June 3, 2007

The Tarnished City on a Hill

On Friday, President George W. Bush attempted to muster some righteous outrage about the detention of four Iranian-Americans by the regime in Tehran, condemning Iran's imprisonment of American citizens and calling for them to be freed "immediately and unconditionally." In a prepared statement, the president added, "Their presence in Iran - to visit their parents or to conduct humanitarian work - poses no threat."

Iran, for its part, accuses the United States of using intellectuals and others inside the country to undermine the Islamic Republic through what it calls a "velvet revolution." Dual U.S.-Iranian citizens Haleh Esfandiari, an academic, Kian Tajbakhsh, a social scientist, and Parnaz Azima, a journalist, have been charged with spying. A fourth Iranian-American, Ali Shakeri, a California businessman, has also been detained, and if convicted, the four could face death under Islamic Sharia law.

Meanwhile, only one day earlier, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a wide-ranging report to accompany authorizing legislation for American intelligence programs. Among the items evaluated in that report was the "secret interrogation" program run by the Central Intelligence Agency, which includes techniques pioneered in the modern era by none other than the Gestapo, Adolph Hitler's secret police. As part of the authorization process, Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Diane Feinstein (D-CA) led an effort to cut off funding for the CIA interrogation program, but were stymied by one of their own, Democrat Bill Nelson of Florida.

Nelson crossed party lines to defeat the Whithouse-Feinstein amendment, ensuring that the Central Intelligence Agency would have a free hand to continue using techniques such as waterboarding, which are in violation of law enforcement standards of procedure, the U.S. Army field manual and the Geneva Conventions. Unable to financially strangle this abomination, committee leaders were left to weakly conclude:
More than five years after the decision to start the program, the committee believes that consideration should be given to whether it [the CIA program] is the best means to obtain a full and reliable intelligence debriefing of a detainee... Both the Congress and the administration must continue to evaluate whether having a separate CIA detention program that operates under different interrogation rules than those applicable to military and law enforcement officers is necessary, lawful and in the best interests of the United States.
Two weeks prior to Nelson's betrayal of real American values, the second Republican presidential debate was held in South Carolina, with the leading candidates working hard to establish their conservative credentials (at least as they are defined today in the United States). Pushing hardest was former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who, when asked about interrogation methods for terrorist suspects, declared that he would like to double the capacity of the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which houses more than 500 foreign nationals outside of the American judicial system. Demonstrating a thorough contempt for American values and the lessons of history, Romney opined:
I don't want them on our soil. I want them on Guantanamo, where they don't get the access to lawyers that they get when they're on our soil. I don't want them in our prisons. I want them there. Some people have said we ought to close Guantanamo. My view is we ought to double Guantanamo.
The upshot of all this is that, in our panic to use any means to fight the battle for security, we have already begun losing the war. The four Iranian-Americans may be completely innocent of the charges that have been leveled against them, but in a day when the President Bush has authorized the CIA to pursue renewed destabilization efforts against Tehran, it is certainly possible that they are not.

In either case, however, the United States has ceded any moral high ground we might otherwise claim with regard to prisoner treatment and judicial review for detainees. Our policies at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, our extraordinary rendition program, and our moral exceptionalism in the wake of 9/11 are placing our troops and our citizens in greater danger of mistreatment at the hands of our emeies. "Secret interrogations" undermine everything we are supposed to stand for as Americans, and as Lieutenant Commander Charles Swift put it:
It‘s not whether they deserve it or not. It‘s how we conduct ourselves. It has to do where if we say that our opponent can cause us not to follow the rules anymore, then we‘ve lost who we are. We‘re the good guys. We‘re the guys who follow the rule and the people we fight are the bad guys and we show that every day when we follow the rules, regardless of what they do. It‘s what sets us apart. It‘s what makes us great and in my mind, it‘s what makes us undefeatable, ultimately.
To be clear, the mullahs in Tehran are a theocratic dictatorship with a stranglehold on political power that they are in no way inclined to relinquish. But if civil liberties in Iran are a joke, we have made it easier for that country's leaders to maintain the repression of its citizens; they can simply claim they are acting no worse than that one-time beacon of liberty, that now-tarnished shining city on a hill, the United States of America.

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