Not always by the book


The excesses of US law enforcement is now evidently clear. Maybe from now on, Americans won’t be too surprised when they hear about the same transgressions elsewhere in the world.

And they say Egypt’s law enforcement is bad.

What about in America?

The full horror of the CIA interrogation and detention programmes was laid bare in the long-awaited Senate report released on Tuesday. The catalogue of abuse is so nightmarish it reads like something out of Scream.

There are stories in the CIA torture report of rectal rehydration, of threats to murder, threats to sexually abuse the mother of a detainee or cut a mother’s throat or that of her children, mock executions, Russian roulette. There are detainees with broken bones forced to stand for days on end, detainees blindfolded, dragged down hallways while they were beaten. There were torture sessions that ended in death. The list goes on and on.

The UN and human rights groups are now calling for the prosecution of US officials involved in these macabre dungeon practices which have been carried out by the CIA for years.

The report has exposed a decade of horrific American shame. But beyond all the depravity, perhaps the most shocking part of this exposed history is the action of US officials who knew these horrors were unfolding – and covered them up. For years, as the 480-page executive summary of the report documents in meticulous detail, these officials lied to the Senate, the Justice Department, the White House, to the American public and to the world. They prevented CIA officers involved from being disciplined. They investigated and marginalised those who were investigating them. The CIA gave inaccurate information to journalists in background briefings to mislead the public about the efficacy of its interrogation programme.

This damning indictment of America’s principal intelligence-gathering agency comes in the midst of another controversy in US law enforcement: American policemen running roughshod over the law by killing several unarmed blacks, and getting away with it. The many high-profile cases involving black Americans killed after encounters with the police is now a pattern that is causing daily demonstrations in dozens of US cities.

Michael Brown and Eric Garner have become household names because they had much in common, with each other and others like them: black, American, in most cases youthful, unarmed, yet shot and killed by white policemen who after grand jury verdicts, went free.

In the Brown incident, the officer claimed self-defence but no video footage existed to show if that was the case because Brown was not around to give his side of the story. At the same time, bystanders filmed the death of Garner, through a chokehold manoeuvre that has been banned by the NYPD since 1993. Several officers were at the scene; at no point was there a suggestion that they were in danger from Garner. All this makes the decision by the grand jury not to indict the policeman particularly shocking.

But perhaps it is not so surprising. Police in the US kill roughly one person every day yet are rarely charged for on-duty homicides.

In the aftermath of these racially charged killings there’s a predictable pattern of putting the victims on trial and not the police. Just think about the epidemic of white men who walk into spaces (kindergartens, high schools, colleges, restaurants, cinemas, offices) and open fire. In those cases, we are told we must understand why they do this and change laws or the mental health system to make sure it never happens again.

But we are never asked to understand the inner workings of the mind of a white police officer as he guns down an unarmed black. He was just doing his duty.

Ultimately, it is about the fundamental inequality of how black people are perceived and treated in America by American policemen. They are assumed, by their killers, to be criminal, less intelligent, less worthy. In America, black lives don’t seem to matter.

The excesses of law enforcement officials in the US seem to pale in comparison with Egypt’s officers of the law. But Egypt’s police do have their extremes. Suffice to say that one of the biggest reasons for the 2011 January revolution which turned Egypt upside down was police brutality. In fact, the uprising’s first day, 25 January, was selected to coincide with National Police Day.

The death of Khaled Said, the 28-year-old who was set upon by two policemen reportedly after he had posted online a video clip that showed officers handling illegal drugs, led to the creation of the Facebook page “We are all Khaled Said”. It attracted hundreds of thousands of followers, becoming Egypt’s biggest dissident Facebook page campaigning against police brutality. The images of Said’s battered face became a rallying cry for anti-government protesters and helped galvanise the uprising that brought Hosni Mubarak down in 2011.

At the climax of the uprising, Egypt’s police were forced to flee, so outnumbered they were in the face of millions of protesters. It took a couple of years for them to return to full force but only after a lesson hard learnt and under new rules of engagement and procedures.

Along with the usual common criminals, the police must now face an insurgency prompted by the overthrow of the Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013 in Egypt’s second revolution. Hundreds of police officers have been killed in Egypt since Morsi’s ouster. In instances, their stations have been torched, prisoners freed and weapons stolen. In fighting this insurgency, Egyptian police might be forgiven if they use heavy-handed tactics for they are defending themselves as much as Egypt’s citizenry.

There will be millions of Americans scratching their heads these days, saying these are difficult times and that the CIA and the police have been dealing with some very bad people and so they did what they had to do. But that is not quite accurate a picture. While 9/11 was the official start of America’s war against terrorism, 9/11 targeted American citizens, not necessarily its police force. In Egypt, terrorist Islamist organisations like Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis are aiming almost strictly at police forces and army troops.

In the US, armed policemen are defending themselves from who? Unarmed men? And CIA officers don’t have to defend themselves when they’re torturing detainees, do they? Their lives are not on the line. The lives of Egyptian policemen are, every day.

Still, no one is trying to vindicate Egypt’s policemen who break the law when they are supposed to be enforcing it, even when they are in danger. Being a policeman is a dangerous job anywhere in the world and those who join the force know it from the first day. They are supposed to be in the line of fire.

But the CIA House of Horrors that has been uncovered and the black men who appear to cavalier American police as to be innately criminal, violent, and so deeply flawed that their lives are worthless, is happening in all places of the US of A, the bastion of civil rights and civil liberties, not in some banana state, not in some failed state. This is what makes it all the more incredulous.

So American citizens and their government should not feign shock and awe when they hear of law enforcement brutality elsewhere when it’s happening right in their own backyard.

Alaa Abdel-Ghani is an affiliate professor, Faculty of Journalism, American University in Cairo.