Wealthy Frenchman

Monday, September 18, 2006

King of Pain


A lot has been written and said about President Bush’s demand that Congress “clarify” the part of the Geneva Conventions that, in effect, outlaws the use of torture under any circumstances.

We know that the world would see this action as a U.S. repudiation of the rules that bind civilized nations. We also know that an extraordinary lineup of former military and intelligence leaders, including Colin Powell, have spoken out against the Bush plan, warning that it would further damage America’s faltering moral standing, and end up endangering U.S. troops.

But I haven’t seen much discussion of the underlying question: why is Mr. Bush so determined to engage in torture?

Let’s be clear what we’re talking about here. According to an ABC News report from last fall, procedures used by C.I.A. interrogators have included forcing prisoners to “stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours”; the “cold cell,” in which prisoners are forced “to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees,” while being doused with cold water; and, of course, water boarding, in which “the prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet,” then “cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him,” inducing “a terrifying fear of drowning.”

And bear in mind that the “few bad apples” excuse doesn’t apply; these were officially approved tactics — and Mr. Bush wants at least some of these tactics to remain in use.

I’m ashamed that my government does this sort of thing. I’d be ashamed even if I were sure that only genuine terrorists were being tortured — and I’m not. Remember that the Bush administration has imprisoned a number of innocent men at Guantánamo, and in some cases continues to imprison them even though it knows they are innocent.

Is torture a necessary evil in a post-9/11 world? No. People with actual knowledge of intelligence work tell us that reality isn’t like TV dramas, in which the good guys have to torture the bad guy to find out where he planted the ticking time bomb.

What torture produces in practice is misinformation, as its victims, desperate to end the pain, tell interrogators whatever they want to hear. Thus Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi — who ABC News says was subjected to both the cold cell and water boarding — told his questioners that Saddam Hussein’s regime had trained members of Al Qaeda in the use of biochemical weapons. This “confession” became a key part of the Bush administration’s case for invading Iraq — but it was pure invention.

So why is the Bush administration so determined to torture people?

To show that it can.

The central drive of the Bush administration — more fundamental than any particular policy — has been the effort to eliminate all limits on the president’s power. Torture, I believe, appeals to the president and the vice president precisely because it’s a violation of both law and tradition. By making an illegal and immoral practice a key element of U.S. policy, they’re asserting their right to do whatever they claim is necessary.

And many of our politicians are willing to go along. The Republican majority in the House of Representatives is poised to vote in favor of the administration’s plan to, in effect, declare torture legal. Most Republican senators are equally willing to go along, although a few, to their credit, have stood with the Democrats in opposing the administration.

Mr. Bush would have us believe that the difference between him and those opposing him on this issue is that he’s willing to do what’s necessary to protect America, and they aren’t. But the record says otherwise.

The fact is that for all his talk of being a “war president,” Mr. Bush has been conspicuously unwilling to ask Americans to make sacrifices on behalf of the cause — even when, in the days after 9/11, the nation longed to be called to a higher purpose. His admirers looked at him and thought they saw Winston Churchill. But instead of offering us blood, toil, tears and sweat, he told us to go shopping and promised tax cuts.

Only now, five years after 9/11, has Mr. Bush finally found some things he wants us to sacrifice. And those things turn out to be our principles and our self-respect.


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