Friday, March 14, 2008

The Shame of Torture

Back in 1996, Bob Dole kept asking, “Where’s the outrage?”

Today, does anybody remember what there was to be outraged about?

A few voices are crying “outrage” once again. The difference is, this time it’s for real. But who is paying attention?

Maybe we are too busy watching “American Idol.” And distracted by economic woes. And entranced by Hillary-Obama. And worn down by the war. And -- more telling -- fearful of another terrorist attack.

The American president has told the world that the United States will torture people.

That is what it comes down to. Put aside euphemisms. It’s not that the world’s most powerful country reserves the option to use “specialized interrogation procedures” or “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

What it is, is that our great democracy has sunk to tormenting people in its custody. Torture used to be the province of nasty dictators who were enemies of the United States, often because the United States had the moral authority to demand they stop.

Now, dictators can point a finger right back. And it won’t be mere propaganda.

That should be enough to send a wave of revulsion sweeping across the entire country. And I mean the entire country, not just among Democrats looking to score partisan points, and not just among earnest liberals who believe even terrorists have human rights

Conservatives too, should be something near apoplectic. Under George W. Bush, the United States has become less powerful, less able to have its way, than at any time since Jimmy Carter’s administration. And that’s even though in the months that followed the 9/11 attacks, global sympathy put the United States at the height of its influence in world affairs. The Chinese, the Russians, the Saudis -- they did not protest taking out the Taliban in Afghanistan. It was a commanding position, unforgivably frittered away by unwise use of American power

Which explains why conservatives cannot bring themselves to see the serious damage done in the past seven years. Under Carter, the United States lost power through weakening of the military and indecisiveness in the civilian leadership -- failures traditionally associated with the left and therefore easy for the foreign-policy right to recognize and criticize.

In contrast, the failures of the Bush administration are the product of misapplied right-wing philosophies. So conservatives have a hard time seeing these policies as failures.

Invade Iraq with little international support and with disregard for understanding the local culture? We can do that -- we have a great military.

Torture people to get them to talk? We can do that -- we are Americans who hold the moral high ground.

The follies committed in Iraq are so self-evident, even conservatives understand the gravity (the “surge” is but an admission of the injudiciousness that preceded it). But the folly of torture has yet to get universal condemnation from the right, except for mavericks like John McCain

Quoting international nongovernmental organizations criticizing U.S. policy is not the best way to win conservative hearts and minds. But Human Rights Watch says there is an “absolute, unequivocal prohibition against torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of any person, including terrorist suspects. The right to be free from such mistreatment is one of the most fundamental and unequivocal human rights.”

“Absolute.” “Unequivocal.” Once upon a time, American officials agreed absolutely, unequivocally. They no longer do.

Torture is not even a practical necessity. Expert interrogators from the FBI and the military believe it doesn’t work, because people will lie to stop the pain. The Army’s field manual recommends 19 techniques that range from sophisticated deceptions to appropriately aggressive good cop/bad cop. So nobody is “coddling terrorists.” And as to the “ticking time bomb,” experts say it’s a fantasy

“I’d be hard-pressed to find a situation where anybody can tell me that they’ve ever encountered a ticking bomb scenario,” former FBI interrogator Jack Cloonan, who questioned al-Qaida suspects, told “Foreign Policy” magazine. “When it happens on ‘24’... it makes us all believe it’s real. It’s not. Throw that stuff out. It doesn’t happen."

No comments: