The United States Of Torture
September 27, 2006
"The United States is committed to the world-wide elimination of
torture," George W. Bush explained in a June 2003 speech , "and we are
leading this fight by example."
Oh, the irony!
At the time, Bush seemed to have a good grasp of the relevant issues.
"Freedom from torture," he said, "is an inalienable human right."
True. "The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or
Degrading Treatment, ratified by the United States and more than 130
other countries since 1984, forbids governments from deliberately
inflicting severe physical or mental pain or suffering on those within
their custody or control." Also true. And lastly, a straightforward
recognition of who the torturers of the world are, and why they do it:
"Yet torture continues to be practiced around the world by rogue
regimes whose cruel methods match their determination to crush the
Last week, we learned that among those spirit-crushing rogue regimes
was the government of the United States of America, which is now
"leading by example" in the field of hair-splitting and wink-nod
authorizations of torture. Thanks to the recent "compromise" between
the hard-core torturers in the Bush administration and "moderate"
Republican torture opponents, we continue to live in a country that
does not officially endorse the infliction of "severe pain." That
would be torture, you see. "Serious pain," however, is fine. That's
merely cruel and degrading treatment. (The president used to be
against that, too, but, well, things change.)
The interesting thing, as David Luban points out, is that the
compromise defines "serious pain" as "bodily injury that involves
extreme physical pain," so the ultimate significance of this
distinction between serious and severe might be called into question.
More to the point, the law simply shreds the very concept of law, as
Jack Balkin explained with this rundown of the components:
Eliminating the writ of habeas corpus, denying anyone the right to
invoke rights guaranteed by Geneva in judicial actions, prohibiting
the use of any foreign sources in construing the meaning of the Geneva
Conventions, proclaiming that the president is the authoritative
source of the meaning of Geneva with respect to the War Crimes
statute, amending the War Crimes statute with language that allows the
president to continue to engage in torture-lite (after all, he is now
the authoritative source of its meaning), and finally, making all
these amendments retroactive to November 26, 1997.
Other countries, of course, practice torture in violation of
international law. As has now been clear for a while, we have been in
their company for some years. The latest twist, however, is that we
now won't show any shame about it. Rather than simply violating the
laws to which we have agreed to adhere, we're repudiating them, simply
denying that the standard by which civilized nations operate apply to us.
The problems here will be widespread. One of the strengths of
democracies on the international scene is precisely that it's much
harder for liberal states to violate agreements. Dictatorships can say
one thing and do another with ease. Democracies feature free presses,
free speech, the rule of law, independent judiciaries, legislative
oversight, and other measures to ensure that laws and treaties are
followed. This is, to the conservative mind, a weakness. In their
view, cheating is a good thing, and America's historical difficulty in
cheating constitutes a problem. They're dead wrong. Cooperation is a
good thingthe best ticket to prosperity, security, and international
peace. Democracies can cooperate with other countriesand especially
with other democraciesmore credibly and effectively, and that's one
of the reasons the world's democratic block is so much stronger and
more prosperous than the rest of the world.
But the rule of law is now off the table as far as Bush is concerned.
What's more, insofar as national-security policy is at issue, the
United States increasingly doesn't look like much of a democracy. As
the congressional Republicans march in lockstep behind the White
House's torture agenda, they don't even know the composition of that
agenda. The Boston Globe reported Saturday that 90 percent of members
of Congress don't know "which interrogation techniques have been used
in the past, and none of them know which ones would be permissible
under proposed changes to the War Crimes Act." Which is to say: In
practice, absolutely everything would be permitted, since the only
people capable of overseeing the interrogation program haven't done
it, won't do it and have no intention of doing it in the future.
Consequently, the United States now presents itself as what amounts to
the globe's largest and most powerful rogue statea nuclear-armed
superpower capable of projecting military force to the furthest
corners of the earth, acting utterly without legal or moral constraint
whenever the president proclaims it necessary. The idea that striking
such a posture on the world stage will serve our long-term interests
is daft. American power has, for decades, rested crucially on the
sense that the United States can be trusted and relied upon, on the
belief that we use our power primarily to defend the community of
liberal states and the liberal rules by which they conduct themselves
rather than to undermine them.
An America prepared to casually toss out the most fundamental
principles of international humanitarian diplomacyalong with basic
human decency and the rule of law as side helpingsis not a country
others are going to want to cooperate with. It will constitute a
threat to their interests and values. Nor will it be a country blessed
with a lot of accurate intelligence. As Soviet dissident Vladimir
Bukovsky has pointed out , an intelligence service shot-through with
demands that it torture people "degenerates into a playground for
sadists," the service itself "an army of butchers" skilled at
terrorizing its victims but hardly capable of unraveling complicated
It's a grim future brought to us by grim and deranged menby people
who seem to have developed an unhealthy level of admiration for
America's enemies. (They want the country they run to transform itself
into a facsimile of its evil adversaries.) It's a future in which it
may become increasingly hard for decent citizens of this country to
say truthfully that they're proud to be Americans.
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