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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Leonard Pitts Jr.: U.S. the most civilized of nations?

By Leonard Pitts Jr. Miami Herald

Meantime, back at Guantanamo.

Chances are you haven’t thought of that American gulag – or, for that matter, of “extraordinary renditions,” CIA black sites and torture – for a long time.

Not everyone has the luxury of forgetting. In the last few days, some compelling reportage has reminded us of that.

In the Miami Herald, we met 48-year-old Mustafa al Hawsawi, a Gitmo detainee who was scheduled for rectal surgery to repair damage done when, his lawyer says, he was sodomized by his captors 10 years ago. As reporter Carol Rosenberg explains, this “sodomy” was, in fact, a “quasi-medical” process of “rectal rehydration” and “rectal re-feeding,” i.e., providing nourishment through a tube in the rectum.

The lawyer says this was a means of punishment. It left Hawsawi with what’s called a rectal prolapse. He has to manually push tissue back up into his anus every time he defecates. He has bled from the injury for 10 years.

Hawsawi, you should know, faces the death penalty for his alleged part in the Sept. 11 attacks that took nearly 3,000 lives. And maybe you will find that sufficient to insulate you from feeling, well, anything at his plight.

One wonders what you would make, then, of two New York Times reports documenting how torture, both at Gitmo and at CIA black sites around the world, destroyed the mental health of numerous detainees, many of whom turned out to be innocent of terrorism. Reporters James Risen, Matt Apuzzo and Sheri Fink introduce us to men who were slammed into walls and had foreign objects shoved into their rectums, who were beaten, kept awake, housed in never-ending darkness or light, forced into stress positions, subjected to nonstop music at ear-splitting levels, injected with drugs, menaced by dogs, locked in boxes the size of coffins and laid out shackled and nude on tarps as gallons of ice-cold water were poured down on them to simulate drowning. One prisoner described being used as a human mop, dragged through his own urine.

Now, former prisoner Suleiman Abdullah Salim struggles with depression and PTSD. He was released five years after he fell into U.S. custody when it was determined he posed no threat.

Majid Mokhtar Sasy al-Maghrebi will fly into a rage at the sound of music from a passing car. It takes him back to the prison where music was used to torture him.

Hussein al-Marfadi has a permanent headache. Lutfi bin Ali has a recurrent nightmare of suffocating at the bottom of a well. Younous Chekkouri hates to go outside because people in the crowd turn into guards from Gitmo.

For at least one prisoner, what made all this worse is that it was America doing it to him. America, the world champion of human rights. America, the nation of laws.

“It is very, very scary when you are tortured by someone who doesn’t believe in torture,” said Ahmed Errachidi. “You lose faith in everything.” He was released without charges after five years.

Civilization is a word we use for the rules we impose upon ourselves to protect against our most brutish instincts. And America is fond of thinking itself the most civilized of nations, especially as compared with those countries that breathe terror like air.

When the history of this epoch is written, it will tell how our civilization, our righteousness, came under assault by an army of ragtag barbarians one sparkling September morning. It will tell how we swore to defend all that made us what we were.

But these reports remind us how readily we gave it all away.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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