April 30, 2009

A Simple and Straightforward Case

As This Modern World illustrates, ongoing efforts by Bush Administration apologists, self-styled masters of real politik, and Fox News Channel talking heads to cloud the issue of American torture policy is, at its heart, ridiculous. That hasn't stopped people like Michael Sheuer, an outspoken former CIA analyst noted for his expertise on radical Islam - but not on either law or interrogation - from making an ass of himself.

In a Washington Post editorial - the opening paragraphs of which could double for an episode of the television show 24 - Mr. Sheuer does his level best to fear monger and fly fully in the face of not only the expert opinion of experienced interrogators, but of the rule of law:
Americans should be clear on what Obama has done. In a breathtaking display of self-righteousness and intellectual arrogance, the president told Americans that his personal beliefs are more important than protecting their country, their homes and their families. The interrogation techniques in question, the president asserted, are a sign that Americans have lost their "moral compass," a compliment similar to Attorney General Eric Holder's identifying them as "moral cowards." Mulling Obama's claim, one can wonder what could be more moral for a president than doing all that is needed to defend America and its citizens? Or, asked another way, is it moral for the president of the United States to abandon intelligence tools that have saved the lives and property of Americans and their allies in favor of his own ideological beliefs?
There are so many things wrong with this single paragraph - let alone the entire column - that it is a daunting task to examine them all, so the only thing to do is take it head-on. Simply stated, President Obama did NOT assert that his personal beliefs outweigh the security of the nation. Rather, he stated - rightly, given our prosecution of others who have performed it on American prisoners of war - that waterboarding is torture, and that torture is illegal.

Again, for the benefit of people like Michael Sheuer, President Ronald Reagan signed the United Nations Convention Against Torture, and that treaty was ratified by the Senate. Those two facts make the Convention domestic American law - however inconvenient that might be for some - and that document defines torture as follows:

Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.
Could it be any more clear that Mr. Obama's position is wholly in keeping with the rule of law that is the very foundation of the United States? Apparently for Mr. Sheuer, further clarification is, in fact, required, since his next line of attack is to attempt the justification of torture as some sort of moral imperative because he believes it works.

Once more: It is completely, one hundred percent irrelevant if torture works always, sometimes or never. No one - NO ONE - in the United States is above the law, and torture is illegal. And just how twisted does one's brain have to be in order to make the case that torture is the moral thing to do?

If the Michael Scheuers of the world - not to mention the Dick Cheneys and Sean Hannitys - really believe that torture is a crucial tool that American interrogators cannot do without, why don't they simply advocate U.S. withdrawal from the Convention Against Torture? The answer is simple; they believe such a campaign would be untenable, and that they have the right, therefore, to circumvent the law. They see themselves as anointed to do as they please in the name of "protecting" us, and entitled to use whatever shortsighted tactics are at their disposal, no matter the long term cost to the country.

President Obama could not have been more right when he said this on Wednesday night, at his press conference:
What I've said - and I will repeat - is that waterboarding violates our ideals and our values. I do believe that it is torture. I don't think that's just my opinion; that's the opinion of many who've examined the topic. And that's why I put an end to these practices.

I am absolutely convinced it was the right thing to do, not because there might not have been information that was yielded by these various detainees who were subjected to this treatment, but because we could have gotten this information in other ways, in ways that were consistent with our values, in ways that were consistent with who we are.

I was struck by an article that I was reading the other day talking about the fact that the British during World War II, when London was being bombed to smithereens, had 200 or so detainees. And Churchill said, "We don't torture," when the entire British - all of the British people were being subjected to unimaginable risk and threat.

And then the reason was that Churchill understood - you start taking shortcuts, over time, that corrodes what's - what's best in a people. It corrodes the character of a country.

And - and so I strongly believed that the steps that we've taken to prevent these kinds of enhanced interrogation techniques will make us stronger over the long term and make us safer over the long term because it will put us in a - in a position where we can still get information.

In some cases, it may be harder, but part of what makes us, I think, still a beacon to the world is that we are willing to hold true to our ideals even when it's hard, not just when it's easy.
The case against torture is a simple and straightforward one:
  • Torture is clearly illegal
  • We are a nation of laws, not of men
  • Allowing torture to continue - or go unpunished - therefore begins to unravel the very framework of the United States.
It is vital that we show not only people like Michael Sheuer, but ourselves and the rest of the world - both our friends and our enemies - that we are better than torturers and criminals. For if we acquiesce to crimes committed in our names, that tolerance only makes us accomplices, and worse, brands us too weak to stand up for our nation.

Below is a pretty riveting video from - of all places - Playboy TV, that provides an excellent look at waterboarding and its effects.

1 comment:

Barry said...

Another terrific post, Paul. So maybe great minds do think alike!