The plot sounds like the stuff of movies: A man on vacation is abducted, beaten and carted off to a nightmarish prison. His captors tell him he’s in a land without laws; he’s tortured and interrogated about places he’s never been and people he’s never met. He’s finally released — dumped hundreds of miles away from home, not knowing where he is or how to get back. His family has moved, thinking him gone forever. Five months pass.
But this isn’t a movie — it’s Khaled El-Masri’s ordeal, as documented in news outlets around the world and in a lawsuit filed with the American Civil Liberties Union. It begins on a bus in Germany and ends along a deserted road in Albania, as El-Masri walks away from the car that dropped him off. His first few moments of freedom are filled with the terror of being shot. And while it ought to exist only in the pages of a Robert Ludlum novel or on the flickering screen of a Hitchcock film, it is emblematic of the shadow-world of abuse and brutality carried out in the name of the people of the United States.
Our government has ramped up this existing practice of “extraordinary rendition,” ostensibly in order to collect information and foil future terrorist attacks. The truly extraordinary element, of course, is that we have sanctioned kidnapping and torture around the world. And, the fact that El-Masri is a salesman, not a terrorist.
After Sept. 11, Americans allowed the president some extension of governmental powers in order to prevent future catastrophic attacks. No reasonable person would object to prudent actions that keep America safe. Measures in line with America’s principles of civil liberties, democracy and the rule of law not only serve as effective tools for fighting terrorists, but preserve the ideals we defend.
El-Masri’s torture — only the most pernicious doublespeak would call it anything else — affronts every notion of American values and human rights while doing nothing to boost our security.
El-Masri, a German, slipped through the protections of our Constitution because of his foreign citizenship. (Were he American, we would be hard-pressed to imagine a situation violating more of his civil rights.) Still, the absence of due process removed any oversight into the particulars of his case. Lacking legal recourse, El-Masri suffered in fetid, appalling conditions. For five months, the United States held a salesman as if he were a terrorist, and neither his bewildered denials of ties to Al Qaida nor his desperate pleas to speak to someone from his own government made any difference. In the end, he was released without having been legally charged — a victim of a system with no safeguards.
Callous disregard for the rule of law and for human decency outside our own borders casts a black mark on the very people such tactics purport to protect. In describing its handling of terrorists, the government invokes the safety of the American people. In December of last year, Press Secretary Scott McClellan defended rendition, saying, “We’ve got to do everything we can within the law to protect our citizens, and we need to work with other countries to help save lives.” By torturing in our name, the government claims its actions occur with our consent. American citizens, whose values condemn torture, are its alleged beneficiaries — and thus share moral responsibility for its occurrences.
Ironically, the United States’ betrayal of democratic principles sends a message of permissiveness to places that require no encouragement toward brutality. Rendition of suspects to Afghanistan, Syria and others implies that torture is an effective way of dealing with individuals. We give our tacit approval to tactics only the most corrupt and cruel regimes would use, all the while declaring our intentions of bringing democracy and human rights to those very states.
Beyond what ought to be self-evident assertions of American values, torture has no place in effective counter-terrorism. Confessions obtained by coercion are notoriously inaccurate, warped by a victim’s desire to end pain. Interrogation tactics first introduced at Guantanamo Bay attempted to mimic Communist torturers of American prisoners in Vietnam and Korea, where truth played a subordinate role to confession. We’ve known those tactics provide false intelligence for over 30 years, yet we have applied them unchecked against prisoners.
We are already paying the price of torture. The single most crushing blow that has been dealt to U.S. forces in Iraq came not from a roadside bomb or a truck filled with explosives, but from a tiny digital camera in a foreign prison with glaringly little oversight. Photographs from Abu Ghraib give visual expression to the intense dehumanization El-Masri felt, and to the counterproductive nature of torture. No event has engendered more hostility, facilitated easier recruitment of terrorists and endangered more American lives, both civilian and military.
El-Masri is finally beginning to receive the attention he was denied during those hellish months. In addition to his lawsuit, the German government is investigating his account and the CIA inspector general is allegedly looking into the possibility of “erroneous renditions.” Recent revelations of “black spot” prisons in Eastern European countries add legitimacy to his claims.
As El-Masri’s case garners attention, Americans must stand up against such barbarous practices. We cannot consent to a system that not only fails to deal effectively with real terrorists, but confuses them with innocent people. As El-Masri works to reclaim his life and find the justice democracy promises, we must do our part to reclaim American values.
Jason Blau is a sophomore in Morse College. Lauren Henry is a sophomore in Pierson College. Blau serves on the executive board and Henry is the chair of the Yale College ACLU.