Have you ever heard of Marer Arar? In 2002, Arar, a resident of Canada who holds citizenship there and in Syria, took a vacation to Tunisia. His return trip included a stop in New York City, but he ran into some trouble there. According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s website, “U.S. officials detained Arar, claiming he has links to al-Qaida, and deported him to Syria, even though he was carrying a Canadian passport.”
Arar wouldn’t return to Canada for a year. In the meantime, he claimed, he was tortured while in Syrian custody. A public commission set up to investigate his claims asserted their veracity, and culminated with the publishing of the Toope Report (named after the fact-finder, Stephen Toope) in October 2005, which can be read at www.ararcommission.ca/eng/ToopeReport_final.pdf.
It’s not light reading. Here’s how Arar described some of his treatment: “They used the cable on the second and third day, and after that mostly beat me with their hands, hitting me on the stomach and on the back of my neck, and slapping me in the face. When they hit me with the cables, my skin turned blue for two or three weeks, but there was no bleeding.”
Arar was never formally charged with anything. The process by which he was deported to a country that tortures is known as “extraordinary rendition” and was started in the mid-1990s under the Clinton administration. Its use has exploded since Sept. 11; suspected terrorists are now regularly kidnapped from one country, flown to another and tortured there.
This is our government. It would be nice to say that things have gotten better, that the horrors described in the Toope Report were the result of immediate post-Sept. 11 zealousness, but that’s not the case. We now know that the Central Intelligence Agency has set up secret prisons in Eastern Europe for the purpose of detaining and interrogating al-Qaida suspects.
But scarier than what we do know is what we don’t know. Who decides who gets detained? What happens to detainees? Is there any logic to the process? We also know that at least some of the prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay were innocent bystanders swept up in raids – then left to rot or be tortured – without any due process.
The typical response from a Bush administration apologist is some amalgamation of “post-9/11 world,” “take the fight to them” and “terrorists.” This can no longer suffice as an explanation for so much secrecy. There has yet to be a convincing argument made as to the connection between winning the war on terror and secretly detaining and torturing people. The fierceness with which the administration clings to the “right” to torture people is puzzling.
Again, though, what’s most scary is that we don’t know what’s being done in our name. The American people never granted the Bush administration the power to detain people without due process and torture them. Nonetheless, it’s happening, but nobody knows where, when or how often. It’s so commonplace for critics of this president to take cheap shots at him – Bush is a fascist, Bush is racist, etc. But what really matters – what really is an affront to a democratic system and, more importantly, is a moral outrage – is lurking below the surface, out of sight from traditional means of critique or investigation.
“No one knows”: They’re just three words, but when you take a step back and think about it, it’s terrifying. We have no idea what’s being done to those who come under the eye of our government, nor the power to stop it. We, the people, are supposed to be the ultimate arbiters of what should or should not be done in our name. Where’s our voice?
Some answers are definitely in order here.
Imagine if American citizens began randomly disappearing from the streets of our cities, reemerging months or years later with stories of torture. There would, to say the least, be an outcry. Until we begin to demand a basic level of explanation from our government, our role in cases such as Arar’s can only be seen as one of complicity. As citizens, it’s our responsibility to demand better from those in charge.
Singal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org