Wednesday, July 8, 2009

When Iran Does It, It's Torture; When The U.S. Does It, It's "A Matter Of Debate"

The Iranian government has been torturing reformists in order to extract "confessions" for supposed subversive activities following protests against the presidential election. As reported in The New York Times:

Iranian leaders say they have obtained confessions from top reformist officials that they plotted to bring down the government with a “velvet” revolution. Such confessions, almost always extracted under duress, are part of an effort to recast the civil unrest set off by Iran’s disputed presidential election as a conspiracy orchestrated by foreign nations, human rights groups say.

...The government has made it a practice to publicize confessions from political prisoners held without charge or legal representation, often subjected to pressure tactics like sleep deprivation, solitary confinement and torture, according to human rights groups and former political prisoners. Human rights groups estimate that hundreds of people have been detained.

One of the arguments against the Bush administration's use of torture was that it produced unreliable information. One never knows whether a "confession" is made just to end the pain. Ali Afshari (upper left) was tortured by Iran, not the U.S.; nevertheless, his experience is pertinent:

In 2001, Ali Afshari was arrested for his work as a student leader. ...“They tortured me, some beatings, sleep deprivation, insults, psychological torture, standing me for several hours in front of a wall, keeping me in solitary confinement for one year,” Mr. Afshari said in an interview from his home in Washington. “They eventually broke my resistance.”

The problem, he said, was that he was not sure what he was supposed to confess to. So over the next several months, he said, he and his interrogators “negotiated” what he would say — and, more ominously, whom he would implicate. Once his confession was complete, he said, he practiced it for 7 to 10 days, and then it ran on state-run television.

American conservatives who defended the Bush administration's use of torture would no doubt condemn the Iranian use of it and the phony confessions obtained. Their stand is not against torture per se; they're for it or against it depending upon who's using it. Conservatives, who profess a belief in an absolute right and wrong and decry "moral relativism," are quite relativistic when it comes to torture.

The New York Times has been practicing its own form of moral relativism on the subject of torture. Times public editor Clark Hoyt noted the debate that took place among the paper's journalists over the use of the word:

[Washington bureau editor Douglas Jehl] said: “I have resisted using torture without qualification or to describe all the techniques. Exactly what constitutes torture continues to be a matter of debate and hasn’t been resolved by a court. This president and this attorney general say waterboarding is torture, but the previous president and attorney general said it is not. On what basis should a newspaper render its own verdict, short of charges being filed or a legal judgment rendered?” Jehl argued for precision and caution. I agree.

Glenn Greenwald of Salon notes how cautious The Times is when it comes to the United States' use of torture, as compared to the torture practiced by other countries. He refers to the article on Iran cited above:

Virtually every tactic which the article describes the Iranians as using has been used by the U.S. during the War on Terror, while several tactics authorized by Bush officials (waterboarding, placing detainees in coffin-like boxes, hypothermia) aren't among those the article claims are used by the Iranians. Nonetheless, "torture" appears to be a perfectly fine term for The New York Times to use to describe what the Iranians do, but one that is explicitly banned to describe what the U.S. did. Despite its claimed policy, the NYT has also recently demonstrated its eagerness to use the word "torture" to describe these same tactics . . . when used by the Chinese against an American detainee.

The Bush administration's use of torture tainted America's reputation, and it will take a while to remove that taint. The Obama administration has broken with many of the tactics employed in recent years, though its consideration of indefinite detention is certainly troubling. At least for now, we cannot condemn countries such as Iran and China with the same moral authority we once had. An examination of the Times' contradictory use of the word "torture" makes it clear that the moral taint has spread to our mass media.

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