TCS Daily

Shamnesty International

By Melana Zyla Vickers - June 3, 2005 12:00 AM

The torture and abuse of terrorist suspects is very much in the news these days, so it's interesting to note the advice on the topic found in an Al Qaeda training manual seized some time ago in the U.K. The manual says that when captured or facing trial, "brothers must insist on proving that torture was inflicted on them by State Security." Noting the utility of the open U.S. media, the manual also calls "spreading rumors and writing statements that instigate people against the enemy" one of the top-five missions of the terrorist organization.

This is not to say that torture and abuse at the hands of American troops is always a figment of Al Qaeda propaganda: The Abu Ghraib prison scandal proves otherwise. But the manual sure puts Amnesty International's newest annual report, as well as recent claims of torture, Koran desecration, and other abuse, in perspective.

Al Qaeda knows better than any organization that its success depends on peeling both Muslim-world support and U.S. public support away from the Bush administration's war on terrorism. Consider the quasi-reasoned tone Osama bin Laden adopted in a recording he allegedly made last November, calling on the "people of America" to drop their support for the president. The recording was full of contemporary and historical allusions, as is the training manual. If Al Qaeda's savvy enough for that, it's savvy enough to know that civil liberties - even the civil liberties of accused bad guys - are a hot-button issue in the U.S.

In the U.S. alone, there are 65-plus lawsuits claiming abuse of detainees at American hands. There are still more legal demarches overseas. We've seen inaccurate Koran-desecration stories send Muslim crowds raging in protest. We have regular accounts of arrested terrorism suspects being sent to third countries where they face torture-driven interrogation. And, as if on cue, we have Amnesty International calling the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, "the gulag of our time."

Naturally, the Bush administration is berating the organization for such a ridiculous comparison. After all, Guantanamo Bay's guards are under the microscope of human-rights lawyers all the time. The inmates are fairly treated. The guard-throws-Koran-in-toilet story was false. And claims that the inmates' detention oversteps the boundaries of international law have been responded to at the highest levels. Besides, the 500-600 Guantanamo detainees wouldn't be there if Al Qaeda hadn't killed 2,948 Americans and others on Sept 11, 2001.

Yet the civil-liberties argument continues. Combine its force with regular bad news out of Iraq, and an unnecessarily large amount of bungling by the Pentagon - such as failing to punish high-level officers for Abu Ghraib, or inadequately vetting the Newsweek report on the Koran when the reporters offered it - and it's quite difficult for the Bush administration to keep hearts and minds on its side.

Which is why it's partly up to the U.S. public to keep some perspective on the torture and abuse issue.

First and foremost, torture, abuse, killing, good guys running amok, these are all standard features of war. They occurred in the past and will again in the future. "War is cruelty," Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman said, and its cruelty is part of the reason the U.S. tries to avoid going to war in the first place. But of course, we are at war.

Second, human-rights watchdogs and lawyers are a veritable cottage industry these days. Whatever the international conflict, there is always a group of them around, wringing their hands, making their names known to newspapers, and pointing out, as if for the first time, that war is hell (another Sherman quotation). They're often well-meaning. But they may be getting wagged by the Al Qaeda training handbook without even knowing - or refusing to believe - it could be so.

Third, it's essential to know the messenger. In this case, Amnesty, the hand-wringer of the week, is no friend of American foreign policy. The group, whose roots lie with early 20th century leftists both here and in Britain, has always bent over backwards to make the capitalist U.S. look bad. Consider that the "Americas Regional Overview" in this 2005 annual report goes on at length about the U.S. and its detention camp, the U.S. and its horrible friend the government of Colombia, the U.S. and its evil counter-narcotics efforts in the region, yet makes not one mention of communist Fidel Castro's abominations in Cuba. Also, the report bends over backwards to blame the human-rights abuses of the quasi-communist Venezuelan government on those trying to unseat President Hugo Chavez.

The report's tone is reminiscent of its Cold War work, when Amnesty rather perversely thought it important to be even-handed in its assessment of Soviet human-rights abuses and our own. Considering Amnesty's fellow-traveler pedigree, perhaps it intended its Stalinist "gulag" comparison as a compliment.

The war against Al Qaeda has led U.S. troops and intelligence personnel to engage in some fairly despicable behavior, sometimes sanctioned, sometimes not. And this latest wave of complaints about the behavior won't be the last. Some of the behavior can be punished and stopped. But the war against terrorism is a real and necessary one, and immunization against its cruelties is necessary if the U.S. is to win.



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