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The Heart of Darkness Beats Clear and Steady in Guantanamo Bay

26 January 2002

I never dreamed I would have to write a column opposing torture - need I also publicly state that I am opposed to grave robbing? - but that is a failure of my imagination. Funny, my imagination rarely fails me when it comes to how low humans can descend, but really, I hadn't thought anyone in the West would openly giggle about torture, or praise it, or sneer at those who oppose it.

Now apparently, the heart of a Turkish jailer beats within us. Amazing, that.

The worst thing I have ever seen in my life was 1988 television news footage of two British soldiers driving by mistake into the path of an IRA funeral. They harmed no one and attempted to drive away. Their path was blocked by a taxi whose driver got out and walked toward them with an expression on his face that I cannot forget. The driver knew, as did every man in the murderous crowd, that the two young soldiers - their names were Derek Wood and David Howes - were facing a horrible death. They were beaten, tortured, dragged over a wall, stripped and shot to death.

The taxi driver's face had a grim semi-smile on it, smug, full of pleasure, but not bursting with it, because that kind of pleasure is so intensely internal. It's the kind of look a sadistic schoolteacher has when he gets out the whip to beat a boy senseless. The look says, "I'm going to do this to you. And there's nothing you can do about it, because, you see, I'm allowed."

The hooding, shackling, shaving and masking of Afghan prisoners and their incarceration in open-air animal cages under constant bright lights is a revolting spectacle that disgraces the West. Americans would scream with shame and rage if it were done to Americans by anyone else (and it will be done, if this mad U.S. venture into the Philippines continues).

At first, I thought the release of the photos was a refreshing sign of press freedom, but it wasn't. It was the result of the first level of US justification: The belief that nobody - not the Western nations, not decent Americans, not even Arab allies - would mind seeing humans made stateless, humiliated and displayed in a zoo. And if they did, so what? We're allowed.

The second attempt at excuse is that technically, these are not prisoners of war; they are "unlawful combatants." Adam Roberts, writing in The Independent, reminds us that three years ago, three US soldiers were arrested by Serbs in Kosovo. The United States demanded that they be treated as PoWs, even though technically, they were not eligible. But it worked. Will it still work after Camp X-ray, even though prisoner transfers to the camp have now been suspended?

Some commentators, ranging in my classification from Old Scolds to Classic Haters to Completely Off Their Nut, have said that hooding, shackling, sleep deprivation etc. don't constitute torture.

I love this cavalier attitude toward the prolonged suffering of other people. These are commentators who loudly complain about the pain of dieting or the cost of hotel room mini-bars or the tedium of reading an actual book. But the pain endured by utterly helpless, despised prisoners arouses a kind of gassy pleasure in them, that same swelling satisfaction I saw on the taxi driver's face.

I have always thought that political, as well as personal, cruelty has a sexual element to it. Cruelty, like extreme sexual desire, is a failure of empathy, a grabbing of gratification for oneself that is very difficult to control. When you feel this surge in yourself, always beware. It will end in tears, and depending on how you expressed your contempt for whoever was in your hot, little hands, they will often be your own tears.

Torture apologists should try to read Brian Keenan's An Evil Cradling,about being held hostage in Beirut for five years under conditions similar to those at Guantanamo. Or they might attempt The Good Listener, Neil Belton's biography of Helen Bamber, the 76-year-old Brit who helped to establish London's Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture.

Bamber, who is Jewish, spent years helping the victims of Nazis, of the French army in Algeria, of unscrupulous postwar British and American medical researchers. In 1993, when she went to Israel (to help those tortured by Israel and by Arafat), she explained to a jeering court that being hooded was torture. She knew because she had briefly tested it by wearing a hood for an hour and experiencing the claustrophobia, the gagging, the panic.

Later, the prosecutor tried to apologize, saying he was only doing his job. "Bamber said with great restraint - she was feeling very drained - that that was something she had heard in other places."

I was pleased to see MP John Godfrey speak out publicly against Canadian complicity. I have rarely been so proud of Canada as the day last week when a military commander said his soldiers would have no truck with handing over any prisoners for possible torture. Yet within hours, that beautiful mind, the hapless Defense Minister Art Eggleton, was already fudging. Talk about the banality of evil. Around the world, small-time sadists were smirking.

Heather Mallick
Published in the Toronto Globe & Mail © 2002 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc.

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