Alex Massie

The Rendition Problem

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Ross Douthat has a very interesting, honest post about torture here. (With subsequent posts here and here.) As if by magic, National Review appears with an editorial defending the Bush administration's approach to interrogation here. I don't find it especially persuasive, and doubt you will too. Conor Friedersdorf has more too.

Amidst the debate on torture and "torture-lite" (or "enhanced" interrogation), one element of US policy is often overlooked: Extraordinary Rendition. To some extent you can argue about policies applied at Guantanamo and CIA black sites around the world, but there's no denying, I think, that Extraordinary Rendition amounts to anything less than state-sponsored torture. After all, that's the entire point of the programme: send these guys to dark places (Egypt, Jordan, Syria) where god knows what kind of brutality may be unleashed upon them. Enough, certainly, to meet even Dick Cheney's definition of torture. But when you send a guy to be tortured (and let's not pretend that studied indifference to these men's fates counts as ignorance) you're just as responsible, morally speaking, for his suffering as are those who actually inflict. More so, in some ways, since they're following your orders. Orders given with a nod and a wink, for sure, but given nonetheless.

Now ER is something people don't like to talk about, largely because it's such a grisly, nauseating subject. Also, of course, both parties are guilty: after all, it was a policy endorsed by President Bill Clinton, not something dreamt up by John Yoo or David Addington. Clinton's defenders insist that the policy never ran "out of control" during his time in office; nonetheless on his watch the United States took the view that it had the right to kidnap anyone anywhere in the world and send them off to be tortured by some of the more brutal regimes on the planet.

And of course, whatever elese one may feel about it, ER makes no sense on a strategic level either. On the one hand you have Washington calling for reform and greater openess in the Arab world, on the other you have Washington taking advantage of these same regimes expertese in torturing people. People aren't stupid: they can see that Washington colludes with the very people it says are the problem. No wonder plenty of folk get cynical when they hear the American president waxing lyrical about freedom and human rights and all the rest of it.

There are all sorts of reasons for why Barack Obama may find it hard to close Gitmo quickly. But there's no reason at all - beyond finding the policy "useful" - for him to wait a single day before rescinding the Presidential orders authorising Extraordinary Rendition. Failure to do so will be a moral embarrassment, as well as a political and strategic blunder.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleSocietytorture