Politics & Policy

Human Butchery

What to do?

The week gone by has been incessant in its reminders of human depravity, the collectivization of which was a specialty of the century gone by. There were singular acts of cruelty in old Russia, and indeed in Bismarck’s Germany, but it required the resources of modern states to transform these into the Gulag of Stalin and the death camps of Hitler. A recent book tells of the infatuation of the author, as a six-year-old, with “Uncle Dolf,” back when Hitler could exhaust his passions by playing with little boys, leaving it to a later maturity to metastasize that inclination into playing to the death with millions of little boys, and big boys, and women of all ages. Mr. Jan Egeland, the United Nations emergency relief coordinator in eastern Congo, reports that bloodshed there is the worst current humanitarian crisis. The toll in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has amounted to “one tsunami every six months.” In December the tsunami killed 300,000 people.

A U.N. report tells of the kidnapping of hundreds of civilians from rival ethnic groups; some are tortured, the rest are forced to work as porters or sex slaves. “Several witnesses,” according to Reuters, “reported cases of mutilation followed by death or decapitation.”

Concurrently, Mr. Porter Goss, the head of our CIA, was reassuring Senator Carl Levin that the deaths of four prisoners in American custody in Iraq and Afghanistan were hideous abnormalities. “We don’t do torture,” Goss said; we draw the line at “professional interrogation.” A major reason for not engaging in torture, he explained, is that is that “torture is not productive,” whereas with professional interrogation we have had demonstrated successes in averting attacks and capturing terrorist suspects.

We can, I think, accept that disavowal. As long as the kind of thing that happened at Abu Ghraib gets front-page attention and universal denunciation, bringing the perpetrators to trial and imprisonment, we are relatively chaste. But the question arises whether the United States and indeed the other western industrial democracies are working convincingly to elevate human cruelty to the rank of infamy, where it belongs.

Consider the report last week in the New York Times, a feature on “A World of Ways to Say ‘Islamic Law.’” We read of the Sharia, which is the Islamic code of justice, and its concern for enforcing the law. One form of punishment against adulterers and the like is stoning–stoning the offender to death. But listen to a detail or two from the Iranian penal code: “The stones should not be too large so that the person dies on being hit by one or two of them; they should not be so small either that they could not be defined as stones.”

In Iran, 11 women were condemned to be stoned to death over the last four years. But consider the alternative: It is flogging, often in public–285 of these in a single year. A pretty conclusive sign of having crossed the Sharia, but not sufficiently to move to another stage of punishment, which is amputation. In Saudi Arabia, “amputation of the hand or foot is imposed for theft and burglary; highway robbery is punished by cross amputation.” That last means they chop off, say, the right hand and the left foot. In Saudi Arabia, “scores of teenage boys were reported flogged during the year 2002. A woman was sentenced to 65 lashes and six months’ imprisonment for committing adultery with her sister’s husband, even though she reportedly claimed that he had raped her. The man was sentenced to 4,700 lashes and six years’ imprisonment. At least seven people, all foreign nationals, had their right hands amputated.”

The question before the house, in this neocon age, is: What should the United States attempt to do to protest these routine, and extra-routine, extravagances against human decency? If we are prepared to venture out to endorse revolutionary democracy, why aren’t we simultaneously singling out for reform such practices as here described?

Perhaps democratic reform is what you need, to progress to the abolition of human torture. That is a responsible position, but it does not tell us that silence should be the rule when our allies set out to stone and to amputate. Polemicists shoot back at us that, after all, we Americans engage in capital punishment. “So’s-your-old-man” replies aren’t persuasive. To execute a first degree murderer by needle injection after approximately ten years of judicial and executive deliberation doesn’t constitute infamous behavior.

But we watch what goes on in the Islamist world, and the tsunami-every-six months carnage of the Congo, and we are doing virtually nothing to protest it.


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