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Commentary :: Human Rights
In interrogations, the screaming is the message, professor.
24 Apr 2005
An open letter to Michael Ignatieff, Professor of 'The Practise of Human Rights' of the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Boston, an apologist for 'coersive interrogation.'
Michael Ignatieff,
Professor of the Practise of Human Rights
Kennedy School of Government,
Harvard University,
Cambridge, Massachusetts


An open reply to your public lecture on the benefits of coercive interrogation and other pleasantries

I have just listened to you on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Here is some feedback, perhaps a little less polite than that of your talk's direct questioners. I will not be polite as it left me in something close to a flaming rage at your apologist position regarding the above and your country's foreign policy. In part, the anger derives from the fact that the government of Australia, where I now live, is a dedicated flunky of that policy, which you have no doubt helped to develop, so we here have to share the guilt with you in the US.

I heard you say you supported the attack on Iraq. If you like, I will send you a copy of the photo of a little girl in a relative's arms, with her feet blown off by a bomb, almost certainly from an American aircraft, missile or artillery shell. Perhaps it will remind you of the real consequences of the advices and opinions you generate there on your safe campus. I hasten to add that you personally have little to fear from my anger, as unlike yourself, I am not one of those who believe that those who threaten world peace should be subjected to coercive interrogation. I promise I will object as best I can, if and when others wish to hood you and distress you by all sorts of 'non-contact stress interrogation techniques,' such as you so kindly advocate for others.

Have you, Sir, no insight whatever? The intelligence you get when you torture, or merely 'coerce' people as you would prefer, 'without body contact, is always the same and its message is always transmitted loud and clear. It is the screaming. Decoded, the message is that those who are helpless and are being so harrassed by those who are temporarily powerful, fear you and hate you and all you stand for and always will. You are acting as a terrorist, as you are inducing terror. So the victim and the victim's relatives and friends will hate your sort and the power you represent until you and it are gone, no matter how many generations that takes.

I do not think that, from the perspective of a human rights professor or whatever you are, in a rich and privileged university, you have or culturally can have any idea how much your nation is now disliked worldwide, because of attitudes such as yours. I have no idea, except from the internal evidence of your talk, what it is you read or hear, but it is very clear you live close to the bottom of the US information fog bucket, if you did not suspect you were being lied to over the weapons of mass destruction nonsense, from the start of your government's push for this obscene war.

Those of us who are served by a somewhat better global media than that apparently available to you, knew bloody well from the start that the WMD story was nonsense. We are able to access such things as the UN weapons inspectors' statements and reports, without them going through the filter of your national media and its attendant flunky spin. Why else do you think so many people marched against the morons in your and our countries, who planned this mass murder? I spoke to the Iraqi charge-de-affairs on the phone just before he left the country. He was a weary man, not pushing a line and he told me in quiet despair thay did not have any weapons of mass destruction. It fitted everything else I had read. I am just a bloody subsistence farmer in Australia, for heaven's sake, not a huge intelligence agency for a nuclear-armed nation. How come I knew and millions of others did too, and you warmongers did not?

As a professor at Harvard, I do not imagine you would be able to keep your chair and your salary for three days if you were to publicly utter the phrase "state terrorism" in the same sentence as the acronym USA. For your country, with about three orders af magnitude more weapons of mass destruction to your name and shame, than anything Hussein could have dreamed of, to yell and scream and then kill and maim thousands of kids, because a tinpot dictator may perhaps have had some of the same, even if he had, is the most gross distortion of logic and decency. Your country, more than any other, developed huge numbers of these disgusting things, nuclear weapons, in vast numbers, precisely to terrorize your erstwhile allies the Russians and everyone else after WW2. For such a nation to accuse others of terrorism is bizarre. Your nuclear arsenal, just like your aerial bombings and your interrogations, are pure terrorism. In the contemporary world, they define the term.

I do not like any terrorists, starting with those in fancy uniforms in the cockpits of armed government aircraft. I do not like Osama bin Bush either and do not subscribe to his version of how to stop the 60-year-long aerial terrorism of the US and its lackey states such as Australia. I can see the Robin Hood argument of his followers, but there is a better way than the armed reverse-terrorism of Islam. There is international law.

If the decent people of the US are genuinely troubled about the indecencies of creeps such as Saddam, why do they show so little respect for international law? Your people and your current cleric-driven government flout it on every front, you make the work of the International Criminal Court almost impossible and refuse to sign the Rome Statute, you undermine the UN at every turn, you have withdrawn from UNESCO. Your nation tortures people in Cuba, you torture people in Iraq, you farm others out to be tortured in Egypt and the like, and in your own country you have women working in chain gangs on the roads of your southern states, according to rumour. People in your country who oppose the Iraq war live in personal fear of a knock on the door from your spooks in the early hours; that I know personally from direct evidence. Land of the free, home of democracy? Pull the other leg, its got a goat tied to it.

If the term 'rogue state' means anything, to most of the rest of the world it now means, first and foremost, the USA.

I sense from your words, Professor Ignatieff, that you may be personally a bit lost for a decent ethic on which to base your suggestions for foreign policies. May I suggest an old, originally pagan one? It is the chivalry of the knight errant, the young man on his initiatory journey to manhood, setting out to challenge the powerful and ill-mannered and to defend the weak against them. It is the basic romantic legend common to all cultures, and not a bad basis for morality if you include the rest of the biosphere in its protection. It is the code of the country gentleman, if you prefer. In that tradition, no matter how hard you try, you will not be on side or acceptable company when you are busy refining interrogation manuals for prison guards and government creeps. You do not have to change to be be the young knight errant, by the way - just his mentor.

As a trivial aside, have you noticed that although Iraq invented the state perhaps five thousand years ago, it has seldom if ever been a democracy? Is it possible there is a practical reason? Here is my suggestion. They depend for their long-term survival on a network of small rivers that are not the Nile and on a complex and fragile man-made irrigation system. If they do not have a strong central state, upstream people can cut off the water or invaders can destroy or neglect the irrigation system. Both have happened often, as Iraq is in the centre of a turbulent region. So they have strong central government, with periods of chaos in between. Temporarily, the problem is protecting the oil wells and pipelines, but the problem is much the same, and will revert to that of water, shortly, if we all survive. What price a federal democracy, in such a situation? It is not working too well in regulating the waterflow in the rivers of California, already, you may have noticed.

I do not expect you, as a salaried Harvard man (I merely assume you are salaried, my apologies if incorrect) to be able to see that the rest of the world does not place your country's national security and continuing wealth at the top of its agenda, but it is so. As with avian flu, we are now determined to try and innoculate ourselves against what we see as the American virus, on every front. We will rebuild the world without you, as we need nothing that you offer. You merely suck in more than your fair share of the world's resources, for your SUV's and academic air travel and the rest, and give back paper dollars and fear. So, citizens of Texaco, although most of us not hate you, go play with yourselves, until you learn to behave.

There is not overmuch trust of China in the rest of the world, but we will try and get it to improve its treatment of its workers and citizens and neighbours and environment, as we support its industrial expansion. We will support Europe. We have seen America get completely out of hand since it was no longer challenged militarily by the Soviet block. So we wish to see your country stripped of its military hegemony, and that clearly means it must be outranked industrially.

You may have a large supply of sharp sticks, but there are about a quarter of a billion of you, very isolated, and about five billion of us who now do not much like you now, at all. There was a German man, remember, some way back, who believed he had enough sharp sticks to have his way in the playground. But he had a decaying industrial base and though he caused great distress to many, he was unable to bully the world for very long.

Many of us have given up on Paleolithic sky gods and their ability to help us survive on this complex planet. We have little interest also in the fantasies of competing nationalisms, and more in the story in the ice cores. You may join the debate if you like, but you will have to very considerably lift your intellectual game to do so. You will also have to curtail the current barbarity.

I thank you for your attention to this. As it is an open letter, please feel free to make whatever use you like of it, if any. I have the honour to be, Sir, in no way yours.

Peter Ravenscroft.


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