As the Second World War drew to a close, a man named Charles Zentai pulled, it is said, a young Jewish man off a tram in Budapest. Zentai, the accusation goes, took the youth into military custody where he was beaten and eventually killed. His body was thrown into a river. That was over sixty years ago, yet Zentai, an Australian resident, remains the focus of a concerted campaign by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre and others. And quite rightly so.

Why pursue a frail and elderly man over events from so long ago? As Simon Wiesenthal himself once explained: “Justice for crimes against humanity must have no limitations.”

Yet here’s the thing about that young man in Hungary. Change a few details and his story might have come from today’s headlines. For instance, the Egyptian cleric Abu Omar was also snatched off the street, whisked off to a military base and repeatedly tortured. But this happened not in Budapest in 1944 but in Milan in 2003 – and the kidnappers were not fascist collaborators but agents of CIA.

While Abu Omar survived, others haven’t been so lucky.

Nicholas D. Kristof, writing in the weekend’s New York Times, reported about Guantanamo: “First, most of the inmates were probably innocent all along, but Pakistanis or Afghans turned them over to America in exchange for large cash rewards. The moment we offered $25,000 rewards for Al Qaeda supporters, any Arab in the region risked being kidnapped and turned over as a terrorism suspect.

“Second, torture was routine, especially early on. That’s why more than 100 prisoners have died in American custody in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantánamo.”

The NYT – the world’s paper of record – reports a hundred people dying in circumstances not so different from the Zentai case. Where’s the outrage? Where’s the investigation? It’s a question that might also be asked closer to home.

On Sunday, The Sunday Age reported allegations that prisoners taken into custody by Dutch and Australian troops were being tortured by the Afghan police. 

That report focused largely on the involvement of foreign troops, almost as though the torture wouldn’t have been a problem had it remained an exclusively Afghan affair.

Nobody finds it noteworthy that the regime for which Australian troops currently fight systematically abuses its detainees. As for suggestions that the perpetrators might be brought to justice, well, as Gen. McNeill, the U.S. commander of the NATO coalition, explains, in Afghanistan, the hard men may have to remain in office for a while because no-one else can hold together the raggle-taggle collection of warlords that Afghanistan calls a government.

Naturally, hard men do hard things. A little bit of torture seems a price the West’s prepared to pay.

Yet, back in 1944, a single death in custody scarcely seemed much of a big deal either. “The only value of nearly five decades of my work,” Wiesenthal said, “is a warning to the murderers of tomorrow, that they will never rest.”

So who is keeping the torturers’ awake now?

Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland.

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