November 17, 2006

What Bush's Torture Law Means

We recently had a discussion about what constitutes torture, whether information obtained by harsh interrogation methods can be used as evidence in secret trials, whether defendants can be sentenced to death without seeing or being able to dispute the evidence against them, and whether people can be locked away forever without charge and without any recourse to the courts. The Congress just passed a bill that enshrines both “harsh interrogation” methods and denies habeas corpus for anyone who is accused of “purposefully and materially supporting hostilities against the United States” no matter if that support came in the shape of donating money to a cause only to find out that the cause was a front for “terrorists.” In voting for this bill, the Congress has eviscerated major portions of our Bill of Rights and what it means to be a liberal democracy as envisioned by our founding fathers. With less than a week of debate, they have set the United States on the road to being a banana republic where the rule of law no longer applies.

So why is this bill so dangerous? And what does this portend for our future?

The danger arises from the secret, unaccountable license for brutality.

Throughout human history, people have displayed a weakness for cruelty and violence which our communities and societies restrain by laws and rules that put brutality outside the bounds of acceptable behavior. As Arnold Toynbee wrote in 1970

In the social and spiritual fields, the battle for humanity against the innate savagery of human nature has to be fought by every human being in his own soul, from his awakening to consciousness until he is overtaken by death or by senility. Self-mastery, love and forgiveness are the first and last demands that man is called upon to make on his sinful nature. This is the unanimous teaching of all the historic religions and philosophies.

George W Bush started the most recent debate by bringing to Guantanamo some of the al Qaeda leaders that had been held for years in secret prisons with the expressed desire to try these prisoners for their crimes. He acknowledged that these detainees had been interrogated using techniques that are considered cruel and inhuman under the Geneva Convention and the evidence that would be used to try them would be from the “confessions” that they gave while being interrogated. With this action, the Bush administration sought to force the Congress to retroactively sanction the use of these techniques and to define the rules under which these prisoners would be tried, both of which are explicitly in violation of the rule of law our forefathers set up in the Bill of Rights.

Bush insisted that the “harsh interrogation” methods used by the CIA are not torture and declared that they are essential in fighting terrorists. Under the crassest display of hardball politics, the administration bullied the Congress to codify Bush’s definition of torture. Not included in Bush’s definition is the technique known as “water-boarding” because he asserts that this technique must continue to be available for use on those he calls “evil.” Nevertheless, civilized people know that water-boarding has a long and dark history and has always been considered torture.

We’ve known since last year what “harsh interrogation” techniques the Bush administration sought to make legal even though Bush refused to enumerate them. (He declared that terrorists would be able to withstand them if they are prepared for them.) Last November, ABC news described the six “enhanced interrogation techniques” which had been instituted by the CIA in 2002 and which were being actively used at a number of secret locations outside the United States on detainees.

Water Boarding: The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner's face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.

According to the sources, CIA officers who subjected themselves to the water boarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in. They said al Qaeda's toughest prisoner, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, won the admiration of interrogators when he was able to last between two and two-and-a-half minutes before begging to confess.

Today, the Bush administration has bragged that the techniques, including water-boarding were instrumental in giving them the information they needed to “protect Americans.” But the problem is the use of water boarding wasn’t designed to get accurate information, but to extract confessions. This is a technique that we adopted from the worst regimes in the world: the Khymer Rouge, the North Vietnamese, the North Koreans and the Stalinists.


David Corn published some pictures and commentary from Jonah Blank in regards to his visit to a museum in Cambodia that shows the actual water boards used by the Khymer Rouge.

Jonah: “The similarity between practices used by the Khymer Rouge and those currently being debated by Congress isn't a coincidence. As has been amply documented ("The New Yorker" had an excellent piece, and there have been others), many of the "enhanced techniques" came to the CIA and military interrogators via the SERE [Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape] schools, where US military personnel are trained to resist torture if they are captured by the enemy. The specific types of abuse they're taught to withstand are those that were used by our Cold War adversaries. Why is this relevant to the current debate? Because the torture techniques of North Korea, North Vietnam, the Soviet Union and its proxies--the states where US military personnel might have faced torture--were NOT designed to elicit truthful information. These techniques were designed to elicit CONFESSIONS. That's what the Khymer Rouge et al were after with their waterboarding, not truthful information.

And this explains a large part of the problem. People who have subjected themselves to torture are more than likely ready to subject others to it. Just as many who were abused as children, grow up to be abusers because they need to identify with the powerful, and not the victims. Others including our President are attracted to harsh techniques because they are enamored with the sheer sense of power one gets when they indulge in brutal force.

But people who have lived under regimes that use torture warn that when a society condones torture, the outcome is not safety. Decent and good people will not work in an organization that allows these actions and so, what you are left with are the sadists and morally compromised who are incapable of solving the simplest of crimes. What you have is a society where brutality and cruelty takes over and no one is safe from the arbitrary and capricious capos who someday could decide that you or your children are guilty of some imaginary crime.

The worst part of the bill is that our Congress -- made of people who grew up in a free society with all the privileges and protections of the Constitution, a Constitution that they’ve sworn to protect and defend -- voted to say that the right of habeas corpus could be tossed aside. The right to habeas corpus is the oldest and most traditional of all our civil liberties having been hard won by the English people early in the 14th century and it is the one essential barrier to tyranny because it holds rulers accountable. Yet, our Congress voted to allow the government to essentially “disappear” people forever. And when people are “disappeared”, never to be seen again, then the most horrific things can happen to them and no one will ever know. It is in this poisoned environment where secret, unaccountable brutality is condoned that the worst of human nature will thrive and undermine whatever was good about this land.

Thomas Jefferson once said, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his Justice cannot sleep forever.” Today, I too tremble for my country.

[Ed: This was another of my articles written for the Vox Populi Nebraska eZine first published in the October 2006 issue.]

Posted by Mary at November 17, 2006 12:15 AM | Human Rights | Technorati links |

It is very simple, and has been stated as the obvious so so many times: If it looks like torture, it probably is. A no-brainer for sure. So, apparently most Americans are so caught up in there proverbial "lifestyles" they don't take the time to differentiate, or even seem to care about these issues. Our collective indifference will be the end of us at some point, and that's the way the world goes round'.

Posted by: benmerc at November 18, 2006 10:01 AM