No Comment — November 4, 2007, 7:18 am

Tortured Editorials

I’ll go back to Rick Hertzberg’s devastating words on the Washington Post’s editorial page: “pathetic. Really pathetic.” This past week, straining for something that could, in the Washington environment at least, pass for wisdom on the Mukasey nomination, WaPo delivered up one of its most stunningly ignorant editorials in recent memory. It offered a wonderfully practical solution to Congress. Go ahead and confirm Mukasey, Fred Hiatt argues, and then pass a law banning torture.

Frankly I am very much in the market for Solomonic wisdom on this score. As I’ve written before, I think that Michael Mukasey has the traits that could make him an historically important attorney general. There is no issue as to his character or abilities. But there is a very serious issue as to torture, and a litmus test which the administration seems to have put in place, as to which the Senate cannot cave without serious damage to its—and to the nation’s—reputation. And I am attuned enough to the “realities” of Washington politics to think that this is exactly what it is going to do.

But Mr. Hiatt’s suggestion is an attempt to perform a frontal lobotomy on the current debate. Why? Because torture is unlawful. It has been unlawful as long as the Republic has stood, and the illegality of the current practices is plain. The “debate” on this issue has never been a debate in any sort of reasoned, intellectual style. It has been an effort by the forces aligned with barbarity to get the entire nation to drink a carafe of red Kool Aid, to accept that black is white, and the sun rises in the west. Or to get more to the Orwellian essence of the matter, that “war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength,” the three-part mantra that lies side-by-side with “torture makes us safe.”

And even more astonishing, this intellectually vapid position is actually embraced by Senator Diane Feinstein, who should know better. In her Los Angeles Times op-ed, Feinstein writes

As Judge Mukasey wrote, waterboarding is clearly against the law for the American military. Waterboarding is clearly prohibited by the Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Convention. It was again prohibited by the Detainee Treatment Act, which only covers military interrogations.

Congress should go further and explicitly ban waterboarding and other so-called enhanced interrogation techniques for all parts of the government.

Feinstein’s statement that the Detainee Treatment Act “only covers military interrogations” is false. Indeed, this was a particular point of contention between the Bush Administration and the legislation’s sponsors, led by Senator McCain. The administration argued that the limitations should apply only to the uniformed services. But McCain and Congress disagreed. The text of the statute was explicit, and clear, and it was applicable to all persons under detention or control of the Government of the United States—i.e., it quite explicitly applies to CIA detainees, as well as the military.

There’s a common problem here. Both Senator Feinstein and the Washington Post editorial page editor have made the mistake of taking administration arguments, which are simply and plainly bogus, at face value. They picked up the tumbler of Kool Aid and drank it to the bottom.

Neither WaPo nor Senator Feinstein appear to have taken the time to examine the Anti-Torture Statute, either, which is precisely on point, provides a clear answer, and has been at the center of the debate for the last four years. The depth of their ignorance is shameful.

Marty Lederman does a good job of walking through a bit of the relevant history, and his blog post on this subject is worth reading in its entirety

– On July 6, 1955, the Senate unanimously gave its advice and consent to the ratification of the Geneva Conventions, each of which (in Article 3, which applies to al Qaeda detainees) categorically prohibits “torture” (not to mention “cruel treatment”).

– On October 27, 1990, the Senate unanimously gave its advice and consent to the ratification of the Convention Against Torture, article 2(1) of which obligated the United States to “take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.”

– In compliance with article 2(1) of the CAT, in 1994 the Senate and House approved, and on April 30, 1994 President Clinton signed, the Torture Act, which categorically prohibits torture outside the United States (18 U.S.C. 2340A(a)).

– And it’s not as if torture was legal even before the Senate, House and President acted on these instruments. As the Supreme Court recently explained, under international law (including the laws of war binding on the executive branch), the flat ban on torture is among the handful of international law norms with the greatest “definite content and acceptance among civilized nations”: Even for purposes of civil liability, “the torturer has become–like the pirate and slave trader before him–hostis humani generis, an enemy of all mankind”.

All of which is to say — and it’s fairly amazing that this still needs to be said in this day and age — if there is any single thing imaginable that the Senate, the Congress, and the world community have not “declined to do,” it is to ban torture categorically. (Even Judge Mukasey understands this: He writes it dozens of times in his responses to the Senate.)

We’re approaching four years into the great American torture debate. So why, with the passage of time, does the national debate just keep getting stupider and stupider? And why do critical voices, like those of a vitally important newspaper and of a senator generally viewed as at the golden center of a great deliberative body, demonstrate a progressive mental palsy in their ability to address such a morally essential question? These are signs that torture, at last, has begun to corrupt our nation’s vital life signs. They reflect a willingness to strike a bargain with evil. But evil knows no compromises, and those striking the bargain should think well about what they are bartering away.

Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

No Comment March 28, 2014, 12:32 pm

Scott Horton Debates John Rizzo on Democracy Now!

On CIA secrecy, torture, and war-making powers

No Comment November 4, 2013, 5:17 pm

The Torture Doctors

An expert panel concludes that the Pentagon and the CIA ordered physicians to violate the Hippocratic Oath

No Comment August 12, 2013, 7:55 am

Obama’s Snowden Dilemma

How will the Obama Administration handle Edward Snowden’s case in the long term?

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $34.99

United States Canada



May 2014

50,000 Life Coaches Can’t Be Wrong

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Quinoa Quarrel

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

You Had to Be There

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Study in Sherlock

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


“1. Death, The Sound of Perseverance (Nuclear Blast, 1998)”
Photograph (detail) by Peter Beste
You Had to Be There·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“He explained how sober Doug structured the bits and worked out the material’s logic; drunk Doug found the funny.”
Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj
[Letter from Bentonville]
Citizen Walmart·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

From the July 2012 issue

“He’s taking on a heap of debt to scale up for Walmart, a heap of debt.”
Photograph by Thomas Allen
Dark Heights·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Discussed in this essay:

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert. Henry Holt. 352 pages. $28.

The extinction symbol is a spare graphic that began to appear on London walls and sidewalks a couple of years ago. It has since become popular enough as an emblem of protest that people display it at environmental rallies. Others tattoo it on their arms. The symbol consists of two triangles inscribed within a circle, like so:

“The triangles represent an hourglass; the circle represents Earth; the symbol as a whole represents, according to a popular Twitter feed devoted to its dissemination (@extinctsymbol, 19.2K followers), “the rapidly accelerating collapse of global biodiversity” — what scientists refer to alternately as the Holocene extinction, the Anthropocene extinction, and (with somewhat more circumspection) the sixth mass extinction.

Consume, Screw, Kill·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Now may be the unlikeliest time for us to grow a conscience about how our rapacity is endangering other species, since we’re now aware of how frightfully our rapacity is endangering us.”
Collage (detail) by David McLimans

Ratio of husbands who say they fell in love with their spouse at first sight to wives who say this:


Mathematicians announced the discovery of the perfect method of cutting a cake.

Indian prime-ministerial contender Narendra Modi, who advertises his bachelorhood as a mark of his incorruptibility, confessed to having a wife.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!