Living Up to Khmer Rouge Standards?

Kaing Khek Iev, who went by the nom de guerre Duch when he ran the Khmer Rouge torture center Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh, where about 16,000 Cambodians were killed during the Pol Pot years, spoke to the court where he is on trial for his war crimes. “I am responsible for the crimes committed at S-21 [the designation for Tuol Sleng], especially the torture and execution of the people there. May I be permitted to apologize to the survivors of the regime and families of the victims who had loved ones who died brutally at S-21. I would like you to forgive me.”

Duch then added, “I would like to express my deep regret and my heartfelt sorrow.” [].

No reasonable person will feel any empathy or pity for Duch, and one would assume his apology was a self-serving attempt to mitigate the consequences of his actions. But, whatever the motives, he did take responsibility for his actions and utter words of regret.


Recently, the International Committee of the Red Cross [ICRC] completed its “Report on the Treatment of Fourteen ‘High Value Detainees’ in CIA Custody,” a copy of which was obtained by Mark Danner, whose work on U.S. torture and violations of human rights laws has been, along with Jane Mayer’s, indispensable. Danner recently wrote about the report in the New York Review of Books [] and the Red Cross’s findings, though certainly not of Khmer Rouge magnitude, are chilling.

They confirm much of what other media has reported in bits and pieces, that American officials at Guantanamo and in other areas of rendition engaged in some of the more horrific examples of torture that one can imagine–waterboarding, physical attacks, sleep deprivation, sexual abuse, and other forms of brutality and psychological duress. If one has followed the stories that have unfolded since Seymour Hersh first told us about Abu Ghraib, the Red Cross’s revelations might not be surprising, but to see the list of tortures used, the lack of concern for human rights and dignity by many American officials, and the utter uselessness of most of the “intelligence” gathered is still enough to outrage, if not shock, the most jaded conscience.

Indeed, the revelations are made worse by the casual lies that the president and his lieutenants uttered. In 2004 Bush told a reporter who asked if torture was ever justified, “Look, I’m going to say it one more time…. Maybe I can be more clear. The instructions went out to our people to adhere to law. That ought to comfort you. We’re a nation of law. We adhere to laws. We have laws on the books. You might look at these laws, and that might provide comfort for you.” In November 2005, Bush flatly stated “we do not torture.” [ ].

In addition to the president, Vice-President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, John Yoo [whose invitation to speak at last year’s SHAFR Conference was the most shameful act in the organization’s history] of the State Department’s Office of Legal Counsel and author of the famed “torture memorandum” which asserted that anything short of organ failure of death was legal and acceptable, and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, currently house-hunting in Houston according to the local papers, are also singled out for their criminal behavior by the ICRC.

Based on these reports, the Red Cross has found clear evidence of violations of U.S. treaties, most notably the Geneva Convention [which Gonzales, like Nazi General Wilhelm Keitel, found guilty at Nuremberg, thought were quaint and obsolete] and the Convention Against Torture, as well as U.S. laws.

The Red Cross also excoriated the “loyal opposition” in the U.S. While the President lied and he and his myrmidons violated international and human rights laws, the U.S. congress facilitated their torture via the Military Commissions Act of 2006 while the Democratic Party did not even attempt a filibuster for, as the junior senator from Illinois at the time explained, “Soon, we will adjourn for the fall, and the campaigning will begin in earnest. And there will be 30-second attack ads and negative mail pieces, and we will be criticized as caring more about the rights of terrorists than the protection of Americans. And I know that the vote before us was specifically designed and timed to add more fuel to that fire.” Afraid of being accused of “coddling terrorists” America’s elected officials, with near unanimity, went along with what they knew to be torture and criminal activity.


Just a few days ago, a Spanish court opened hearings into whether six U.S. officials–Gonzales; Yoo; former Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith; William J. Haynes II, former general counsel for the Department of Defense; Jay S. Bybee, Mr. Yoo’s former boss at the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel; and David S. Addington, who was the chief of staff and legal adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney–should be arrested for the tortures committed at Guantanamo Bay, an event deemed “highly probable.”

The odds on anyone in this rogue’s gallery actually going on trial is slim, and it’s even less likely that anyone in the U.S. congress, despite the advocacy of Senator Pat Leahy and Representative John Conyers and a few others, will call for criminal hearings regarding America’s torture regime. President Obama, despite his calls for accountability on torture, has also said he believes in healing and reconciliation and it is certain that he will not use an iota of political capital to actually try to hold the Bush junta accountable.


So we’re left with the hideous spectre of Cheney making his public relations tour unrepentant about torture and actually accusing Obama of endangering American security; America’s image in the world at historic lows, in large part because of its actions at Abu Ghraib and Gitmo, and the Orwellian spectacle of a Khmer Rouge torturer turned penitent serving as a moral compass for American officials.

Update:  Sen. Pat Leahy has now given up on his plans for a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” to investigate the Bush administration’s war crimes.  See   So the U.S. has failed to live up not only to Khmer Rouge standards but those of Guatemala and South Africa as well.  I think Randy Newman explained this best: Let’s Drop the Big One