Otto Warmbier’s death, like the death of any young person is tragic. The fact that it was done at the hands of the North Korean regime makes is particularly vile. The thought that this could ever happen to my own son is heart-wrenching.
But Americans need to be careful in their outrage. Just yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court – the supreme guardian of our fundamental rights – ruled that those abused by the U.S. government while in custody have absolutely no right to recourse against their abusers. In other words, the hundreds of people illegally rendered, tortured, held captive without trial and even those killed in the process have no right to sue the government for their abuse.
Just take a look at the CIA Torture Report. People like:
- Khalid El-Massri, a German citizen who was rendered in Macedonia (by mistake), held incommunicado and abused, taken to a secret prison in Afghanistan where he was tortured, and then when the CIA realized they had the wrong guy, he was left in the middle of the night on a street in Albania. Macedonia was help responsible, but the U.S. courts have refused to hear his case.
- Abu Zubaydah who was waterboarded at least 83 times in one month, and once claimed to be one of the worst of the worst, is now considered wrongly accused, regardless of have now spend a decade and half in a cage without trial or charges. He is now mentally unfit for trial. The European Court of Human Rights ruled against Poland – who was complicit in the rendering – and awarded damages.
- Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen, was stopped by the U.S. authorities due to transit through JFK where he was then rendered to Syria and tortured by the Syrian government and the behest of the U.S. government. The U.S. courts refused to hear his case, but the Canadian courts would and ruled in his favor.
- Omar Khadr, Guantanamo’s youngest detainee. He was picked up in Afghanistan at age 15, tortured and sent to Guantanamo for allegedly throwing a grenade at U.S. soldiers (though it was likely a rock). He was held without trial or charges for 10 years. He was a Canadian citizen.
- Gul Rahman was killed by the CIA while held in the secret prison in Afghanistan called the “Salt Pit”. He froze to death after the CIA order his guards to leave him chained to the concrete floor naked overnight.
Stories like these seem endless, with hundreds of people having been rendered or locked up in cages, and all end in the same way: a young man (even teenager) was wrongly accused, rendered, tortured, and then refused his day in court.
So stop for a minute and think about that. Were Warmbier killed by the U.S. instead of by North Korea under exactly the same circumstances, Warmbier’s family would be in the same predicament they are today: they have no right to sue their son’s murders. Ironically, the U.S. courts are more likely to entertain a case of abuse by the North Koreans than to hear a case against their own government.
Now, I am perfectly aware of the fact that the U.S. is not North Korea. I would never want to live in North Korea, let alone visit there. The U.S. is my country, and although I no longer live in America, it is my first destination of choice for travel.
But as an American how should I react? My heart goes out to this boy’s family, but it’s hard to argue with a straight face that Americans should be outraged, especially those who defend and defended torture – including our current president who campaigned on bringing torture back and our former Vice President Cheney who continues to defend torture today – and especially when our Supreme Court hot off the press rules against abuse victims’ rights to access our courts for redress. Or is it so hard for Americans to believe that a Muslim could be as innocent or unworthy of torture as an American college student?
UPDATED JUNE 22, 2017:
There is an article in yesterday’s New York Times about the two American psychologists who designed and oversaw the U.S. torture program. The pieces gives further insights in the program based on their own testimony. It is well worth the read and describes the torture and everlasting trauma of many of the program’s victims (some of whom were wrongly associated with terrorists), including this bit on Abu Zubaydah:
Drs. Mitchell and Jessen were sent to the jail to carry out the techniques, including waterboarding. Water was poured over a cloth covering Abu Zubaydah’s face to simulate drowning. He underwent the procedure 83 times over a period of days; at one point he was completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising from his mouth, according to the Senate report. A newly declassified August 2002 cable from the prison to headquarters noted: “At the onset of involuntary stomach and leg spasms, subject was again elevated to clear his airway, which was followed by hysterical pleas. Subject was distressed to the level that he was unable to effectively communicate or adequately engage the team.”
Imagine the outrage we would have if this was the treatment that Mr. Warmbeir had been subject to by the North Koreans.