It's not often that an appellate court decision reflects so vividly what a country has become, but such is the case with yesterday's ruling by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Arar v. Ashcroft (.pdf). Maher Arar is both a Canadian and Syrian citizen of Syrian descent. A telecommunications engineer and graduate of Montreal's McGill University, he has lived in Canada since he's 17 years old. In 2002, he was returning home to Canada from vacation when, on a stopover at JFK Airport, he was (a) detained by U.S. officials, (b) accused of being a Terrorist, (c) held for two weeks incommunicado and without access to counsel while he was abusively interrogated, and then (d) was "rendered" -- despite his pleas that he would be tortured -- to Syria, to be interrogated and tortured. He remained in Syria for the next 10 months under the most brutal and inhumane conditions imaginable, where he was repeatedly tortured. Everyone acknowledges that Arar was never involved with Terrorism and was guilty of nothing. I've appended to the end of this post the graphic description from a dissenting judge of what was done to Arar while in American custody and then in Syria.
In January, 2007, the Canadian Prime Minister publicly apologized to Arar for the role Canada played in these events, and the Canadian government paid him $9 million in compensation. That was preceded by a full investigation by Canadian authorities and the public disclosure of a detailed report which concluded "categorically that there is no evidence to indicate that Mr. Arar has committed any offense or that his activities constituted a threat to the security of Canada." By stark and very revealing contrast, the U.S. Government has never admitted any wrongdoing or even spoken publicly about what it did; to the contrary, it repeatedly insisted that courts were barred from examining the conduct of government officials because what we did to Arar involves "state secrets" and because courts should not interfere in the actions of the Executive where national security is involved. What does that behavioral disparity between the two nations say about how "democratic," "accountable," and "open" the United States is?