Chris engels and Bill Wiley inside the evidence room of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability
Friends and readers,
There is such an important essay in this week's New Yorker I want to do my bit to advise others to read it: Ben Taub's The Assad Files. I know for many readers as they start to read and feel they are in for a series of distressing descriptions of cruel what should be unspeakable, undoable torture, will turn away. It's not quite what you surmise. What happens is as the descriptions of horrific inhumane violence (or what should be) mount up, so are written up more briefly, and the experience becomes something almost expected, referred to as there are too many to tell. As a reader one can almost get used to it. And this is part of the point.
A truly good New Yorker article, and some few are this good, goes well beyond its thesis. As you read you see another set of realities emerging which the story allows you to grasp. In this case the story begins with the amassing and dangerous shipping out of Syria of huge amounts of documents about torture and killing.
Taub tells of how the Syrian monster-dictator, Assad, when confronted with a rebellion, a demand for greater democracy, accountability, for a more secular or social economy in which young men could find jobs, instead of acceding, became ferociously determined to stamp out all dissent. He imitatds his brutal father; he decided to assert all ethnic groups must and do hate one another and the only way to get them to stay together is to arrest the ring-leaders or rebellions against this regime, and subject them and their near followers to brutal state terror, life imprisonment in terrible conditions, execution.
Taub's thesis is that what counts in courts is written evidence and we follow our intrepid journalists, activists (as they are called), attorneys, officials gather clandestinely and sometimes escape with huge caches of documents. The people who understand this have to teach the demonstrators and activists that they need to save the written evidence. That this is more important than blowing yourself up, or demonstrations, or calling attention to some bombing. Sometimes people trying to secret and then carry documents out of Syria and elsewhere and bring them to safe tribunals, are captured, tortured and then murdered. Assad and his henchman will do everything and anything to prevent the seepage out of documents.
As in many stories, we follow the experiences of a couple of people (our characters) as this "state" dissolve as huge numbers of people begin to flee.
Amid this structure, what gradually emerges is we are watching the creation and spread of a culture of horrific inhumane violence in one country and then another. Our central person himself half-way through starts to inflict on others the violence that was inflicted on him. As people do these things in small ways, they begin to ratchet up the pain and torture, devise ever more ways to hurt and to kill people.
The story in other ways has far more general application than the case of Syria.The worst comes out in people as they grow used to doing such things, fear they will be tortured or killed if they do not "come up with information," want to get back at those who hurt them. Grow frantic and crazed in this atmosphere of reveling in a kind of madness itself.
This morning as I was listening to the radio I heard of an ethnic clash in Africa where the brutality of both sides to one another has suddenly (it seems) gotten much worse lately. I remembered how the US riot police come out with weaponry worthy a war zone and use it. Bernie Sanders would have gotten bigger crowds but that riot police showed up and cordoned off an area, standing round it with their deeply intimidating riot gear. Many have seen on TV police directly pepper-spraying students. Many watched the destruction of the Occupy Movement by fire, beating people up to the point of endangering their lives, tazering them, gas, water. we saw what happens in Ferguson. In other places now that videos capture police behavior to citizens who are black and who protest. It takes courage to go inside a circle of riot police.
We also see the seepage of methods of secresy, of individuals living isolated and alienated lives glad to live and escape retribution. The individual we start out with ends up hiding out in Brooklyn; he has lost most of this relatives and friends, lives with a sister now.
We see how brave these journalists, activists and others involved have to be. When they come public with evidence, they first get their relatives and friends out of a country. We see how important investigative journalism is -- we have seen it these past weeks in the dissemination of the Panama Papers. Whole teams of reporters from different newspapers had to work together.
It's not moving outside the inferences of this story to say as long as no average individual or individual in relatively high office is not prosecuted for ordering the torture or torturing someone, the average person cannot feel it is against the law. Jeb Bush told Trump torture is against the law, and Trump scoffed. What are the documents being gathered for, if people are not prosecuted?
It is excellent to realize (or think or hope) that Obama ended all systemic torture when he got into office. It's good to realize that some of what's been gathered has now been used in cases in Africa in the 1990s. These are the kinds of mass criminals Hitler represented. But as people don't believe there are laws against monopolies and antitrust legislation because no person was prosecuted in the corrupt huge banks and they are back at their profit making on derivatives and the like again, so people will not believe in law's efficacy and power nor respect it unless it's seen to do its work. So while Obama stopped his administration from condoning or doing torture, he does nothing to stop this seepage elswhere. Of course he has added to it by his use of drones. No matter how much it's claimed far fewer die this way than when you napalm an area, the reality is no one has been proven guilty, and along with those targeted innocent civilians die.