The torture of citizens suspected of or proven to be involved in criminal activities is mistakenly thought to be only associated with dictatorships and a quick look at the record of human rights violations committed by a democracy like the United States proves otherwise. Let me first point out that by the word “democracy” I only mean a country in which a president and parliament members are chosen through election regardless of whether or not the rest of democratic principles, and there’s plenty of those, are actually applied. Torture, whether for the purpose of extracting confessions or out of a pure uncontrollable sadistic desire to abuse a weaker party, is by no means exclusive to dictatorships, for not every democracy practices what it preaches and not every elected government is transparent about its repressive policies against a given enemy, real or imagined.
There is, however, a major difference between both, for in one you have a regime that is officially accountable for its actions to the people that chose it while in another you have a head of state that answers to no one about anything. The first would feel embarrassed in case its involvement in any action that violates the set of rules to which it supposedly subscribes or the treaties to which it is signatory is disclosed while the second would do it over and over again with such impunity that could make some doubt that this is wrong and start to believe they maybe too stupid to understand the noble cause behind the mean deed. From this emerges the huge discrepancy in the way each of the two engages in a procedure that every law criminalizes and all codes of ethics prohibit.
When pictures of an Iraqi hooded man standing on a box with an electric wire attached to his hands, a man tied with a leash, and several naked men piled on top of one another came to the open, U.S. officials sounded like five-year olds remorsefully standing in the naughty corner and in the speed of light a series of never-again-mommy type of statements flooded the media. “The first thing I’d say is we’re appalled as well,” said the then Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, in an obvious attempt not only to strongly condemn the abuses, but also to absolve the administration from any kind of involvement in an act that cannot by any means be committed by the army personnel of a democracy claiming to save humanity through invading territories that suffer under the yoke of monstrous dictators. Kimmitt kind of disowned those soldiers and made it very clear that they are not representative of their fellow freedom fighters or of American citizens and expressed how sorry he was to have let the people he and his army were out to protect down. “So what would I tell the people of Iraq? This is wrong. This is reprehensible.”
A touch of transparency was also necessary at a moment that detrimental to the image of the U.S. in front of the International Community and it was then the turn of the big man, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who in an impressive show of honesty announced the presence of more pictures and videos that show the different types of abuse Iraqi prisoners were subjected to and it was actually the Pentagon that showed them. And because retribution is the only way a sin might be forgiven, this was followed by a spat of court martial trials and prison sentences for those directly involved in the practice of torture and dishonorable discharge or demotion for those implicated by virtue of political responsibility. Bottom line was whether or not you think the abuses were approved, explicitly or tacitly, by the U.S. administration was beside the point, for all the denouncing statements, the public apologies, and the prompt punishments presented the superpower as the perfect democracy that does not hesitate to impose the strictest of penalties on its own citizens the moment they are proven to have deviated from the moral path it has charted for itself and for the rest of the world. You would know that those soldiers, sadist as they were, were sheer scapegoats that had to be sacrificed for the nobler cause of acquitting good old America from the most disgraceful charge that can be leveled at a country that labels itself democratic: double standards.
And till this very moment, Abu Ghraib remains the biggest skeleton in the United States’ war on terror closet, but no one can deny that they have done their best to keep it locked in.
When the picture of a 28-year-old Egyptian man with a fractured skull, a broken nose, a dislocated jaw, and a disfigured face were all over the internet, officials assumed that all Egyptians are either blind or stupid or both and insisted that the deceased was not subjected to any sort of torture and that he died after swallowing a bag of marijuana for fear of being caught by the police. Of course, the widely-circulated and more logical version of the story ─ that he was beaten to death for having in his possession a video that showed police officers dealing in drugs ─ was officially dismissed as the product of the sick imagination of a few delinquents who are out to destabilize national security serve foreign agendas. Anyone who had the slightest doubt could always go back to the fabricated forensic report to make sure none of this gibberish held water. Only after the regime was ousted did the brave young man, who was amongst the main triggers of the revolution, get a proper chance to be vindicated and with the first report discarded and another issued stating that the marijuana bag was indeed forced down his throat and that he was brutally beaten, a sigh of relief was let out by the millions awaiting the final act of justice. Too soon it seemed, for while first-degree murder sounded like the most logical charge, the two policemen were found guilty of manslaughter and while nothing less than a life sentence felt like a fair verdict, they got seven years each.
Khaled Saeid will forever haunt the Egyptian regime both before and after the revolution and will forever remain a symbol of a dictatorship that brazenly washes its hands of the blood of the very victims it kills in cold blood.
When a 24-year-old Egyptian prisoner was announced dead after brutal torture by the guards for smuggling a mobile phone SIM card into his cell and after eyewitnesses confirmed he was sodomized, beaten, and forced to drink detergents through a tube inserted in his mouth, the same template was flashed in the face of despondent Egyptians who had not yet gotten over the absurd verdict that a few days before equated pre-determined murder with pick-pocketing. Once again, the victim turned out to have been poisoned after swallowing an overdose of narcotics. The circumstances in which the autopsy took place and the integrity of those who carried it out remain a mystery that will probably be solved after the next revolution … or not.
The death of Essam Atta is the unfortunate proof that little has changed and the cruel lesson that Egyptians should not expect an apology because they do not deserve one and because whoever governs them owes them nothing whatsoever.
While torture remains the easiest and fastest way of dealing with a wide range of problems for both, democracies take the time and effort to embellish the ugliest of truths and to emerge repentant in the very situations they had no scruples about a few minutes before they were made public while dictatorships feel they need not go through the hassle simply because atrocities are their middle name and there is no reason why anyone should be shocked when they are committed or why anyone should expect the wrong to be righted when it is revealed.
You are screwed anyway, but who screws you is what makes the difference. You either get an apology or you are told to go to hell. None heals the scars nor brings back the dead, but one makes you live in the illusion of democracy while the other keeps welcoming you to dark dungeons of dictatorship.
(Sonia Farid, Ph.D., of Al Arabiya also teaches English Literature at Cairo University. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)