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Blood on your hands 

June 26 was an important date, the 18th anniversary of the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. But in this country, it was a day like any other. Our president was still paying little attention to international laws governing how we treat people captured in his War on Terror.

            Some Republicans have joined Democrats calling for an independent investigation of our treatment of prisoners. The Bush administration's response: Investigations should be handled, and are being handled, by Donald Rumsfeld's Department of Defense. They've found no problems.

            This is the same Department of Defense that first ignored reports of torture at Abu Ghraib, and then insisted that the practice of torture was limited to a few out-of-control soldiers, and it was limited to Abu Ghraib.

            Neither, we know now, was true.

            The Bush administration says we've cleaned up our act. Prisoners are being treated humanely.

            That is not true either.

            Even FBI agents have said that they observed mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

            We are holding 540 prisoners at Guantanamo. Many have been there for more than two and a half years, with no charges, no trial, no access to lawyers or family members, no hope for any kind of judicial process and protection. The International Red Cross says it believes "that the uncertainty about their fate" has created serious mental and emotional health problems.

            Some prisoners are being held at secret locations. Others have been shipped off to countries well known for their use of torture.

            The New York Times and the New England Journal of Medicine reported last week that military doctors at Guantanamo have been advising interrogators about how to increase prisoners' psychological stress, and that prisoners medical records are not kept confidential.

            There have been repeated allegations of torture and other inhumane treatment at Guantanamo and other facilities: beatings; sleep, food, and water deprivation; chaining prisoners to the floor; threatening them with dogs and, in some cases permitting dogs to attack them; suspending them by the wrists; sexually assaulting them; threatening them with death; desecrating religious objects.

            A Guantanamo prisoner told Amnesty International that US guards "forced petrol and benzene up the anuses of prisoners." He himself had been put in solitary confinement for eight months, he told AI; high-pressure water had been forced up his nose, and a guard blinded him in one eye by pushing his finger into the eye.

            Some Guantanamo prisoners have been selected to be tried by "military commissions": "executive bodies, not independent or impartial courts," says Amnesty, "with the power to hand down death sentences."

            Under the military commissions, says Amnesty, "there is no right of appeal against their decisions to any court."

            Vice President Dick Cheney's flippant, insulting assurance to CNN about our prisoners at Guantanamo: "They're very well treated down there. They're living in the tropic. They're well fed. They've got everything they could possibly want."

            All of this --- torture, humiliation, detention without proper judicial process --- is a blatant violation of international law. "The prohibition contained in international law is absolute," says the International Red Cross, "and allows for no exceptions of any kind."

            Are we so far from the horrors of the Soviet Union that the Bush administration's behavior doesn't disturb us?


Congress is up to its old game, trying to amend the constitution and ban the desecration of the flag. The House easily passed a pro-amendment resolution last week. The Senate, which is expected to start considering the issue right after July 4, has previously stopped the freight train. But the Senate is more conservative now. And Democrats are more timid.

            The flag is a symbol, not a sacred object, and the United States is a democracy, not a theocracy.

            Here we are, trying to spread freedom around the world. But what kind of freedom, if not the freedom to criticize the government?

            The amendment will restrict a form of speech, a form of criticism. And it will restrict one of the most important forms of critical speech: political speech.

            Ah, but there are other ways to criticize the government and to express political speech.

            Sure there are. But what is it that is so upsetting about desecrating a flag? And what do we consider "desecration"?

            Do we fly into a rage when we see Olympic athletes draping the flag around their shoulders and taking a victory run around the track? Do flags as bedspreads or ties or T-shirts upset us?

            Would we prosecute the folks flying those faded, tattered flags on their pick-up trucks?

            Nope. It's the oh-so-rare use of the flag to criticize government and government policies that triggers the rage.

            It's easy, and politically expedient, to vote for the flag-desecration amendment. And I'd bet that many --- maybe most --- of the legislators embracing it don't really care much about it.

            It's much, much tougher, gutsier, to do the right thing and stand up for one of the most important freedoms that the flag represents: the freedom to criticize government and its policies.

            You can't have it both ways, folks. You're for free speech, or you're not.

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