Sunday, March 4, 2007

The view from Australia: Otterman, American Torture, Reviewed in Melbourne Age

American Torture: From the Cold War to Abu Ghraib and Beyond by Michael Otterman is reviewed by Dennis Altman in the Melbourne Age. Altman begins:

In 1951 THE NEW YORK Times editorialised: "We must be careful not to commit he same type of judicial iniquity of which we accuse the Reds. To descend into their mire would be to lose the ideals for which we strive."

The enemy today is different, but the claim is equally relevant. The United States Administration, shamefully - and, it seems, uncritically - supported by the Howard Government, has embraced the very tactics of terror they claim we are fighting. The great majority of us choose not to know what is done in our name, preferring to focus on the alleged threats from external and exotic terrorists. The awful lesson of this book is that the greatest threat to basic rights comes from those we have elected to protect them.

As the quote suggests, Otterman begins his book with the Cold War, and the ways in which it led to new forms of interrogation and surveillance. American support for successive South Vietnamese governments, another misadventure backed enthusiastically by Australian conservatives, frequently saw "brutal interrogation". Belief in the sheer evil of its Communist opponents justified appalling behaviour by the United States and its allies, just as it does today. Torture is defined as "the infliction of intense pain to body or mind to extract a confession or information, or for sadistic pleasure". This definition comes from a 1992 US army field manual, and closely adheres to the norms of international law.
The current Bush Administration has claimed that the demands of the "war on terror" mean the restrictions on torture may need to be relaxed. In a similar vein, an American general during the Vietnam War spoke of destroying a village in order to save it....
Ultimately, Altman argues that Otterman's book is "relevant to an Australian debate about the limits to the American alliance....What are the moral implications of Prime Minister John Howard's statement that 'we don't rat on our mates'?"

For the full review, click here.