When We Allow Fear to Overcome Reason
On Christmas morning in 1776, upon crossing the Delaware River and securing victory in the Battle of Trenton, George Washington sat astride his horse and issued instructions to his lieutenants. "Treat surrendering prisoners with humanity,'' he told them. "Let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British army.''
It is ironic that these words uttered by an American general would lay the ground rules for the humane treatment of prisoners worldwide.
Washington knew from the cold reality of a vicious war that the moral high ground is not won by access to depravity and revenge against those in captivity, but in the knowledge that retaining the moral high ground would ultimately result in victory and, as such, inspire mankind. Washington stood among the carnage in the darkest hours on the cusp of a nation's freedom and willed his reason to overcome his fear.
On Sept. 11, 2001, after being informed that the nation was under attack, President George W. Bush pursed his lips, overwhelmed by the information he had just received. Unlike George Washington, it would appear fear carried the day. For in the days, months, and years following that infamous morning, the president and his administration would undo every hard-won value and principle bestowed on the nation by the first president and the founding fathers.
The Bush administration would extinguish the beacon lit by these great statesmen. It would be responsible (though make every attempt to circumvent the law) for willful acts of ill treatment and torture. That ill treatment would find its way from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib, where individuals bereft of any legal safeguards would languish in limbo beyond the reach of any international laws in direct contrast to the nation's core beliefs.
Terrorism robbed this nation of its power of reason overtaken by fear - just as it did the British government in 1974 when I became the first person arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act - an emergency provisions bill passed by the British Parliament in response to a series of obscene IRA bombings on Britain. For seven days, I was held incommunicado, sleep deprived, food deprived, and interrogated for periods of up to 20 hours a day. I was brutally abused by police officers. My family was threatened with death. I was threatened with firearms, mock-execution style, an action that under today's US Army Field Manual constitutes torture.
I was charged with seven counts of murder and was sentenced in October 1975 to life in prison, with the judge stipulating that "life must mean life,'' and that his only regret was that the death penalty - which had just been abolished - was not an option. I remained in prison for 15 years until 1989, when I was taken, with my three co-accused, to the Old Bailey in London and told we were being let go.
Lord Lane, who presided over our release, informed us that the Surrey police officers and Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist police seriously misled the court, "in fact they must have lied in their doctoring and manufacturing of evidence,'' he told us.
In the following 18 months, more than 16 Irish citizens would be released as a result of the actions of the police acting on the orders of the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1974. These people had spent periods between eight and 17 years in prison. All have since received direct apologies from the British government.
These examples of British actions in response to terrorism appear to have been ignored by the American administration. Torture reveals nothing. In the words of the former secretary of the Navy James Webb, "Tainted evidence comes from torture. Many people will tell their interrogators what they want to hear, accurate or not.''
I was that person. We told our interrogators exactly what they wanted to hear, "accurate or not,'' in order to stop our suffering.
As we remember those who died in the 9/11 attacks, it should be a fitting memorial to them that we refuse to let their deaths be used politically as an excuse for torture.
© 2009 The Boston Globe