As a nation, does the United States have a conscience? Or is anything and everything O.K. in post-9/11 America? If torture and the denial of due process are O.K., why not murder? When the government can just make people vanish - which it can, and which it does - where is the line that we, as a nation, dare not cross?
When I interviewed Maher Arar in Ottawa last week, it seemed clear that however thoughtful his comments, I was talking with the frightened, shaky successor of a once robust and fully functioning human being. Torture does that to a person. It's an unspeakable crime, an affront to one's humanity that can rob you of a portion of your being as surely as acid can destroy your flesh.
Mr. Arar, a Canadian citizen with a wife and two young children, had his life flipped upside down in the fall of 2002 when John Ashcroft's Justice Department, acting at least in part on bad information supplied by the Canadian government, decided it would be a good idea to abduct Mr. Arar and ship him off to Syria, an outlaw nation that the Justice Department honchos well knew was addicted to torture.
Mr. Arar was not charged with anything, and yet he was deprived not only of his liberty, but of all legal and human rights. He was handed over in shackles to the Syrian government and, to no one's surprise, promptly brutalized. A year later he emerged, and still no charges were lodged against him. His torturers said they were unable to elicit any link between Mr. Arar and terrorism. He was sent back to Canada to face the torment of a life in ruins.
Mr. Arar's is the case we know about. How many other individuals have disappeared at the hands of the Bush administration? How many have been sent, like the victims of a lynch mob, to overseas torture centers? How many people are being held in the C.I.A.'s highly secret offshore prisons? Who are they and how are they being treated? Have any been wrongly accused? If so, what recourse do they have?
President Bush spent much of last week lecturing other nations about freedom, democracy and the rule of law. It was a breathtaking display of chutzpah. He seemed to me like a judge who starves his children and then sits on the bench to hear child abuse cases. In Brussels Mr. Bush said he planned to remind Russian President Vladimir Putin that democracies are based on, among other things, "the rule of law and the respect for human rights and human dignity."
Someone should tell that to Maher Arar and his family.
Mr. Arar was the victim of an American policy that is known as extraordinary rendition. That's a euphemism. What it means is that the United States seizes individuals, presumably terror suspects, and sends them off without even a nod in the direction of due process to countries known to practice torture.
A Massachusetts congressman, Edward Markey, has taken the eminently sensible step of introducing legislation that would ban this utterly reprehensible practice. In a speech on the floor of the House, Mr. Markey, a Democrat, said: "Torture is morally repugnant whether we do it or whether we ask another country to do it for us. It is morally wrong whether it is captured on film or whether it goes on behind closed doors unannounced to the American people."
Unfortunately, the outlook for this legislation is not good. I asked Pete Jeffries, the communications director for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, if the speaker supported Mr. Markey's bill. After checking with the policy experts in his office, Mr. Jeffries called back and said: "The speaker does not support the Markey proposal. He believes that suspected terrorists should be sent back to their home countries."
Surprised, I asked why suspected terrorists should be sent anywhere. Why shouldn't they be held by the United States and prosecuted?
"Because," said Mr. Jeffries, "U.S. taxpayers should not necessarily be on the hook for their judicial and incarceration costs."
It was, perhaps, the most preposterous response to any question I've ever asked as a journalist. It was not by any means an accurate reflection of Bush administration policy. All it indicated was that the speaker's office does not understand this issue, and has not even bothered to take it seriously.
More important, it means that torture by proxy, close kin to contract murder, remains all right. Congressman Markey's bill is going nowhere. Extraordinary rendition lives.
© 2005 New York Times, Co.