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In an extraordinary letter, the attorney general of the United States assured his counterpart in Russia that the United States would not torture Edward Snowden, were Russia’s government to turn Snowden over to our Department of Justice for prosecution. Put another way, the chief of law enforcement in our country promises not to torture a dissident who exposes crimes committed by the United States government.

Recall the years of Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the  years of tentative peace since the end of that conflict. Imagine that a dissident who stands for freedom in Russia comes to the United States, and seeks protection. Imagine further that the leaders of Russia write a formal letter to us, requesting that we return the dissident for trial. The letter assures us that authorities in Russia will not execute the dissident, nor will they torture him.

You need not offer assurances like that unless you have a reputation for mistreatment of prisoners. When Edward Snowden says he fears torture and execution should he return to the United States, you have to take him at his word. When the U. S. government responds that Snowden’s fears are groundless, which statement – Snowden’s or the attorney general’s – appears more credible to dissidents all over the world?

The U. S. government’s reputation for mistreatment of prisoners is widely known. Its secret intelligence agencies and military prison units have beat prisoners to death, hung them on walls to asphyxiate them, simulated their execution by drowning in a procedure called waterboarding, force fed them, stripped them naked and spread feces on them, placed them in isolation cells, deprived them of sleep, and committed almost every kind of atrocity you can imagine in the name of a war on terror. Now that these horrors are well known to the world, Edward Snowden may think that his treatment would be better.

Doubtless the U. S. government would not execute Snowden, should they lay hands on him, nor would they commit the atrocities listed above, but his treatment would not be good. He knows how the U. S. government has treated Bradley Manning over the last three years. He would not expect better treatment than that.

Observe what has happened in Guantanamo prison this year, to see how we treat prisoners even now, twelve years after 9/11. Consider the treatment of prisoners there:

  1. Prisoners’ agitation for a hearing or any kind of trial becomes more insistent. Some prisoners start a hunger strike in February 2013.

  2. Violence ensues after prisoners cover the cameras prison officials use to monitor the prisoners.

  3. In response, prison officials place prisoners in solitary confinement.

  4. In response to that treatment, and to continue their protest against indefinite detention, large numbers of prisoners go on a hunger strike. They say they prefer death to the treatment they receive at Guantanamo.

  5. Prison officials begin force feeding prisoners to keep them alive. At least once a day, they strap the prisoner to a chair. Then they push a so-called nasograstric tube up the prisoner’s nose and down into his stomach, to pump liquid food into his digestive system.

This much we know. If Russia returns Edward Snowden to the United States, he will wear an orange jump suit the rest of his life. He will exist under prison discipline, conditions that, in a U. S. maximum security prison, are as harsh as anywhere in the world. Cleaner, perhaps, but harsh.

No matter what happens to Edward Snowden, show him your support. When you speak up for him, you support what he stands for. He is a hero citizen among us, and we need every hero we can find. As for our government, tyranny is not in embryo form anymore. It is out of the womb and growing fast. Remember the attorney general’s words to Moscow: “We will not torture Edward Snowden.” Remember why our government has to make such an assurance when you have doubts about the direction we have taken. No attorney general before now could have uttered such words. No American after now can ever forget them.

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