May 5, 2009

What Kind of Country Do We Want To Be?

As the issue of American torture policy continues to ripple through the country, the moral bankruptcy and base ignorance of some of its leading supporters have been increasingly on display. Last Thursday, for example, in an informal interview with several students at Stanford University, Bush Administration Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice not only appeared to implicate herself in a criminal conspiracy, but leaned heavily on the megalomaniacal precedent of Richard M. Nixon, stating in regard to torture policy, "By definition, if it was authorized by the president, it did not violate our obligations under the Convention Against Torture."

On Sunday, The Daily Beast published an extensive interview of the first two Bush Administration Attorneys General, John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales. As usual, the latter seemed to take great pains to demonstrate that he is more consiglieri than lawyer, and that he simply doesn't understand what "rule of law" means. Asked his opinion on the release of the Bush torture policy memos, Mr. Gonzales exhibited a fundamental failure to grasp that every citizen of the United States - including the president - is subject to the same set of legal strictures, missing the point of the disclosures by a wide margin:
And then secondly, to say that we have now discontinued these [torture] techniques. They may be necessary in the future. And by disclosing it, means you take them off the table and they can never be used again.
Of course the need to keep illegal tactics in our back pocket "just in case" is only one more in the long line of foolish and unsupportable justifications for why the U.S. needs the capability to not only torture people when it's deemed necessary, but to do so without transparency. On Friday, former Bush State Department official - and current President of the Council on Foreign Relations - Richard Haass, trotted out this one:
Government service already asks a lot of individuals. It entails sacrifice, pays little, and often violates privacy. Adding risk of prosecution to the mix will make recruiting the best and brightest that much more difficult. If we are not careful, we will get the government we deserve, but not the government we need.
This particular argument is so pathetic that it's tempting to simply let it fall flat under the weight of its own inadequacy, but just in case it somehow starts to catch on as the new meme for torture-as-altruism, it's worth asking a couple of questions. First and foremost, doesn't - or shouldn't - everyone worry about facing prosecution if they commit a crime, whether they serve in the private sector or the public? And second, how is it that people who can only operate in an environment where they won't be held accountable for crimes can be considered our brightest and our best?

But the real kicker in all of this is a story emanating from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Bassam Nabulsi, an American businessman, is alleging abuse at the hands of a member of that country's royal family, and released a video tape to ABC News to bolster his claims. In the tape, Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al-Nahyan - the son of the UAE's former president - is clearly seen torturing an Afghani truck driver that he believed cheated him, forcing sand down the driver's throat, whipping him, hitting him with a plank, using a cattle prod on his genitals, and finally running over him repeatedly with a car. Mr. Nabulsi claims he has further footage of the sheikh tormenting at least 25 other individuals.

The tape has drawn well-founded outrage from around the world. Here at home, Congressman James McGovern, co-chair of the House Commission on Human Rights, had this to say:
The United Arab Emirates needs to fix this problem. This guy should be thrown in jail, he should be locked up. This guy is a sadist, he is mentally deranged, he is a sicko. The fact that he's getting protection just because he happens to be in a family that's well connected is unacceptable.
In whatever light we may view Sheikh Issa's actions, it's likely that, in his own mind, the torture of the Afghan driver is fully warranted. And there's the rub. Because for those who support President Bush's torture policies and their cover-up, there is - as demonstrated above - also ample justification for the illegal abuse of prisoners in American custody. Whether or not one agrees that Sheikh Issa should be free to torture business associates, the position of America's torture advocates is no more defensible than his, based as it is not on core principles or the rule of law, but on expedience, fear and rage.

The metamorphosis of the United States under Bush Administration policy from champion of human rights to just one more variety of torturer, has so deeply undermined our position that Representative McGovern's words - right as they are - no longer carry any moral authority on the world stage. One can argue that American torturers were trying to protect lives, not chasing a missing shipment of merchandise or acting out of sadism, but in doing so, the most important point is already conceded.

The fact is that the U.S. waterboarded one man 6 times a day for a month straight; hung people from chains by their wrists until their limbs swelled with pooled blood; threw them bodily into walls; and subjected them to extreme temperatures. Do we really want to argue about when torture is justified? Do we really want to be the country that has so thoroughly yielded the high ground that, rather than stand against torture, we only hold firm against certain kinds of torture, and only in certain circumstances?

If the UAE did not have a pending deal with the United States for the transfer of nuclear technology - and if we weren't still the most powerful nation on the planet - they and other countries would be mocking us openly. As it is, our failure to live up to our own laws - our political spinelessness - makes truth of our enemies' propaganda, delivers them recruits, and confirms to them the worst prejudices they hold against us. Until we prosecute those responsible for American torture policy, we remain nothing more than hypocrites hiding behind our wealth and military might.

Below is the ABC News report on Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al-Nahyan. Please be aware that it contains graphic images not suitable for younger viewers.

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