Where Are the Good Americans?

Where Are the Good Americans?

When the day comes for America to be judged for its war on terror and the human rights crimes that have been done in the name of its citizens, who can say they stood up and said no?


Anyone who sees the photographs of the victims of the Nazi concentration camps must wonder how human beings could ever have allowed such things to happen. They must wonder how people of good will could have stood by while their government committed atrocities in their name. In the wake of that nightmarish era, people often asked, “Where were the good Germans?”

After the publication of the long-suppressed pictures of Abu Ghraib victims and the United Nations finding that torture and abuse are still taking place at the US prison in Guantánamo Bay, America has fashioned its own nightmare. We now must ask ourselves, “Where are the good Americans?”

After an eighteen-month study, five independent experts appointed by the UN Commission on Human Rights have just concluded that practices currently conducted at the US prison in Guantánamo amount to torture: excessive violence, force-feeding of hunger-striking detainees and arbitrary detention of prisoners that violates their right under international law to challenge the legality of their captivity before an independent judicial body.

The Bush Administration has condemned the publication of the Abu Ghraib photos and has rejected the UN report as “fundamentally flawed.” But Americans should be grateful that people in the rest of the world are helping us discover what the Administration is trying to conceal from its own citizens: It is conducting war crimes in our name.

The UN report makes recommendations that are simple and obvious:

§ Immediately allow international inspection and supervision to insure an end to force-feeding and special interrogation techniques approved by the Defense Department but condemned under international law.

§ Bring the detainees to trial or release them without delay.

§ Conduct an investigation by an independent authority of all allegations of abuse to insure that all perpetrators of torture and other crimes are brought to justice–even high-level military and political officials.

§ Close the Guantánamo prison.

The demand to close Guantánamo was quickly seconded by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. And the European Union Parliament voted 80 to 1 to ask the United States to close Guantánamo and give every prisoner “a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent, impartial tribunal” without delay.

The Bush Administration has placed the responsibility for prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere on a few “bad apples” in the lowest ranks. But since the Nuremberg Tribunal of Nazi war criminals, international law has maintained the principle of “command responsibility,” which makes top officials who ordered the crimes or failed to prevent them accountable.

It’s not just a question of international law. Administration officials are well aware that the US War Crimes Act makes it a serious crime for any American–including top government officials–to commit any “grave breach” of the Geneva Conventions, including “willful killing, torture, or inhuman treatment” of detainees. Perhaps that has something to do with the Administration’s eagerness to discredit the UN report.

If President Bush won’t halt the abuse of US captives, Congress stands next in line for responsibility. Last December, it passed the so-called McCain amendment, which supposedly abolished all torture by US forces anywhere in the world. But the UN report makes clear that torture is continuing at Guantánamo.

The law’s sponsor, Senator John McCain, promised that Congress would establish oversight over Guantánamo and other US prisons abroad to assure enforcement. But where’s Senator McCain now? If he really wants to stop torture, why doesn’t he fly to Guantánamo immediately and make sure no one is being abused? Isn’t that what McCain would have wanted US senators to do when he was being tortured in a prison cell in Vietnam?

If Congress won’t act, then it is up to the people. We must make every family dining table, every house of worship and every town meeting a place to stand up and speak out.

Only then will those who come after us know where the “good Americans” were.

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