September 21, 2006
If ever there were a case that should turn the public against the Bush Administration's push for broader powers to suspend due process and continue to torture terror suspects, it is the story of Maher Arar, a Canadian computer engineer who found himself caught up in post-9-11 law enforcement paranoia. Arar was a victim of the secret "rendition" program President Bush only recently acknowledged--a process by which terrorism suspects have been "disappeared" to other countries notorious for torturing prisoners during interrogation. Arar, who was exonerated on Monday by a Canadian government commission of any ties to terrorism, spent a year enduring beatings in a small cell in Syria, before he was released.
Stories like Arar's show how much freedom we sacrifice under Bush's war on terror. This is not the kind of country most of us want to live in.
The Canadian government blames the United States for withholding information from Canadian authorities, and sending Arar to Syria without notifying his family or the Canadian consulate, and for ignoring Arar's objections that he would be tortured. And, of course, there is the matter of his innocence.
What got Arar in trouble was a short meeting he had with a man named Abdullah Almalki, who was under surveillance for possible terrorist ties. The meeting, according to Arar, had to do with buying ink jet printer cartridges. What is certain is that both the Syrians and the Canadians have determined that Arar himself has no terrorist ties. (The United States has refused to cooperate with the investigation.) That didn't stop Canada from putting Arar and his wife on a "terrorist lookout" list--although only people with ties to terrorist groups are supposed to be on that list. According to a front-page story in The New York Times on Tuesday, Canadian authorities told the United States that Arar and his wife should be put on a list of "Islamic extremists suspected of being linked to the Al Qaeda movement." In testimony to the government commission that looked into the case, Canadian officials were unanimous in explaining that the designation was false.
Arar is grateful to be back in Canada, trying to start a new life with his wife, an economist, who recently got a new job and moved the family to British Columbia. It took weeks after Arar's secret flight to Syria for the Canadian government to locate him. In the little cell, where he spent a year between October 2002 and October 2003, he was beaten with an electrical chord "until he was disoriented," the Times reports. It's hard to imagine the panic his family must have felt, or the surreal horror of his ordeal.
The fear this incident has to stoke among Muslims in Canada and the United States is not hard to imagine. It is as if our country were Pinochet's Chile--where people could be swept up overnight, without warning or due process, and carried off to secret cells and tortured. Arar's case is everything the United States ought to be against.
Yet, as he ran into Republican opposition to his push for broader powers to use "water boarding" and other techniques against terrorism suspects, President Bush warned that programs like “rendition” the ensnared Arar are in jeopardy if Congress doesn't pass his terrorism bill.
"Mr. Bush has said the previously secret program under which [terrorism suspects] were interrogated was invaluable in thwarting terrorism," The New York Times reported in a separate story on Tuesday. "The president has said he will have no choice but to stop the program if Congress does not pass his bill."
Meanwhile, the Administration refuses to comment on Arar's case.
But public reluctance to give the President a blank check to torture is building. It's evident in Republican Senator John Warner's stand against the terrorism bill, and in increasing skepticism of the government's effectiveness in keeping the country safe. Stories like Arar's show how much freedom we sacrifice under Bush's war on terror. This is not the kind of country most of us want to live in.