Terror/Torture on the Campaign Trail - Guest Post by Karima Bennoune

{Note from Mike Dorf: Below is a guest post by Karima Bennoune, who is a Visiting Professor at the University of Michigan Law School. She is also a Professor of Law and the Arthur L. Dickson Scholar at the Rutgers Law SchoolNewark. The post below draws on Professor Bennoune's most recent article, Terror/Torture, published in the Berkeley Journal of International Law.}

I am the daughter of a former prisoner of war and torture survivor. Similar to the experience of Senator John McCain, my late father spent about 4 and 1/2 years of his youth behind bars for involvement in one of the terrible conflicts of the second half of the 20th Century. As a member of Algeria’s independence movement, he knew the hardship of France’s colonial jails from 1957 until independence in 1962. Anyone who has seen “The Battle of Algiers” knows the rest of his story. The torture of my father has colored my life in the way that it often does with the children of those who have known it. It led me to a career as a professor of international human rights law, a topic I am teaching this year at the University of Michigan Law School. Due to my father’s legacy, I have great respect for Senator McCain’s history of personal courage in the face of the atrocity known as torture, and for his strength in facing down the horror of severe suffering deliberately inflicted on the powerless. Moreover, Senator McCain’s stirring words against torture several years ago – and earlier in his campaign – inspired me.

However, I find myself confused by the Republican Convention’s torture narrative. Many of those who graphically assert Senator McCain’s suffering as a credential for the presidency are not themselves opponents of torture. Sarah Palin scornfully jokes about Barack Obama wanting to give legal rights to terrorists. Mitt Romney paints those who believe in decent treatment for enemy combatants as “liberal” or “politically correct.” In their worldview, seemingly, terrorists (and presumably those easily confused with them) deserve mistreatment. Senator McCain’s initial attempts to speak out against inhuman treatment were not supported by these same politicians who are now so eager to parlay his personal odyssey of torture into election victory. The administration of President Bush – who addressed the convention from the White House - allowed torture to happen at Abu Ghraib, torture which has perhaps forever shaped the view of the United States in the Muslim world. And it has sought to carve out exceptions in U.S. law to allow more torture and ill treatment in the “war on terror,” or to shield the practice by exporting detainees to be tortured elsewhere.

The selectivity in the Republicans’ moral outrage about attacks on human dignity is striking. I wonder if my students are confused too. What precisely are the Republicans saying? Is torture wrong? Are its victims heroes because of their suffering or does it prove they are villains as Justice Scalia seemed to suggest to the BBC last year– the same way in which a “witch’s” drowning proved her damnation? Or does it depend on the color of the victim’s skin or his religion? Is the mistreatment of enemy fighters acceptable if their cause is wrong and their own tactics horrible? When we as a nation have not decided definitively whether we consider waterboarding to be torture – remember Mitt Romney simply could not make a call about this during earlier debates with McCain – how can we be the beacon of morality in the world that Republicans invoke? If the torture of John McCain was so terribly wrong, does that not make Barack Obama’s defense of the basic rights of detainees right? On the other hand, if experience of torture and ill-treatment qualify one for leadership roles, are we today, in the way we treat them, writing the equivalent of campaign speeches for detainees in the “war on terror” when they return home to their communities and countries? That should give us pause.

As for terrorism, another form of deliberately inflicted and instrumentalized severe suffering which I actively oppose, how will we be able to combat it if we accept inhuman treatment as a concept? Those who justify torture in the name of fighting terror undermine the very respect for human dignity we need to build and sustain a global consensus against terrorism. I am a staunch opponent of Muslim fundamentalist groups, a set of movements that targeted my secular Algerian father later in his life. These movements must be taken seriously by conservatives and liberals alike and they should be both criticized and thwarted. The many brave men and women in the Muslim world and Diaspora populations who speak out against extremism at great peril should be heeded and supported. Such objectives can only be achieved by those with a more complex worldview than the one espoused by Sarah Palin who cannot pronounce the names of I-ran and I-raq and who reportedly thinks we have been doing God’s work in the latter country. When Rudy Giuliani – who knows as well as anyone what is at stake here – speaks broadly of “Islamic” terrorism and Mitt Romney talks of “radical violent Islam,” without carefully delineating between a set of bloodthirsty extreme right wing political movements and a vast and diverse human population of more than one billion Muslims in the world, I know that under the leadership of their party we will never develop the sophisticated and thoughtful strategy we must have to defeat these real and dangerous fundamentalist networks.