Sun. May 19th, 2024

Written by Mary Shaw

In January, former Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison. He had been charged with perjury and obstruction of justice. But he has been accused of some things that are far more disturbing than those charges might suggest.

Burge, who is white, allegedly spent decades torturing black murder suspects – shocking, burning, and suffocating them – until they confessed. Kind of like what happens to the brown detainees at Gitmo, but in Chicago instead.

While I am pleased to see Burge behind bars, I am disappointed that he was convicted not for torturing the suspects but merely for lying about the torture.

But torture with impunity seems to be a recurring theme in this once-great nation these days.

Sure, little Lynndie England and some other low-level soldiers got prison time – and rightly so – when their abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib came to light. But their crime was simply having too much fun following the misguided orders they were given.

Meanwhile, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and their cohorts remain free despite having authorized the torture of detainees in the “war on terror” – a fact that Bush brags about in his memoir Decision Points. Abu Ghraib may have been the work of a few bad apples, as was an excuse at the time; but those apples happened to be sitting in the West Wing.

And clearly they knew that what they were doing was wrong. Why else would they have ordered their legal counsel to find a way to legally “justify” the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and other prisoner abuse? Why else would they have gone so far as to even redefine what constitutes torture?

The rest of the world sees this and wants some accountability for the Bush administration’s war crimes. Spain, in fact, launched criminal proceedings in 2009 against six Bush administration officials. The case, however, has gone nowhere. I am not confident that similar investigations by other countries will lead to justice either, although Bush recently canceled a trip to Switzerland, where there was a chance that he might be arrested. Instead, he will stay home in his cushy Texas residence, outside the reach of international justice.

When confronted with the issue, President Obama insists that we should “look forward and not backwards.”

By doing nothing to hold the Bush administration accountable, the Obama administration is essentially signaling that torture is not worth punishing – at least not when the torturers are wealthy or powerful.

This, apparently, is Obama’s idea of looking forward.

And this, sadly, is no change I can believe in.


About the author
Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist, with a focus on politics, human rights, and social justice. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views appear regularly in a variety of newspapers, magazines, and websites. Note that the ideas expressed here are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Amnesty International or any other organization with which she may be associated. E-mail:


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