[OUTLOOK]When torture becomes acceptedRecently, the media in the United States and Great Britain published photographs and testimonies of alleged abuse of prisoners committed by soldiers sent to Iraq. Many were horrified and disgusted to learn that the soldiers of the two countries that take pride in being the most advanced in human rights, are alleged to have stripped prisoners, forced them to form a human pyramid, taken humiliating pictures of the naked prisoners and conducted electric and sexual torture. The soldiers also allegedly assaulted and threatened the prisoners and even urinated on their heads.
The actions of the soldiers were typical examples of some of the war crimes and crimes against humanity that go against international treaties, including the Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War and the UN Convention Against Torture. For many Arabs, it has gotten difficult to distinguish Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush.
In truth, this situation was more or less foreseen. Indiscriminate hostility against Arabs and a sense of racial and cultural superiority was formed in American society since the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. Conservatives started to advocate torture under the name of terrorism prevention. The U.S. government, pursuing a war against terrorism instead of preventing such a social atmosphere from spreading, silently accepted and took advantage of it.
Some of the consequences were allegations of systematic abuse of terrorism suspects detained at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay and the recent allegations of these atrocious criminal acts in Iraq. The United States and Great Britain had cited human rights abuse by the Saddam Hussein regime as one of the reasons justifying their attack on Iraq. They proclaimed that they were seeking to bring freedom and democracy to the Iraqi people. This incident has sent the reasons for justifying the war and the reputation of the two countries crashing.
The horrible news coming from Iraq is not only that of some faraway country. It feels closer to our skin because we ourselves had experienced torture committed by the state under military dictatorship. In the past, people such as Park Jong-cheol died under torture by authorities. Kim Keun-tae and Kwon In-suk were famous survivors of brutal abuse by the police and the prosecution. As the recent Korean movies “Memories of Murder” and “The President’s Barber” vividly show, innocent and ordinary civilians had to undergo immense pain during criminal trials.
Why is torture committed? It starts when the state begins to regard a particular group of people as not human. For example, people suspected of being terrorists, radical revolutionaries, spies and serious criminals are considered a threat to society. The allegations against these “undesirable” elements are often distorted and exaggerated, and respecting their rights becomes a luxury that society cannot and should not afford.
Torture and abuse of these alleged threats to society are carried out in the name of “national security” or even “truth.” The animal violence hidden in human nature heightens the intensity of these acts of torture and abuse. The possibility that these could be innocent civilians disappears in the minds of the torturers, and those who try to protect the rights of these socially undesirable people are branded as disturbers of order and accomplices of the criminals.
If, in particular, the head of state and the government slyly show disregard for the principle that torture cannot be justified under any circumstances and torture is portrayed as a necessary evil by some, then it is almost certain to occur.
President Bush apologized for the incident but maintained that the abuse was committed spontaneously and against the rules by the U.S. soldiers, and he expressed concern that this incident could be misused to perpetrate anti-Americanism.
However, as was the torture committed under the Saddam Hussein regime in the past not the senseless act of a few individual prison guards and officials, this incident cannot be dismissed as simply the issue of certain individuals. And the escalation of anti-American sentiment due to this incident cannot be blamed on anyone else but the U.S. government itself.
The U.S. government should not only hand out the deserved punishment to those responsible in this incident that has caused an uproar around the world, but it should also review its views and policies on the Middle East and human rights from the fundamentals.
It must answer the question, posed in Zbigniew Brzezinski’s words: Will the empire choose to dominate the world or lead it? Domination that disregards moral leadership and relies only on military prowess always meets it limits.
* The writer is a professor of law at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Cho Kuk