The danger of a casual approach to torture

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The irritation of members of the Harper government has been palpable in recent weeks as they tap their toes impatiently, wondering when they can return to the serious business of waging war without all these rude interruptions about torture.

Last Friday on CBC Radio's The Current, Laurie Hawn, parliamentary secretary to Defence Minister Peter MacKay, complained about all the "nitpicking" and insisted that the Afghan detainee issue is not one that concerns Canadians.

This dismissive attitude -- which permeates the Harper government -- is puzzling.

At stake is whether Ottawa knowingly allowed prisoners to be transferred to situations where they would likely be tortured.

If true, this could amount to a war crime. Given the gravity of what's involved, how can any attempt to ferret out the truth be derided as mere "nitpicking?"

Recent U.S. history shows the danger of a too-casual approach to torture.

Former U.S. vice-president Dick Cheney had admitted he approved "waterboarding" on at least three detainees, and the "enhanced interrogation" of 33 others. George W. Bush also acknowledged authorizing these practices, explaining that "we had legal opinions that enabled us to do it."

The American Civil Liberties Union pronounced these admissions tantamount to confessions of war crimes.

Yet Cheney and Bush wander about freely; Cheney even still fancies himself a useful contributor to public debate.

This has some serious implications. This month, for the first time since Pew Research began polling on this question five years ago, a majority of Americans -- 54 per cent -- said torture could be justified against terrorist suspects, either sometimes or often.

This growing tolerance of torture may have something to do with the way the Obama administration -- in its keenness to curry elusive Republican support -- has declined to go after Bush and Cheney, even though the Convention Against Torture, signed by the U.S. in 1988, requires the prosecution or extradition of torturers.

Vowing to "look forward," the Obama administration has inadvertently sent a message to Americans that torture isn't really such a heinous crime.

If it was, surely the United States would go after its perpetrators -- just like U.S. authorities (appropriately) are going after filmmaker Roman Polanski for a brutal rape he committed three decades ago. Truly serious crimes aren't forgotten or papered over in the interests of all getting along. They require punishment, partly to send a message that society condemns them.

Despite condemnation of torture in his Nobel Peace Prize speech last week, an accommodating Barack Obama has signalled his willingness to turn a blind eye to torture authorized by the White House, thereby bestowing on disgraced Republican practices the mantle of bipartisanship.

For that matter, much of Obama's Nobel speech was disturbingly Bushian. His defence of decades of U.S. military interventions was certainly more elegant and artful than anything that ever came out of Bush's mouth. But putting lipstick on a pig doesn't give her inner beauty.

The bipartisan consensus in the U.S. has effectively silenced public debate about torture.

To their credit, Canadian opposition parties have refused to be silent about torture -- surely one of the clearest markers dividing the civilized world from the barbaric.

With admirable tenacity, opposition parliamentarians have sent a message that no amount of lipstick will pretty up this pig.

Linda McQuaig is author of It's the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet.

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