Thursday, March 17, 2005

The Argentinian solution

Christopher Brauchli: The Etymology of Torture

Rendition. Torture. Corruption. Shrinking middle class. Fiscal chaos.

Which nation?

1. Argentina
2. United States of America
3. Both
In Argentina "transferal" referred to the process of taking a person from the Naval Mechanics' School in Buenos Aires known locally as ESMA. In an earlier incarnation it was an officers' casino. In its later incarnation it was one of the detention centers to which political dissidents, leaders of the opposition and those considered a threat to the military dictatorship were taken from March 1976 until the end of 1983. Its name notwithstanding, it would only have been considered a "school" by those who consider the use of torture as a teaching device to educate people as to what they should say to the torturer.

According to a description by Larry Rohter of the New York Times, the building had a long hall the name of which had something in common with "transferal" and "rendition." Its name was a euphemism. It was called "Happiness Avenue." There were no stores on Happiness Avenue as there are on some of the elegant avenues in Buenos Aires. There were just rooms in which acts of torture took place. "Happiness Avenue" was not a one-way street. Once the authorities completed the torture, which could go on for extended periods, the victim was drugged and participated in what the Argentine navy called "transferal." The victim was taken to the airport, placed in an airplane, flown over and then thrown into the ocean. Drowning was much pleasanter than the activities on Happiness Avenue. It had an end.

The United States uses "rendition" which loosely translated means "we provide the body, you perform the torture." "We" is the United States government in the guise of the CIA and "you" is the country to which those the soon-to-be-tortured are sent. Those who participate in rendition are sent to countries where torture is an accepted way of extracting information. That is not, however, why they are sent there. According to a report in the New York Times prisoners are moved to other countries in order to help the United States with budgetary problems. Administration officials have said that sending prisoners to Egypt, for example, is an alternative to the "costly, manpower-intensive process of housing them in the United States or in American-run facilities in other countries." The fact that those countries engage in torture is nothing more than a coincidence.

Even though rendition is primarily a money saving device, a number of individuals were tortured following their rendition. Maher Ara is a Canadian citizen who was arrested at Kennedy airport, transferred to and tortured in Syria before being released without being charged with a crime. Khaled el-Masri was arrested on the Serbia-Macedonia border, held and tortured for five months and then released without being charged. His captors told him it was a case of mistaken identity. They meant to torture someone else with his name. He was an incidental beneficiary of the torture rather than its intended target.

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