Friday, September 29, 2006

The Torture Bill

This issue will continue to damn our country until we substantially change course. It evokes incredible passion because it is so central to the notion of fair play, rationality, and reasoned law that have been the American brand worldwide for centuries. Now, we have traded that core value for a double standard, where the US executive branch can stand outside both US and international law, and deny due process to ANYONE arbitrarily. Imagine our founding fathers facing that sort of enviroment in Britain of the 18th century. Taxation without representation is mild by comparison.

The liberal blogosphere is full of vehement disclaimers which, while extreme, certainly echo much of my own frustration and shame at the passage of the latest Bill.

Here is one example from John Scalzi:

I'm proud to be an American, but I'm tired of being ashamed of my government. I'm tired of having to count the seconds until this bilious waste of a president is shoved out the door in January of 2009. I'm tired of hoping that some members of the president's political party might actually put principle over political expedience, particularly when it concerns the Constitution. And I'm tired of waiting for the opposing party to actually grow a goddamned spine and become an opposing party. I'm tired of wondering why the people we elect to lead us don't seem to actually understand what it means to be American, and to be moral, and to do what it right for us. And I'm tired of having to look so hard for genuine leadership as opposed to the sham idiot version we have now. I feel like Diogenes, and I'm coming up short.

I'm tired of being led by moral cowards. I want better for myself, and for my country.

Here is a more reasoned post From Sean Carroll over at Cosmic Variance:

The Senate has voted 65-34 in favor of S. 3930, “A bill to authorize trial by military commission for violations of the law of war, and for other purposes.” Here, “trial by military commission” means that, if you are an unlawful enemy combatant, you have no right to a trial by your peers or any other basic protections of the Bill of Rights. (Who counts as an “enemy combatant”? Whomever the government says. Even U.S. citizens who haven’t even left the country, much less engaged in combat? Yes.) And “other purposes” means torturing people.

I remember when Republicans used to look at government with suspicion. Now the motto of the Republican Party is “Trust us, we’re the government, we know what’s best and we don’t make mistakes.”

Acording to Glenn Greenwald: During the debate on his amendment, Arlen Specter said that the bill sends us back 900 years because it denies habeas corpus rights and allows the President to detain people indefinitely. He also said the bill violates core Constitutional protections. Then he voted for it.
To my surprise, I actually completely agree with the following statement from Senator Hillary Clinton:

"The rule of law cannot be compromised. We must stand for the rule of law before the world, especially when we are under stress and under threat. We must show that we uphold our most profound values…

The bill before us allows the admission into evidence of statements derived through cruel, inhuman and degrading interrogation. That sets a dangerous precedent that will endanger our own men and women in uniform overseas. Will our enemies be less likely to surrender? Will informants be less likely to come forward? Will our soldiers be more likely to face torture if captured? Will the information we obtain be less reliable? These are the questions we should be asking. And based on what we know about warfare from listening to those who have fought for our country, the answers do not support this bill. As Lieutenant John F. Kimmons, the Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence said, “No good intelligence is going to come from abusive interrogation practices.”…

This bill undermines the Geneva Conventions by allowing the President to issue Executive Orders to redefine what permissible interrogation techniques happen to be. Have we fallen so low as to debate how much torture we are willing to stomach? By allowing this Administration to further stretch the definition of what is and is not torture, we lower our moral standards to those whom we despise, undermine the values of our flag wherever it flies, put our troops in danger, and jeopardize our moral strength in a conflict that cannot be won simply with military might.

I find this evolution to be a horrific corruption that strikes at the very heart of American values in being above reproach, and in having checks and balances on Executive power.

Unsurprisingly, almost every Republican voted for the Bill. My only consolation is the hope that perhaps with the upcoming mid-term and Presidential elections enough Democrats will be elected to force the Republicans to live with that uncomfortable balance weilded by a liberal administration long enough to want to eventually overturn this corruption. Of course then we will have a whole set of additional problems to manage fom liberal excesses, but at least the moral double standard, and the shame that goes with it, might be retired.


Anonymous said...

Hard to know where exactly to begin.

There seems to be an inconsistency in the fact that we, as a nation, can identify a moral quandary when it comes to using medical knowledge gained by torture, but we do not seem to be equally capable of identifying the same moral quandary when it comes to using "intel" gained by torture.

There seems to be another inconsistency in the fact that the movement to legalize some (yet to be clearly defined) forms of torture is being spearheaded by a bunch of people who believe in the literal truth of the bible when it comes to creation, but not (apparently) when it comes to our treatment of other living, breathing people.

One question I have addresses the use of the term "American values." What are those? The values of our nation's founders do not seem to (in far too many ways) coincide with the values of the current nation's elected leaders, and by extension, the majority of people who voted them into office.

I fear that "American values" have simply evolved to an extent that they no longer express my own. I only hope (without knowing how futile this hope is) that it is possible to recapture the original version before we sink any further.

Phillip Alvelda said...

There are really two aspects to what most appalls me.

The first, is the sad truth that it is possible for an American administration to even start to equivocate on what is, and what is not, torture. As with most moral gray areas, if you have to ask yourself that sort of question, you are clearly no longer above reproach. And if there is any one individual or institution that should be above reproach, it is the Presidency of this country. Worse, when the entire rest of the civilized world agrees that what has been proposed 9and now passed in the new Bill) violates the Geneva Convention, we're way past the gray area, with abundant reproach incoming from all directions. We are no longer the beacon of decency and fairness that led the nations in the World Wars. The fact that someone can weather the shame of even having this conversation with Senator John McCain who was, in fact, tortured is just inconceivable to me.

The second appalling aspect is that there is such a clear double standard in the definitions. We can use methods "FOR OTHER PURPOSES" (aggressive interrogation techniques no characterized as torture even by our allies) on "ENEMY COMBATANTS" but not on American citizens. This is an explicit institutionalization of a biased treatment that specifically undermines the spirit of the Geneva Convention which is that fair treatment is the right of all people and should be reciprocated even in war. Now you can certainly argue that the Iraqi insurgents are not signatories of the Geneva accords, but the "we only did it because that other guy was already doing it" argument isn't even remotely acceptable as a defense in our nation's civil courts. So I think it is pretty clear that it is not acceptable from our government. Ultimately I believe the bending of the moral standard as to what comprises torture combined with the clear dual standard with respect to citizens vs. others (a fact that is clearly and unambiguously called out worldwide) serve only to undermine any moral claim to fairness or leadership we can either make, or expect from any international partner for the next generation.

Given that any number of intelligence experts have testified that intelligence gained under torture is typically of very limited worth (because typically at some point the victim just starts to tell you what you want to hear to end the mistreatment) I think it was a very poor trade indeed. The sooner we can correct the situation, the better. Sadly, even if we start today, I think it will take decades if not longer.