[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]
George W. Bush has been out of office for more than four months now, but I fear that the damage done during the Bush years has inflicted serious injury to the American psyche and reputation, and it will take years, if not decades, to recover.
Why am I bringing this up now?
I woke up this morning to the chilling news that two American journalists had been sentenced to 12 years of hard labor by a North Korean court for the "crimes" of illegally entering the country and committing "hostile acts." We can only hope that the reclusive, bizarre and barbaric leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-il (or those working for him), is putting on a show to get the attention of the rest of the world, and the two Current TV reporters, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, will be allowed to return home soon.
The two journalists have clearly committed no crimes (as such a term would be understood in any rational section of the world), and the international community has to stand against the heinous actions of the North Korean government. Clearly, the United States should be at the head of such international action.
But today, I also read about Lakhdar Boumediene, and the truly disturbing story of what happened to him after the 9/11 attacks. An Algerian man living with his wife and two children in Sarajevo, Bosnia, he was working for the Red Crescent in October 2001 when he was arrested and charged with conspiring to blow up the American and British embassies in the city. An investigation revealed no evidence of his involvement in any plot, so a Bosnian judge ordered him released, but the Bush administration intervened, and in January 2002 he was shackled and flown to Guantanamo Bay.
He was the name plaintiff in the 2008 U.S. Supreme Court case that, in a rebuke to the Bush policy, found that detainees had a right to challenge their detention in court, and a federal judge (a Republican appointed by Bush) later found that the evidence against him was a "thin reed" and ordered his release. France agreed to accept him, and he is now living as a free man in that country, reunited with his family.
In the end, Boumediene was held for 7 1/2 years in Guantanamo, during which time, he says, he was tortured. He says he was kept up for 16 days straight, beaten, "stretched" (pulled up from under his arms while his feet were shackled to a chair) and forced to run while chained to guards, and if he could not keep up, he was dragged until he was bloody and bruised. After he began a hunger strike, he had food tubes put up his nose and, he claims, soldiers would purposely poke IV needles into the wrong parts of his arm, just to induce pain. But the one thing that was not done to him? Nobody asked if he was involved in a plot to blow up the U.S. and British embassies in Sarajevo. Rather, all he was repeatedly asked was about his connections to al-Qaeda and Osama bin-Laden (he insists he had no connection at all to the terrorist group).
But there was one thing in the article that not only amazed me but brilliantly illuminated why the U.S. should never torture, and why it is so important that we repudiate what happened during the Bush years and chart a clear and unequivocal new path forward, one that reflects the country's traditional values. Boumediene said:
"I thought America, the big country, they have CIA, FBI. Maybe one week, two weeks, they know I am innocent. I can go back to my home."
In other words, Boumediene had faith that a country like the United States could not possibly keep an innocent man prisoner with no way to contest his guilt. His view of America is one that many in the world shared before the Bush years (as I discussed two weeks ago, an America that believes in democracy, freedom and due process, and an America that does not torture).
That is supposed to be the difference between a country like North Korea and a country like the United States. North Korea can seize two innocent journalists, put them through a bogus, private, star-chamber trial, and then sentence them to 12 years of hard labor, all without any justification. The United States I grew up in, the United States that fought wars from World War I to the Cold War defending democracy and freedom against repression, could never engage in such conduct like the North Koreans did.
And yet, there it is, for all to read, that we took a man like Boumediene and locked him up without a trial for 7 1/2 years, torturing him while in our custody, even though two courts, one in the U.S. and one in Bosnia (one before his detention and one after), found insufficient evidence to charge him with any crime. While we clearly have a more open and democratic society than North Korea does, for Boumediene, his experience with us was no better than what the two American journalists are now going through in North Korea.
That is why it is essential the we, as a country, do not try and brush the abuses of the eight years of the Bush administration under the carpet like they never happened. We have to recognize that Bush, Cheney and the rest of the gang did real damage to core American ideals, and that this damage is still being felt, both at home and abroad.
Simply put, we have to stand up and reclaim our country as a place where we will not be ruled by fear, and where our values of due process, freedom and respect for the rule of law are sacrosanct, not easily sacrificed at the first whiff of danger.
It really is possible. After all, the idea of the U.S. as a beacon of freedom for many in the world is still a powerful one. Boumediene, even after all he went through, said he doesn't blame the American people, but rather just the "stupid" people in command that caused his plight:
"Myself, I try to forget Guantanamo, I can't forget the four or five people, they are stupid, they are very, very stupid. I can't forget them."
He even recognized the fear of the American people and the possibility of making mistakes after a tragedy:
"The first month, okay, no problem, the building, the 11 of September, the people, they are scared, but not 7 years. They can know who's innocent, who's not innocent, who's terrorist, who's not terrorist. ... I give you 2 years, no problem, but not 7 years."
Boumediene's ordeal is also a prime example of the failures of ruling based on fear. He noted about his captivity:
"If I tell my interrogator, I am from Al Qaeda, I saw Osama bin Laden, he was my boss, I help him, they will tell me, 'Oh you are a good man. But if I refuse? I tell them I'm innocent, never was I terrorist, never never, they tell me. 'You are, you are not cooperating, I have to punch you.'"
Think the Bush administration wasn't using fear to change what we as a country would accept and not accept from our government? Two weeks after Boudemiene's arrest, Bush, in his State of the Union address, said:
"Our soldiers, working with the Bosnian government, seized terrorists who were plotting to bomb our embassy."
At best, this shows how wrong it can be to base policies that violate our core values on fear of an attack based on faulty intelligence. At worst, it shows how people like Bush and Cheney can manipulate or invent threats to help push along their agenda. Either way, it can't be the way we, as a country, make policy. We can't rule out of fear. We must rule out of reason. Otherwise, what are we as a nation? We would be no better than the countries we (correctly) criticize and oppose.
So as we all hope for the safety of the two American journalists being held in North Korea, and as we support actions to help secure their release, let us not forget that what makes the United States the country we are all proud to live in is that we stand for the very freedoms not available in North Korea, and that we oppose the kind of abuses that nation is currently perpetuating on two of our innocent citizens.
The next time you see a Republican defend torture or Guantanamo, think of what is going on in North Korea now and what Lakhdar Boumediene went through at Guantanamo, and ask yourself, What kind of country do you want to live in?