But given that he has allowed torture to continue, that is necessarily a provisional judgment about a certain kind of very public, spectacular form of torture.

    I just can’t see them stopping the practice, and prosecuting the torturers is something I can’t imagine.

  4. Joe
    December 17, 2014 at 9:27 am

    There are of course sometimes rationales for police violence, but it is out of control, rubberstamped by the corrupt courts because necessary to police dominance by the rich. Similarly there are rationales for torture in almost non-existent cases (like the suspect who certainly knows of a credible nuclear terrorism plot). Such techniques rarely serve the public interest, and once established are used by the right wing to terrorize the population to benefit the rich, not for public benefit.

    The problem is the success of fearmongering of crime and terrorism, described by Aristotle as the stratagem of the tyrant of a democracy. The US right wing is controlled by the oligarchy of the rich, who have permanently seized control of the press and elections, and have orchestrated three generations of foreign wars without benefit to the people, and police militarization to suppress popular rebellion. Without a free press and fair elections, democracy cannot be restored. The US has become an empty suit of armor for its oligarchy. Its people are its enemy, and must be deceived and intimidated.

  5. Zachary Smith
    December 17, 2014 at 5:01 pm

    In Alfred Bester’s “The Stars My Destination” one of his characters speaks of an operation he called FFCC – Fun, Fantasy, Confusion and Catastrophe – as a means to divert attention.

    IMO we’ve just seen one of those operations with the Breaking News of US and Cuba getting together. The result: as of when I’m posting this, there was not a single reference to the term “torture” on the front page of Google News. Like magic, it’s gone away.

    Most likely there will be other fabulous events happening if necessary. The pressure was getting to be noticeable, and the Powers That Be can keep things in an uproar until the notoriously short memory of Americans kicks in.

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