America on the Rack

Is the torture debate robbing us of international credibility?

In the past couple of years, whenever I have written about the rollback of political freedoms and civil liberties in Russia, one common response has been that we need to start looking at what's happening in our own back yard. We have no business sitting in judgment on the Putin regime, some readers have said, when our own government eavesdrops on its citizens and justifies torture and detention without trial. In some ways, this is a simplistic rejoinder that takes moral equivalency much too far. Yet it also raises disturbing questions that need to be addressed.

Some commentators are now raising this question as well: Have the Bush administration's policies in the War on Terror undermined, if not destroyed, our ability to be a voice for freedom and human rights around the world? In a recent column in The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof tells the harrowing tale of a Chinese woman, 50-year-old Li Guirong, who ran afoul of the authorities after complaining about her husband's unfair dismissal by the state-owned coal mine where they both had worked. Li was imprisoned in a labor camp, badly beaten and injected with drugs for trying to tell her story to foreign journalists and to contact Chinese government leaders; she is now disabled as a result of her maltreatment in prison.

Yet, says, Kristof, "If I protest the abuse of Li, Chinese officials will simply say that we Americans are hypocrites who should clean up our own house before we go around pointing fingers." As an example, he points to Sami al-Hajj, an Al-Jazeera cameraman who was arrested in Afghanistan in December 2001 and has been held at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp for more than five years.

On a similar note, commenting on the Russian's regression under Putin, former Carter administration advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski writes that "Russia has gained impunity in part because of the effects of America's disastrous war in Iraq on U.S. foreign policy," with America's credibility and moral authority weakened.

One thing needs to be made clear: Bush's America is not Putin's Russia. The Bush administration has not turned all of America's airwaves into Fox News (besides, even Fox News routinely airs criticism of Bush than would be unthinkable toward Putin on Russian television today). The Bush administration has not crushed opposition parties or squashed protest rallies, or passed laws hobbling independent political and civic activism. Its prominent critics do not have an alarming pattern of turning up dead. George Soros, unlike politically active Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is not in a jail cell.

It is also worth noting that the Bush administration's worst encroachments on traditional constitutional rights—such as detentions without trial—have been directed at people who are not U.S. citizens. (Naomi Wolf, in an article about America's alleged descent into fascism, claims that "the Bush administration is trying increasingly aggressively to find ways to get around giving even US citizens fair trials," but gives no evidence to support this.) Nor is there any evidence that dissenters or critics of the government are being labeled terror suspects and targeted for persecution. Wolf recounts the tale of Walter F. Murphy, a constitutional scholar and former Marine who was supposedly placed on the Terrorist Watch List and barred from boarding an airplane because he had given a lecture criticizing the Bush administration's violations of the Constitution; but, as liberal blogger Mark R. Kleiman has concluded, the story is almost certainly based on a misunderstanding.

The case of Al-Jazeera employee Sami al-Hajj, which Kristof presents as a cut-and-dry case of political persecution—"the government has never offered a hint of evidence that he is anything but a journalist"—is also murkier than that. Al-Hajj has been accused of being a courier for an Islamic charity allegedly serving as a terrorist front, and of working with Al-Qaeda operatives.

There is a big difference between arresting someone for criticizing the government and arresting someone on suspicion of involvement in terrorism. Civil libertarians sometimes tend to forget that terrorism is a real threat, not just something the Bush administration made up to frighten people into submission—even if the administration has used this threat as an excuse to expand government power and has often exaggerated the level of danger from specific terror plots.

Yet when all is said and done, the fact is that a person arrested on false or grossly inflated suspicion of terrorist activities is as much as a victim as a person arrested for dissent—and that the Bush administration's anti-terror policies, particularly before they were mitigated by judicial intervention, provided far too little protection for the accused. Al-Hajj, for instance, may well be a victim of circumstance who, as he claims, was only delivering money for charitable purposes; and, if even one-tenth of his claims of brutality by his American jailers are true, the incident is indeed an appalling blot on our moral record.

Likewise, whatever the presumed gains from phone surveillance without court oversight, they were hardly worth the damage to a bedrock principle of American liberty: the state cannot intrude on an individual's privacy without good cause. Finally, America's defense of torture, as former Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky has argued, also goes a long way to embolden authoritarian rulers in other countries.

To take comfort in the fact that we are better than Communist China or Putin's Russia is to hold America to a rather low standard for a beacon of freedom. As the basis for his foreign policy, Bush has proclaimed a mission to bring liberty to the world. How ironic that, in the process, he has harmed our credibility in speaking out against tyrants.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor of reason.

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