During the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld blew righteous indignation at Arab news stations broadcasting interviews of captured American POWs. “The Geneva Convention indicates that it’s not permitted to photograph and embarrass or humiliate prisoners of war,” Rumsfeld huffed.
Ah, the good old days. International law like the Geneva Conventions actually meant something. What was good for the United States was good for the world. Who could possibly disagree when we talked about bringing democracy and other American values to the Middle East? Our criminal-justice system and doctrine of separation of powers as an assurance against tyranny was the envy of the world.
How surprising, then, that today these mean nothing to the current tyrant in the White House and his henchmen. “Tyrant” and “henchmen” aren’t thrown out for mere effect. Unlike Bush and Rumsfeld, who prefer phrases like “alternative interrogation techniques” when they really mean “torture,” and “military commissions” for the more truthful “military tribunal,” hiding behind words isn’t my style.
There’s plenty of garbage you can sell a nation in the grip of fear, but the Military Commissions Act of 2006 passed by Congress last week is the foulest piece of legislation to come down the federal pipe in a long time. We should be ashamed that we let our leaders get away with it, too. This law stinks worse than a dog that died choking on a skunk, and no amount of Republican fancy-pants “spin” can hide it. But let’s not be biased. Utah’s entire congressional delegation, including one “Democrat,” voted for this execrable law.
It’s a slippery piece of legal jujitsu nonetheless, allowing the more humane politicians who maneuvered it through Congress'Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), et al'plenty of wiggle room to talk about how it’s really “not that bad.” Wrong. While the Geneva Conventions have been left alone, the law grants Bush huge leeway in defining what “cruel” means. As we know, “cruel and unusual punishment” is something our Bill of Rights prohibits. So we torture detainees in Cuba, or the secret compounds in Eastern Europe President Bush finally admitted to. Torture in faraway places keeps pesky federal judges out of the way.
And torture we do. The 24 interrogation deaths reported by the Pentagon prove it. We outsource our torture to Syria and Egypt in the cases of Khaled al-Masri and Maher Arar, both innocent men. Our President doesn’t call it torture, of course. He’ll smile and say he “cannot describe the specific methods used.” That’s all that prevents people from calling him a liar when he says repeatedly, “The United States does not torture.” But when we subject detainees to water boarding, a technique with origins in the Inquisition and perfected by the Khmer Rouge, what can we call it?
Torture offends not only moral people but also those who know war firsthand. Prohibiting torture on our end keeps our troops safe because it means, as it did initially in Iraq, that enemy soldiers are more likely to surrender when they expect humane treatment from our officers. The far right points with glee to ABC reporter Brian Ross’ assertions from CIA sources that the water boarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed pried terrorist plots from his mouth. Ross’ Nov. 2005 report also reveals that three detainees died while being interrogated by U.S. officers, and that the water boarding of Ibn al Shaykh al Libbi finally resulted in him stating that Iraq had connections to al-Qaeda. Ross’ report also said al Libbi’s statements were later discredited. “This is the problem with using the waterboard. They get so desperate that they begin telling you what they think you want to hear,” Ross’ source told him. So, tell us please, when does torture produce reliable information?
The second monstrous head of this law rests in provisions giving Bush and Rumsfeld the power to determine who passes for an “enemy combatant” under a “competent tribunal” they alone establish. Drilling further into the tyrannical abyss, the law strips enemy combatants of habeas corpus appeals challenging the lawfulness of their detention. Anyone, anywhere in the world could be seized by U.S. officials and then detained without trial for as long as Bush determines. Having missed the title of his book by 22 years, George Orwell must be spinning in his grave.
Most horrific of all, we’ve no idea if we’re holding the right people when we seize them, lock them up indefinitely without trial, and then torture them. Nor do we seem to care. Of the 460 detainees held at Guantanamo, only 10 have been charged with any crime. Pentagon and Red Cross reports tell us only 10 percent of prisoners at Abu Ghraib were guilty of any crime. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell looks cute telling us that “the world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism,” but we might as well face facts. We like it when people suffer under brutal, indefensible laws drawn up by our brutal, indefensible leaders. Who cares about such trifles as guilt or innocence? Not us.
The far-right errs in invoking the legacy of President Lincoln, who suspended habeas during the Civil War, a time of true constitutional crisis. But Lincoln wasn’t afraid of facing the legal consequences, and often sought congressional approval of his actions after the fact. There’s a stark difference between suspending habeas for a time, and suspending it by law while treating the judicial branch with contempt and the legislative branch as an afterthought, as Bush has done.
Don’t forget that terrorists have been successfully prosecuted and sentenced without military tribunals. Zacharias Moussaoui and Ramzi Yousef, the first to try bringing down the World Trade Center in 1993, were both tried and sentenced in federal courts. Accused terrorist JosÃ© Padilla waits his turn. Our current justice system works fine because, unlike this new law, it’s a true system of justice.
Here we are, folks. A war fought in defense of freedom has instead compromised it. Is it just me, or does it feel like the terrorists are winning?