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This last week, the nation’s leading newspaper established that the Bush administration continues to use torture techniques as a matter of formal policy, crafted at its highest levels. This comes more than three years following the exposure of the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and more than two years after the Administration’s lies about the use of torture, unconvincing to start with, were finally exploded by the issuance of a series of internal reports. We face now a leadership stained with deceit and criminality. More importantly, it is a leadership which can never recognize nor admit its failings and moral errors. Hence, consistent with a tyrannical disposition, it acts to force all to accept its crimes as lawful, and thus to pervert the law and the institutions charged to enforce it.
The use of torture is a criminal act, and its systematic sanctioning by this administration is a matter of the utmost gravity for the country. The nation’s reaction to date fails to accord the issue the seriousness that it deserves; it constitutes a trivialization. The nation’s opinion-makers, and in particular its religious leaders must be held to blame. They fail to see the importance of the issue. And they demonstrate unacceptable cowardice in the face of political power. The only correct response is to speak truth to power, in the tradition in which the Dissenters of seventeenth century England came to use that term. But it reflects not only the tradition of the Dissenters, but also of the Established Church and of the Roman Church.
John Donne spoke for those two latter traditions when he condemned the practice of torture and called for its perpetual abolition:
Transgressors that put God’s organ out of tune, that discompose and tear the body of man with violence, are those inhuman persecutors who with racks and tortures and prisons and fires and exquisite inquisitions throw down the bodies of the true God’s servants to the idolatrous worship of their imaginary gods, that torture men into Hell and carry them through the inquisition into damnation. . . We presume, says [St Augustine], that an innocent man should accuse himself, by confession, in torture. And if an innocent man be able to do so, why should we not think that a guilty man, who shall save his life by holding his tongue in torture, should be able to do so?
And then, where is the use of torture? It is a slippery trial and uncertain. . . to convince by torture. For many says. . . he that is yet but questioned, whether he be guilty or no, before that be known, is, without all question, miserably tortured. And whereas, many time, the passion of the Judge, and the covetousness of the Judge, and the ambition of the Judge, are calamities heavy enough upon a man that is accused. If the Judge knew that he were innocent, he should suffer nothing. If he knew he were guilty, he should not suffer torture. But because the Judge is ignorant and knows nothing, therefore the prisoner must be racked and tortured and mangled.
Against the Abomination of Torture, sermon preached on Easter Sunday, April 17, 1625, at St Paul’s Cathedral, London.
We must address Power in its three aspects. First, to address those who hold high office in our representative government and thus are charged to make decisions on our behalf that govern the nation’s conduct in times of war, and in times leading to war. It is our moral obligation to firmly register our opposition to torture, our recognition of the fact that torture has been authorized and is being used, and our resolve to use all the rights we have in our society to obstruct and frustrate this criminal act which purports to be done in our name, as a nation. Second, to the people themselves, since the people are sovereign under our Constitution and are the final reservoir of national power—it is their values and concerns which should ultimately find expression on the nation’s behalf. Third, to address the very concept of Power itself, for Power has an ever-expanding impact on the lives of individuals in our nation and beyond its frontiers.
The truth which is to be spoken is a universal truth that reflects the natural law, the given law, our values and faith. It is a universal truth that love endures and overcomes; that hatred destroys. What a people obtained by love and in a posture of righteousness is retained, but what is obtained by hatred proves a burden and ultimately corrupts he who holds it.
Torture is a crime under the law, in the face of man and nations. We have, each of us, an obligation independent of the responsibilities of the state to insure the enforcement of this law; to denounce those who violate it; to reveal their acts of treachery and criminality and to insure their accountability and punishment. Torture is a crime greater than most because it corrupts the core of the state and our society. It is a rot which spreads quickly, destroying all the other values on which our life and interaction with others rests. Torture breeds secrecy; it breeds tyrannical expansion of the power of the executive; it imperils the institutions of the democratic state.
Look about you and note what is happening. The shadow of secrecy and corruption have descended over the institutions of a once noble state, suffocating them. Torture, secrecy and corruption operate hand-in-hand, reinforcing one another, and accelerating an existential attack on our society. Only through decisive action by individual citizens can this process be checked. Consider the words of Edmund Burke:
When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.
Edmund Burke, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770) in: Works of the Rt Hon Edmund Burke, vol. 2, p. 83 (H. Froude ed. 1891)
I commend three voices raised today in opposition to torture: The New York Times, Andrew Sullivan, and the surviving military intelligence officers of World War II. But tomorrow let your voice be heard, let it be in unison and without equivocation.
Once upon a time, it was the United States that urged all nations to obey the letter and the spirit of international treaties and protect human rights and liberties. American leaders denounced secret prisons where people were held without charges, tortured and killed. And the people in much of the world, if not their governments, respected the United States for its values.
The Bush administration has dishonored that history and squandered that respect. As an article on this newspaper’s front page last week laid out in disturbing detail, President Bush and his aides have not only condoned torture and abuse at secret prisons, but they have conducted a systematic campaign to mislead Congress, the American people and the world about those policies.
After the attacks of 9/11, Mr. Bush authorized the creation of extralegal detention camps where Central Intelligence Agency operatives were told to extract information from prisoners who were captured and held in secret. Some of their methods — simulated drownings, extreme ranges of heat and cold, prolonged stress positions and isolation — had been classified as torture for decades by civilized nations. The administration clearly knew this; the C.I.A. modeled its techniques on the dungeons of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union.
The White House could never acknowledge that. So its lawyers concocted documents that redefined “torture” to neatly exclude the things American jailers were doing and hid the papers from Congress and the American people. Under Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Mr. Bush’s loyal enabler, the Justice Department even declared that those acts did not violate the lower standard of “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”
That allowed the White House to claim that it did not condone torture, and to stampede Congress into passing laws that shielded the interrogators who abused prisoners, and the men who ordered them to do it, from any kind of legal accountability. . .
For the rest of the nation, there is an immediate question: Is this really who we are?
Is this the country whose president declared, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” and then managed the collapse of Communism with minimum bloodshed and maximum dignity in the twilight of the 20th century? Or is this a nation that tortures human beings and then concocts legal sophistries to confuse the world and avoid accountability before American voters?
Truly banning the use of torture would not jeopardize American lives; experts in these matters generally agree that torture produces false confessions. Restoring the rule of law to Guantánamo Bay would not set terrorists free; the truly guilty could be tried for their crimes in a way that does not mock American values.
From almost the beginning of the war, it is now indisputable, the Bush administration made a strong and formative decision: in the absence of good intelligence on the Islamist terror threat after 9/11, it would do what no American administration had done before. It would torture detainees to get information. This decision was and is illegal, and violates America’s treaty obligations, the military code of justice, the United Nations convention against torture, and US law. Although America has allied itself over the decades with some unsavoury regimes around the world and has come close to acquiescing to torture, it has never itself tortured. It has also, in liberating the world from the evils of Nazism and communism, and in crafting the Geneva conventions, done more than any other nation to banish torture from the world. George Washington himself vowed that it would be a defining mark of the new nation that such tactics, used by the British in his day, would be anathema to Americans.
But Bush decided that 9/11 changed all that. Islamists were apparently more dangerous than the Nazis or the Soviets, whom Americans fought and defeated without resorting to torture. The decision to enter what Dick Cheney called “the dark side” was made, moreover, in secret; interrogators who had no idea how to do these things were asked to replicate some of the methods US soldiers had been trained to resist if captured by the Soviets or Vietcong. Classic torture techniques, such as waterboarding, hypothermia, beatings, excruciating stress positions, days and days of sleep deprivation, and threats to family members (even the children of terror suspects), were approved by Bush and inflicted on an unknown number of terror suspects by American officials, CIA agents and, in the chaos of Iraq, incompetents and sadists at Abu Ghraib. And when the horror came to light, they denied all of it and prosecuted a few grunts at the lowest level. The official reports were barred from investigating fully up the chain of command. . .
Last week The New York Times revealed more. We now know that long after Abu Ghraib was exposed, the administration issued internal legal memos that asserted the legality of many of the techniques exposed there. The memos not only gave legal cover to waterboarding, hypothermia and beating but allowed them in combination to intensify the effect. The argument was that stripping a chained detainee naked, pouring water over him while keeping room temperatures cold enough to induce repeated episodes of dangerous hypothermia, was not “cruel, inhuman or degrading”. We have a log of such a technique being used at Guantanamo. The victim had to be rushed to hospital, brought back from death, then submitted once again to “enhanced interrogation”. George Orwell would have been impressed by the phrase “enhanced interrogation technique”. By relying on it, the White House spokesman last week was able to say with a straight face that the administration strongly opposed torture and that “any procedures they use are tough, safe, necessary and lawful”.
So is “enhanced interrogation” torture? One way to answer this question is to examine history. The phrase has a lineage. Verschärfte Vernehmung, enhanced or intensified interrogation, was the exact term innovated by the Gestapo to describe what became known as the “third degree”. It left no marks. It included hypothermia, stress positions and long-time sleep deprivation. The United States prosecuted it as a war crime in Norway in 1948. The victims were not in uniform – they were part of the Norwegian insurgency against the German occupation – and the Nazis argued, just as Cheney has done, that this put them outside base-line protections (subsequently formalised by the Geneva conventions).
The Nazis even argued that “the acts of torture in no case resulted in death. Most of the injuries inflicted were slight and did not result in permanent disablement”. This argument is almost verbatim that made by John Yoo, the Bush administration’s house lawyer, who now sits comfortably at the Washington think tank, the American Enterprise Institute. The US-run court at the time clearly rejected Cheney’s arguments. Base-line protections against torture applied, the court argued, to all detainees, including those out of uniform. They didn’t qualify for full PoW status, but they couldn’t be abused either. The court also relied on the plain meaning of torture as defined under US and international law: “The court found it decisive that the defendants had inflicted serious physical and mental suffering on their victims, and did not find sufficient reason for a mitigation of the punishment . . .”
The definition of torture remains the infliction of “severe mental or physical pain or suffering” with the intent of procuring intelligence. In 1948, in other words, America rejected the semantics of the current president and his aides. The penalty for those who were found guilty was death. This is how far we’ve come. And this fateful, profound decision to change what America stands for was made in secret. The president kept it from Congress and from many parts of his own administration. Ever since, the United States has been struggling to figure out what to do about this, if anything. So far Congress has been extremely passive, although last week’s leaks about the secret pro-torture memos after Abu Ghraib forced Arlen Specter, a Republican senator, to proclaim that the memos “are more than surprising. I think they are shocking”. Yet the public, by and large, remains indifferent; and all the Republican candidates, bar John McCain and Ron Paul, endorse continuing the use of torture.
One day America will come back– the America that defends human rights, the America that would never torture detainees, the America that leads the world in barring the inhuman and barbaric. But not until this president leaves office. And maybe not even then.
The Surviving Military Intelligence Officers of World War II
The Washington Post reports that yesterday the surviving military intelligence officers who led the nation’s most sensitive human intelligence gathering operation focusing on key Nazi figures during World War II gathered at Fort Hunt to discuss their experiences and to be recognized. The Department of Defense was expecting that the veterans would embrace the Bush Administration’s War on Terror policies. But what they got was an earful of outrage and criticism. I am proud to say that several of the men who stood and spoke are my friends:
Blunt criticism of modern enemy interrogations was a common refrain at the ceremonies held beside the Potomac River near Alexandria. Across the river, President Bush defended his administration’s methods of detaining and questioning terrorism suspects during an Oval Office appearance. Several of the veterans, all men in their 80s and 90s, denounced the controversial techniques. And when the time came for them to accept honors from the Army’s Freedom Team Salute, one veteran refused, citing his opposition to the war in Iraq and procedures that have been used at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
“I feel like the military is using us to say, ‘We did spooky stuff then, so it’s okay to do it now,’ ” said Arno Mayer, 81, a professor of European history at Princeton University.
When Peter Weiss, 82, went up to receive his award, he commandeered the microphone and gave his piece. “I am deeply honored to be here, but I want to make it clear that my presence here is not in support of the current war,” said Weiss, chairman of the Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy and a human rights and trademark lawyer in New York City…
“We did it with a certain amount of respect and justice,” said John Gunther Dean, 81, who became a career Foreign Service officer and ambassador to Denmark. The interrogators had standards that remain a source of pride and honor. “During the many interrogations, I never laid hands on anyone,” said George Frenkel, 87, of Kensington. “We extracted information in a battle of the wits. I’m proud to say I never compromised my humanity.”
More from Scott Horton:
Conversation — August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm
Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln
Conversation — March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm
Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.
Amount Miller Brewing spends each year to promote its Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund:
In Zambia an elephant fought off fourteen lionesses, in South Africa a porcupine fought off thirteen lionesses and four lions, in Maine voters chose to continue baiting bears with doughnuts, and in the Yukon drunken Bohemian waxwings were detained in modified hamster cages.
It was reported that education secretary Betsy DeVos’s brother, the founder of a private military company whose employees were convicted of killing 17 unarmed civilians in Baghdad in 2007, would be providing China with military training.
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"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."