Tuesday, December 16, 2008

History Repeats the Old Conceits

Andrew Sullivan has an interesting series of posts on the wider implications of the bi-partisan Senate report which found that the Bush administration - including the President himself - authorized the use of torture on detainees in Guantanamo, Iraq and numerous other locations. In fact, a direct link is established between Bush's authorization of torture techniques and the particular methods used at Abu Ghraib - those would be the methods that so horrified the world when photographs recounting the torture surfaced. The report concludes:

The abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own. Interrogation techniques such as stripping detainees of their clothes, placing them in stress positions, and using military working dogs to intimidate them appeared in Iraq only after they had been approved for use in Afghanistan and at [Guantanamo]. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's December 2, 2002 authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques and subsequent interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody. What followed was an erosion in standards dictating that detainees be treated humanely.

Dan Froomkin contrasts the sordid reality of Bush administration officials authorizing torture, with Bush's dubious claims of moral outrage when confronted with the fruits of his regime:

Bush, on May 24, 2004, described what happened at Abu Ghraib as "disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values."

On June 1, 2004, he told a reporter: "Obviously, it was a shameful moment when we saw on our TV screens that soldiers took it upon themselves to humiliate Iraqi prisoners -- because it doesn't reflect the nature of the American people, or the nature of the men and women in our uniform. And what the world will see is that we will handle this matter in a very transparent way, that there will be rule of law -- which is an important part of any democracy. And there will be transparency, which is a second important part of a democracy. And people who have done wrong will be held to account for the world to see.

"That will stand -- this process will stand in stark contrast to what would happen under a tyrant. You would never know about the abuses in the first place. And if you did know about the abuses, you certainly wouldn't see any process to correct them."

Sullivan goes further, though, and highlights some of the fervent indignation claimed by leading conservative voices. Glenn Reynolds:

Of course, it's not the same as Saddam's torture -- which was a matter of top-down policy, not the result of a**holes who deserve jail or execution, and will probably get one or both. As with other reported misbehavior, it should be dealt with very, very harshly. But those who would -- as Senator Kerry did after Vietnam -- make such behavior emblematic of our effort, instead of recognizing it as an abandonment of our principles -- are mere opportunists.

Even better, look at some of the commentary from the links that Reynolds compiled at the time. One commenter likened these actions to "treason." Vodkapundit had this to say:

What's the difference between what this small group US guys did in Iraq and what Saddam (and every other Arab state) has been doing for years?

In our case, the people who did this will spend most, if not the rest of their lives in Kansas making small rocks out of big rocks.

In every other case, they'd be promoted.

End of comparison.

Not quite.

Sullivan also catches Jonah Goldberg in a hand wringing pose worthy of the ages:

Even if all of these pictures were staged this would be an outrage. The fact that they are real makes this staggeringly awful. The awfulness is twofold. First, there's the illegal, morally corrupt -- and corrupting -- evil of torturing people for the pleasure of it (and taking pictures of it!). Second, there's the counter-productive stupidity of it. Even if these guys were the worst henchmen of Saddam's torture chambers, the damage this does to the image of America is huge. How do we look when we denounce Saddam's torture chambers now? How many more American soldiers will be shot because of the ill will and outrage this generates? How do we claim to be champions of the rule of law?

Well, there is one way. This needs to be investigated and prosecuted. If there's more to the story -- whatever that could conceivably be -- let's find out. But if the story is as it appears, there has to be accountability, punishment and disclosure. Indeed, even if this turned out to be a prank, too much damage has already been done and someone needs to be punished.

Under Saddam torturers were rewarded and promoted. In America they must be held to account.

Unsurprisingly, none of these commentators are calling for "accountability, punishment and disclosure" now that the Bush administration's role in implementing this program has been revealed. Muted amongst the black and white, good vs. evil bastions of moral clarity are the charges of "treason." No, instead, we are treated to apologias for torture and tut-tutting about quixotic sentimentalities that interfere with the prudent employ of toture on any manner of detainee. Where the GOP is concerned, when it comes to torture, gray is the new black and white.

Since I ommitted it, allow me to add the degradation of torture to the list of reasons for the anger felt by the shoe thrower, Muntazer al-Zaidi, and his fellow ungrateful Iraqis. Allow me also to state unequivocally and without reserve that if President Obama does not entirely repeal the policy authorizing the use of torture, and the use of rendition to achieve the same repugnant ends, then he deserves to be described the same way that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld are rightly labeled: war criminal.

For me, at least, partisanship and support for a political party or politician will not trump the moral implications of torture. My outrage is not so contingent or fickle.

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