Tyrannical defenders of democracy

A quote from A Prayer For Owen Meany:

My Aunt Martha—like many Americans—could become quite tyrannical in the defense of democracy.

John Irving published A Prayer For Owen Meany in 1989. I guess tyranny in defence of democracy isn’t strictly a post-9/11 development.

The quote is from p. 114 in my edition of the novel.

Why I am reluctant to call myself a Christian


The reason I am not Christian is because of Christians.

I came across that quote years ago, attributed to Gandhi. I can’t demonstrate that Gandhi actually said it, because I don’t know the original source. But the attribution makes sense:  Gandhi was profoundly influenced by Christ’s example of non-violent resistance, yet he never converted to Christianity.

I’m thinking about that quote this week because I am so deeply discouraged by my fellow Christians. I’ve also been thinking of Bruce Cockburn, who once professed at a concert:

I’m a Christian, but I’m not one of those Christians.

Cockburn made that statement during the Reagan/Bush 41 era. Presumably he’s still making the same apology; neo-conservative Christians haven’t improved any in the past 16 years.

Why am I about ready to disown my Christian brothers and sisters? Because white evangelicals are the most pro-torture of any demographic group in the USA.

That’s the conclusion I draw, based on a new survey carried out by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. According to white evangelical Protestants, the use of torture against suspected terrorists is often (18%) or sometimes (44%) justified. That’s a combined 62% who support torture.

Note the following three points about the survey:

  • It referred explicitly to “torture” (not something mealy-mouthed like “enhanced interrogation techniques” ).
  • It asked about the torture of “suspected terrorists”, not “terrorists” — there’s a big difference.
  • In this survey, “sometimes justified” is a clear expression of support for torture. It’s the middle option between “often justified” and “rarely justified”.


Easier to get forgiveness

E.D. Kain ponders torture:

There are lines a free society simply cannot cross, even in order to protect its security, and if it does choose to cross them well then it ought to do so with the full force of the law at its back, in public. If it has to be done under the cold cloak of secrecy, then perhaps we shouldn’t be doing it at all.

Why didn’t Vice President Dick Cheney and the rest of the Bush Administration go the route that Kain prefers? Why didn’t they invite a public debate by openly proposing the legalization of torture? (Before they had actually begun to torture.)

The answer is found in the aphorism, “Sometimes it’s easier to get forgiveness than to get permission.”

Americans would never have approved the legalization of torture in the cold light of day. Not even in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. But once torture was a fait accompli — after the information had come out in a slow trickle over five or six years — that’s different.

It’s surprising what one’s conscience can adjust to.

Establishment media figures think we should just bury the whole sorry episode. Peggy Noonan, for example:  “Some things in life need to be mysterious. […] Sometimes you need to just keep walking.”

Likewise, leading politicians. John McCain is a staunch opponent of torture, but here he is echoing Noonan:  “We’ve got to move on.”

Sweep it under the rug. What’s done is done; what’s past is past. It’s water under the bridge. Even President Obama is fond of saying that America should look forward, not back.

And so Dick Cheney, John Yoo, Jay ByBee and other torture architects stand to be forgiven for a gross violation of America’s historic values:

As I said in China this spring, there is no place for abuse in what must be considered the family of man. There is no place for torture and arbitrary detention. […] I explained to President Jiang how the roots of American rule of law go back more than 700 years, to the signing of the Magna Carta. The foundation of American values, therefore, is not a passing priority or a temporary trend.

Newt Gingrich in 1997, back when Republicans still opposed torture

Cheney, Bybee, Yoo — and Bush himself — may yet get forgiveness. But they never could have gotten permission:  that’s why they acted “under the cold cloak of secrecy.”

John McCain calls torture, torture

It was reported this week that CIA interrogators waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times.

At least KSM was more than a mere suspect (unlike many of the other victims of American torture), since he confessed that he was the mastermind of 9/11. But after the first half dozen or so instances, the CIA interrogators were surely just getting their jollies at KSM’s expense.

Here’s John McCain, who suffered torture in Vietnam, reacting to this week’s news:

I applaud Senator McCain for being so plain-spoken where other commentators use weasel words. Waterboarding is torture. Waterboarding someone even once is too often. The torture of detainees has made America less secure, not more secure.

I disagree with Senator McCain when he criticizes President Obama for releasing the torture memos. Our government established a torture regime, and actually tortured individuals who in some cases were innocent — that’s not the sort of issue you just sweep under the rug. It smacks of “my country, right or wrong.”

I don’t even like President Obama’s habit of referring to the practice of torture as “a mistake”. I agree that it didn’t serve America’s best interests. But “mistake” implies that President Bush and Vice President Cheney didn’t mean to torture anyone — Whoops!

On the contrary, this was premeditated:  a careful policy, crafted several years after 9/11, when sufficient time had passed that no one should have been motivated by blind panic.

The Bush Administration must be held accountable. If that means prosecution in a court of law, so be it. But, at the very least, they should be held accountable in the court of public opinion, after their deeds have been exposed to the cold light of day.

Remember:  “the buck stops here“.

The torture memos

Today, President Obama released four memos to the public. The memos were written by the Office of Legal Counsel during the Bush Administration. The memos authorized interrogators to use so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” when interrogating suspects in the war on terror.

But let’s call torture, torture. As Glenn Greenwald emphasizes, the Office of Legal Counsel was aware that the U.S. government had condemned the same practices when other countries employed them.

The US government denounced some of those practices explicitly as torture. Here’s a key quote from one of the memos:

Each year, in the State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the United States condemns coercive interrogation techniques and other practices employed by other countries. Certain of the techniques the United States has condemned appear to bear some resemblance to some of the CIA interrogation techniques.

Those are weasel words. It isn’t merely that “certain of the techniques” bear “some” resemblance to CIA interrogation techniques. We’re talking about a whole range of practices, which are the very same practices that the torture memos authorize.

For example, when Indonesia utilized food and sleep deprivation, the USA condemned it as “psychological torture”. And the discussion of Egypt refers to “stripping and blindfolding victims; suspending victims from a ceiling or doorframe with feet just touching the floor; beating victims … and dousing victims with cold water” as “methods of torture”.

The memo goes on to say that the condemnation of such practices is only a matter of diplomacy, and therefore of “limited relevance”. The memos thus proceed to provide CIA interrogators with legal cover when they practice those same, condemned, methods of torture.

President Obama continues to resist demands (widespread among left-leaning bloggers) that the US government prosecute Americans who authorized or participated in the torture regime. But I would like to highlight one part of the statement the President delivered today:

In releasing these memos, it is our intention to assure those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice that they will not be subject to prosecution.

Note the phrase, “in good faith”. In a very lawyerly way, President Obama has left the door open for the prosecution of individuals whose actions were not “in good faith”.

I’m intrigued by that, particularly as it extends to the lawyers — for example, then Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee — who authorized the practice of torture. Were they themselves acting “in good faith”?

More likely, they knew full well that the official legal advice they were proferring was bogus. But they wrote the memos anyway, in order to carry out the wishes of their political masters.

When you knowingly profer bogus legal advice, it doesn’t count as “in good faith”.

I guarantee that Bybee, Gonzales and others are looking over their shoulders these days. This story isn’t going to blow over in a matter of weeks. It’s going to play out for years, if necessary, but one day these men are likely to be held accountable for their deeds.

Hopefully, accountability will reach all the way to the offices of Vice President Cheney and President Bush. “The buck stops here” — remember that maxim?

The page turns

The Bush Administration prisoner, torture and rendition apparatus was effectively dismantled today with four pen strokes.

That’s Marc Ambinder, commenting on the orders that President Obama signed yesterday. I’ll continue to follow Ambinder’s account, except that I’ve reformatted it.

  1. prisoner:
    President Obama convened a panel to determine how to close the Guantanamo Bay detainee prison within a year. […] He ordered the government to give the International Committee of the Red Cross immediate access to detainees. All CIA “black” [i.e., secret, hidden] detention facilities will be closed.
  2. torture:
    He ordered that all intelligence gatherers limit their interrogation techniques to the published Army Field Manual, revoking Executive Order 13440, the now infamous Bush administration gloss on the Geneva Conventions. […] He explicitly rejects the legal advice promulgated by President Bush’s legal counsel on interrogation policy.
  3. rendition:
    Renditions to countries that are known to torture prisoners will be stopped.

In relation to torture, I love this point:  He explicitly rejects the legal advice promulgated by President Bush’s legal counsel on interrogation policy. Ben Smith supplies a direct quote:

The Order also prohibits reliance on any Department of Justice or other legal advice concerning interrogation that was issued between September 11, 2001 and January 20, 2009.

I don’t know how this plays in the USA, but it will definitely receive two thumbs up from the international community.

Turning the page on torture

Remember: even the Pentagon concedes that a dozen prisoners have been tortured to death by US interrogators. Human rights groups put that number at close to a hundred. Most of the techniques we saw displayed at Abu Ghraib were authorized by the president and vice-president. And they monitored the waterboarding sessions very closely.

Andrew Sullivan

On Tuesday, Barack Obama will become the President of the United States of America. I strongly supported his candidacy, in part because he forthrightly opposed torture.

That’s a big change from the current administration.

Obama remains steadfast on this point, even though he’s no longer running for office. Here he is on Sunday, on ABC’s This Week. The discussion of torture is kicked off when Stephanopoulos quotes Dick Cheney at 1:33.

I’m not thrilled to see Obama waffle on the CIA’s “special” program. But he sounds all the right notes when he refers successively to the rule of law, the U.S. constitution, international standards, and America’s core values and ideals.

President Bush pays lip service to those concepts, too. He insists that all of the interrogation techniques his administration employed were lawful — even waterboarding. (Beginning at around forty seconds here.)

Obama is a constitutional lawyer; he knows what the law actually says. And I’m prepared to trust him when he says that his administration will act within the law.

America’s first black President? — that’s wonderful!

A President who will not torture? — that’s downright priceless!

Previous Older Entries