Canadians get on board the torture train

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Just before the annual orgy of Canada Day self-celebration, the Pew Research Center released a poll revealing that over one-third of Canadians supported the use of torture. This was no late April Fool's joke, but rather a shocking figure that was part of a global survey on U.S. foreign policy and the use of what has been referred to as "enhanced interrogation techniques."

The survey asked very pointedly: "If the Canadian government used torture against people 'suspected' of terrorism to try to gain information about possible attacks in our country, do you think this could be justified or could not be justified?" In response, 37 per cent said yes, while two per cent said "it depends."

Some 35 per cent of Canadians polled also said they would be able to justify U.S. use of torture after 9/11 as well. It is unclear how many of those supporting such brutality understand that torture is prohibited by law domestically and internationally under any and all circumstances, including the red herring argument about someone who is a "ticking time bomb" with information to hide. Also disturbing is the apparent acceptability of the idea that all it takes to invite extreme violence upon someone -- whether that means hanging them from the ceiling for hours on end, sleep deprivation lasting months at a time, or instant incineration via a drone-fired Hellfire missile -- is to call them a "suspect," something all too easily done by state security agencies eager to play spy games and tell adventure stories.

The poll results were a coup for Canadian agencies such as the RCMP and CSIS, both found complicit in torture over the past 15 years in the cases of a number of Muslim Canadians. These organizations, in addition to numerous other federal departments, have clearly delegated to themselves the authority to engage in practices which could either lead to the torture of a human being or to use information gleaned from an overseas dungeon. While secret memos recently released by the Canadian Press reveal the fact that these agencies are aware of "public concern" over their complicity in torture, the Pew poll no doubt gives them reassurance that they can continue to operate in an utterly illegal manner.

Guilty until proven innocent

Such high numbers also represent the extent to which the Conservative government has been successful in convincing certain segments of the population to accept the Canadian government's growing reliance on a preemptive system of justice, which presumes guilt in all state security cases, placing the onus of proving innocence on a defendant who also has to face the prospect of secret allegations and witnesses that may never be cross-examined. In this worldview, one need only be a "suspect" to get electric shock to the genitals, in the same way that the Obama administration's terror campaign of drone strikes is carried out against individuals who are presumed guilty simply because they live in certain countries. Because Obama is seen as a reasonable guy, all drone targets are allowed the opportunity to prove their innocence posthumously.

Such an approach of "guilty until proven innocent" is nothing new in the Canadian policing and court infrastructure, as can be attested by anyone who has ever been stopped or harassed or questioned or arrested or detained or beaten up for Driving While Black, Praying While Muslim, Flying While Arab, or Speaking Out as an Indigenous Person. The fact that people of colour have historically been and continue to be over-represented behind bars also speaks to the perverted misunderstanding that justice is applied equally to all.

And while some may be shocked to see such attitudes exist with respect to "terror suspects," the figures reflect a broader acceptance of brutalized violence that has become so normalized that it barely makes the news. Ask anyone who staffs one of Canada's 600 women's shelters or hospital emergency rooms when female and youth victims of male violence are brought in with cigarette burns and broken bones, and we see that torture doesn't just happen in police cells or overseas dungeons, but in the house next door.

The release of the Truth and Reconciliation report was yet another reminder that torture is nothing new in the Canadian milieu: the "residential school" system was nothing but a thinly disguised rendition to torture program, using many of the same techniques that continue to be used on individuals who are seen as a "threat to national security" (which, of course, includes high-profile Indigenous rights activists).

The meaning of torture

The Pew survey was conducted in 40 separate nations, with consistent results: 50 per cent oppose the torture inflicted on suspects after 9/11 (which means the other half had no problem with it). Some 40 per cent supported their own governments engaging in torture against terror suspects.

Perhaps part of the problem here lies in the fact that torture has become such a watered-down term ("Blue Jays suffer torturous loss to Orioles" can be a typical sports headline) that its fearsome characteristics are rendered invisible and meaningless in our collective imagination. If that final exam was "torture," equating the term with what happens at Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib prison is never quite the same.

While Orwell and Chomsky, among others, remind us of the need to zoom in on our language to truly represent the truthfulness of an injustice, University of Santa Barbara sociologist Lisa Hajjar recently wrote that we need to name the torture program of the 9/11 era as a human experimentation program, like the war crimes committed by Nazis against human subjects during the Second World War.

"I suggest that accountability would be more publicly palatable if we reframed the CIA's program as one of human experimentation," she writes in The Nation.

"If we did so, it would be more difficult to laud or excuse perpetrators as 'patriots' who 'acted in good faith.' Although torture has become a Rorschach test among political elites playing to public opinion on the Sunday morning talk shows, human experimentation has no such community of advocates and apologists….Human experimentation was a core feature of the CIA's torture program. The experimental nature of the interrogation and detention techniques is clearly evident in the Senate Intelligence Committee's executive summary of its investigative report, despite redactions (insisted upon by the CIA) to obfuscate the locations of these laboratories of cruel science and the identities of perpetrators."

"Human experimentation, in contrast, has not been politically refashioned into a legitimate or justifiable enterprise. Therefore, it would behoove us to appreciate the fact that the architects and implementers of black-site torments were authorized at the highest levels of the White House and CIA to experiment on human beings. Reading the report through this lens casts a different light on questions of accountability and impunity."

Another means of allowing torture and related acts of repression to proceed is to eliminate the humanity of anyone who is a terror "suspect." Nowhere is this more evident than in the remarkable celebration of police repression on display this summer at the RCMP's Ottawa sunset ceremonies. While the organization has been found by two judicial inquiries to be complicit in the torture of four Canadian citizens, its historic practice of ethnic cleansing and repression is annually papered over with displays of horsemanship every evening to the applause of hundreds.

This year, someone took the time to film and share a newer part of the show: an RCMP takedown with their emergency response team, featuring heavily armed men, tactical vehicles, an armoured vehicle, smoke bombs, concussion grenades, and the takedown and arrest of "suspects." As one suspect is thrown to the ground, an announcer calls out, "Apparently sand is good for your skin," while, to the strains of rock and roll music, the announcer informs us that, as the unarmed, hooded "suspect" is herded into custody, "it's time to take the garbage out." No longer human, they are simply a suspect, a piece of trash, so whatever is dished out is not only accepted, but applauded as family entertainment.

Torture by proxy

Canada's "security" agencies have increasingly built up their own torture infrastructure, in which torture by proxy, as identified by judicial inquiries led by former judges O'Connor and Iacobucci, has led to the creation of desk torturers, bureaucrats who make life and death decisions in the comfort of their Ottawa bunkers. As the Canadian Press recently reported, Canada's spy agency CSIS has used the much-criticized "diplomatic assurances" -- otherwise known as a promise from a torturer that they will not torture someone -- on a number of occasions. While it has long been public knowledge that a series of ministerial memos have empowered CSIS, the RCMP, the War Dept. and the Canadian Border Services Agency to trade information with torturers and to share information even if that will lead to someone's fingernails being pulled out or their eyes burned out with a hot poker, new documents reveal the extent to which this practice is ongoing. The passage of Bill C-51 (supported by Liberals and Conservatives alike) will empower CSIS and other federal agencies to grow such practices.

Among those contributing to the decision-making on playing the torture game are foreign affairs bureaucrats and, of course, the lawyers who bend the laws on the absolute prohibition against torture. As one memo points out, Department of Justice officials bring "unique legal expertise," a euphemism for defending torture in spite of its outright ban. While the RCMP ultimately turned down five requests for information-sharing that could have led to torture, CSIS green-lighted eight of 10 potential torture cases. In the words of the Information Sharing Evaluation Committee (ISEC), an innocuous-sounding group that could be deciding about what kinds of cheese to put out for lunch or how to inject individuals with rare diseases to see how they'll respond, cases have been decided when "it was determined to be unlikely that mistreatment had occurred in the case," or "there was no substantial risk of mistreatment if proper assurances were sought," or it was confirmed that "the information was likely not derived" from torture, hardly a reassuring note. This was exactly the kind of approach that was taken in the cases of numerous Canadians tortured overseas with Canadian complicity. How do they determine if torture has been used, especially when CSIS refuses to acknowledge that torture is systemic in countries like Egypt or Syria?

Meanwhile, another form of torture continues daily against some of the world's most vulnerable groups: the indefinite detention of countless refugees around the globe and here in Canada. The UN Human Rights Committee's "Concluding observations on the sixth periodic report of Canada" recently recommended Canada "refrain from detaining irregular migrants for an indefinite period of time and should ensure that detention is used as a measure of last resort, that a reasonable time limit for detention is set, and that non-custodial measures and alternatives to detention are made available to persons in immigration detention."

The Committee also called on Canada to close loopholes that allow for return to human rights abuses, including torture, and reconsider legislation that prevents certain classes of refugee claimants from seeking protection. The same committee heard concerns from Canadian groups about the extensive use of solitary confinement in Canada, which courts have found to be cruel and unusual punishment when 30 days or longer are spent in the hole. One case referenced by the Correctional Investigator noted an individual in Canada who had been in solitary for 17 years.

Calling out abusive behaviour

But in a lawsuit filed by the BC Civil Liberties Association challenging Canada's use of solitary, the government replied that Canada doesn't use solitary confinement, preferring to, again, sanitize this barbaric cultural practice by referring to it as "administrative segregation."

That the government must twist the language to defend its practices is a testament to the fact that it still fears an outbreak of democracy by the citizenry. In that respect, our insistence on using truthful language that calls out and names abusive behaviour is crucial, especially in an election year.

As George Orwell stressed in his famous "Politics and the English language":

"one ought to recognise that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. … Political language -- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists -- is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase -- some jackboot, Achilles' heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse -- into the dustbin where it belongs."

Get those dustbins ready.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. 'national security' profiling for many years.

Photo: pmwebphotos/flickr

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