Thursday, March 31, 2005

Torture and lies: The Kazemi Case

Surprise quickly turns to anger when you take a look at the face of Iranian-Canadian photo-journalist Zahra Kazemi on the front page of today's Globe & Mail. Kazemi, arrested for photographing a student protest in Teheran and subsequently accused of espionage, was held by Saeed Mortazavi, Iranian Special Prosecutor, and died in custody. Just how did she die?

The official Iranian statement, after the acquittal of an official following what was widely viewed as a show-trial: "The death of the late Kazemi was an accident due to a fall in blood pressure resulting from a hunger strike and her fall on the ground while standing." But now the truth comes out. It was torture. A doctor who treated her just before her death has since fled to Canada, and his testimony is now public. This, according to the Globe, is what it amounts to:


Bruised from forehead to ear
Skull fracture
Two broken fingers
Broken and missing fingernails
Severe abdominal bruising
Evidence of 'very brutal rape'
Swelling behind the head
Burst ear membrane
Bruised shoulder
Deep scratches on the neck
Broken 'nose-bone'
Evidence of flogging to the legs
Crushed big toe

This fills me with sickness, but also with a demand for justice. I am tempted to say that this is what the fight is all about. Whatever we might think of the war in Iraq and the American project of "regime change," let us be clear about something: No one should be defending these regimes for what they are. We may disagree on the tactics used to bring them down -- not merely to contain them indefinitely -- but there must be a standard by which to judge these regimes. The egalitarianism of the U.N., where sovereignty is broadly defined and where member-nations are more or less equal, and the relativism of values that pervades much of Western liberal democracy (and which continues to pollute liberalism as any sort of sustainable political philosophy -- call it now "postmodern liberalism") seems to deny us any legitimate hierarchy of values, indeed any sort of distinction between good and evil in any meaningful sense. (We are now, in Nietzsche's world, beyond good and evil.)

Let me be clear. I do not accept Bush's manichean view of good and evil. I do not refer to some vague notion of them as "evil-doers". We simply do have have any monopoly on righteousness, and I don't have to be the one to point our our sins. There have been many of them. Coddling illiberal and undemocratic regimes like China and Pakistan (as the Bush Administration continues to do, much to India's fury) doesn't help, but the problem goes back a long way. But there is which, which even proud liberals must acknowledge: At least -- at last -- the world's only superpower has moved beyond narrow national self-interest to embrace in its foreign policy the very ideals that make it what it is: Lincoln's last best hope... or at least a big part of that last best hope. I may not be a card-carrying neoconservative -- despite my Straussian credentials and attempts on the left to characterize all Straussians as rigid neocons -- but let's give them some credit. Wolfowitz, in particular. He may have botched the Iraq war, but at least he stands for and is willing to fight for something that is truly noble and truly just. How many of his enemies -- and I don't mean his illiberal and undemocratic enemies around the world, I mean his armchair enemies at home -- do? Not many. Simply, there is a courage and a sense of purpose to Wolfowitz, and others like him, that is sorely lacking in much of what passes these days as American liberalism.

Finally, I would add that Kazemi's death at the hands of Iranian security officers, no different than insurgent Iraqi beheaders, makes American atrocities (and that's not too strong a word) at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere all the more revolting. There is no relativism here. The U.S. is no Iran, North Korea, Sudan, etc. But that means that we must hold the U.S. -- and the U.S. must hold itself -- to lofty standards of justice. That something like 26 prisoners have died in U.S. custody in this "war on terror" is a travesty, and it's about time something were done about it. And I don't just mean prosecuting easy-to-scapegoat functionaries. I mean going through the chain of command and bringing down those who allowed this to happen. It starts at the top, where torture, thanks to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and others, was accepted as legitimate. Didn't the buck stop on Truman's desk? Well, where's W.'s sense of responsibility? Isn't he all for the spread of democracy? Well, spread it at home (and in your foreign prisons), then we'll talk.

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