I’ve written on the subject of torture so many times that I start to think I should lay off. The subject still has unequaled power to make a citizen indignant. I know our government has done a lot of bad things during our country’s history. Treatment of Native Americans – which amounted to ethnic cleansing in its intent and its effects – stands out as a particularly vicious program of government wrongdoing. You might even draw a line from Washington’s nineteenth century cruelty at home to the variety practiced internationally during the twenty-first. Whether you think that way or not, cruelty toward innocent people right now – by people we pay to serve us – makes one especially angry.
So how does the subject of wanton cruelty come up right now? You read that the International Court of Justice in the Hague sentenced Charles Taylor to fifty years in prison for acts of cruelty he sponsored during Sierra Leone’s civil conflict a couple of decades ago. According to the charges, Taylor paid people who mutilated and tortured their victims. The judge commented that never before had a head of state been held responsible for this kind of activity, convicted for torture committed by others. The prosecutor said of the conviction that it was a good day.
The same day I read news of Charles Taylor, I read an article about prisons in Afghanistan. The guards, police, and other Afghan security forces routinely torture prisoners there. They whip prisoners with chains and rubber hoses, pull out their toenails, crush their genitals, beat them with truncheons, electrocute them, and hang them from their wrists. This cruelty did not stop when George W. Bush left office, nor did it stop when President Obama claimed it stopped. It continued because we paid for it, we sponsored it, we sanctioned it. We write the checks that keep the Afghan security forces in business. Sponsors of their crimes, we employ them.
That’s exactly the situation that existed between Charles Taylor and the various thugs, militiamen, guerrillas, strongmen, commanders, and miscellaneous criminals who received money from his corrupt coffers. If you compare the layers of insulation, deniability, and responsibility between Taylor and his accomplices with the layers between the White House and its Afghan accomplices, you won’t find that much difference. One difference is that Sierra Leone sits closer to Liberia than Afghanistan does to Washington, DC. Geographical distance probably makes a psychological difference for the paymasters. For the victims, though, cruelty is cruelty, and it doesn’t matter much whether the funds for torture originate next door or from the other side of the world. The pain is the same either way.
Another difference is that our president doesn’t have enemies who can capture him and send him to the International Court of Justice. Charles Taylor lived in the sort of environment that former heads of state have to fear: without power, they are also without protection. I suppose he was lucky his captors did not turn him over to a group inclined to treat him the way he treated others.
The biggest difference of all between the United States government and the Liberian dictator is that the United States is a superpower. Charles Taylor said during his trial that he was head of a respected state, not of Monrovia or someplace like that. The fact is, Liberia does not rank high in the international pecking order, and that made him subject to trial for sponsorship of cruelty in his neighborhood. You will have to wait a long time to see a former head of state from the United States brought up on charges related to acts of cruelty sponsored by the U. S. We are too powerful a country, and the top dog can do what it likes.
Charles Taylor is not a good man. You would not promote him as an example for other leaders or heads of state. For members of our government to preach that he received a just sentence, however, adds hypocrisy to torture on their own rap sheet. We have created so many ways to torture people – in secret, in client states, in prisons, in black sites, during interrogations where “enhanced techniques” don’t count. We act so satisfied when Charles Taylor goes to prison for fifty years. Let’s consider what we deserve for what we’ve done.