By Miguel De La Torre
By now we have all seen the endless media loops of the Iraqi journalist named Muntadhir al-Zaidi throwing his size 10 shoes at President Bush on Dec. 14. Al-Zaidi called Bush a “dog” and hurled his shoes at the president, who was holding a news conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Anyone vaguely familiar with Arab culture knows that showing the sole of your shoe to someone is the rudest offense that can be committed, and calling someone a “dog” is probably among the worst insults that can be given.
Since the incident, Al-Zaidi is being held by officials, charged with assault against a foreign head of state, which if convicted, could carry a 15-year prison term.
Many Americans seeing the video were outraged at the display of this shameless act. But what exactly is shameless? Was it the disrespect shown Bush as the representative of the American people, or the nation he symbolizes? Or is it that Muntadhir has such poor aim?
No — I believe that what was truly shameful occurred minutes after the shoe toss. As we saw in the video, Al-Zaidi was wrestled to the ground by Iraqi security forces, repeatedly kicked, and rushed out of the room. Not surprisingly, he suffered injuries while being taken into custody.
While the president joked about the shoe size, he — and those in the room — could hear al-Zaidi screaming outside as he was continuously beaten. While the President shrugged off the incident, he — and those in the room — could still see the trail of blood on the carpet where al-Zaidi had been dragged out by security agents.
It is shameless, and deeply disturbing, that the president of the United States said nothing about the screams he could hear or the blood he could see. Could he not have asked for restraint? Could he have not whispered in the ear of the prime minister to please stop the torture?
It is entirely appropriate that the shoe-thrower face the consequences of his act of civil disobedience. After all, that is the purpose of civil disobedience. But for him — or anyone, regardless of the act committed — to be beaten and tortured while in custody is inhumane, immoral and uncivilized.
The beatings apparently did not cease at the time of arrest. Allegations have been made that Muntadhir has also been tortured during his detention. According to his older brother, Dargham, he suffered a broken right arm, broken ribs, an eye injury and internal bleeding. The torture has been so severe that his brother reported Muntadhir was willing to sign a blank sheet of paper and let his tormentors fill in whatever charges they wanted him to confess.
While Iraqi authorities dismiss these charges, they have yet to prove them false by producing a healthy Muntadhir. In addition, his family reports receiving many threatening phone calls.
So why couldn’t Bush say that Muntadhir should be treated humanely and with full due process? That Americans do not believe in torture and beating those held in custody? That as a nation we stand for human rights and human dignity?
Because the real shameless act of the day is that in the final analysis, the United States has lost its ethical voice.
After Abu Ghraib, secret CIA prisons, Guantanamo Bay imprisonment without due process, waterboarding and torture as acceptable policy, how can we speak to the Arab world (or anyone else in the world, for that matter) with any moral authority?
Eight years of Bush leadership has contributed to a world where the shameless beating of prisoners is normative.
President-elect Obama faces an important policy decision when he takes office. Does he close down the base at Guantanamo Bay and repudiate all forms of torture, or does he maintain the status quo?
How he decides this issue will either signify a new path toward proper world behavior or will maintain and continue the despicable torture policies of the Bush administration.
With anticipation, we wait to see how much “change we can believe in” will occur.