Monday, April 14, 2008

Tortured Logic

If there's one thing the War on Terror has made unambiguous, it's that ambiguity will continue to surround the actions of the United States and the Bush administration in its attempt to prevent further attacks upon the nation. Faced with preserving rights or preserving the ability of government to take those rights, Bush always sides with the latter, be it ever-growing surveillance powers or the use of torture in interrogations.

All too often, the administration is allowed to toss around misleading statements and outright falsehoods in the pursuit of those aims, and just as often cable news networks with 24 hours of space to fit questioning of the process fail miserably to that end. When the Attorney General was making up implausible scenarios in San Francisco, the news was centered on Barack Obama's inability to bowl. When the leader of the free world admitted that he knew and approved of violations of international and domestic law, the media wrapped itself in a blanket of despair over perceived elitism. From the poorest (relative term, of course) and least-established of the three candidates, no less.

What began years ago as "a few bad apples" participating in a sophomoric lapse in judgment has been fleshed out into full-fledged human rights violations under the umbrella of international and domestic statutes. And the media couldn't be less impressed.

As time has progressed from March of 2004, so has the overwhelming mountain of evidence pointing ever higher in the administration in search of the origins of the use of torture in US interrogation techniques. But, until Friday, there was nothing to link President Bush directly to the negotiations and planning. Those who thought such a revelation would portend some sort of culmination were sorely disappointed, as the country ignored the news with the same callous disregard in which Bush delivered it.

For the leader of a free nation to be admitting freely, without any hesitation or outwards sign of guilt, that he had full knowledge of his surrogates planning to break the law and be greeted with a shrug is nothing short of breathtaking.

First, it is important to emphasize that there is a definition of torture under US Code. It is a legal definition, not something which Bush or John Yoo get to manipulate with shifty words or maneuvering.

Sec. 2340. Definitions

As used in this chapter--
(1) "torture" means an act committed by a person acting under
the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or
mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to
lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical
(2) "severe mental pain or suffering" means the prolonged
mental harm caused by or resulting from--
(A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of
severe physical pain or suffering;
(B) the administration or application, or threatened
administration or application, of mind-altering substances or
other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or
the personality;
(C) the threat of imminent death; or
(D) the threat that another person will imminently be
subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the
administration or application of mind-altering substances or
other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or
personality; and

(3) "United States" means the several States of the United
States, the District of Columbia, and the commonwealths,
territories, and possessions of the United States.

Waterboarding has been the most-discussed method of interrogation (though the administration admits to using it on only 3 prisoners), and despite the rhetorical side-stepping of Bush and his appointees, it clearly meets the criteria of "'servere mental pain or suffering' resulting from threat of imminent death." There is really no way being made to feel as though drowning does not constitute 'threat of death.'

Yet, the act is still presented as an unclear procedure which may or may not be wrong, although any discussion of the veracity of either position is typically centered on the personal feelings of those involved in the argument rather than an objective utilization of definitions. When asked if the US tortured prisoners, Bush assured us "the United States does not torture," but we have admissions that waterboarding was used and the clear-enough definition of 'torture' under US Code to compare it to. This isn't a matter of asking the participants if they think they did anything wrong. It's not a matter of semantics. All that is required is a faithful adherence to the English language.

But beyond waterboarding, those interrogation techniques--though not talked about--which are much more widely-used still meet the definition. Consider several of the commonly-used methods: deprivation of sleep, deprivation of senses, exposure to extreme temperatures, and electric shock. To contend that these techniques fail to meet the definition spelled out in the US Code strains credibility and illustrates a wanton disregard for objectivity.

The definition clearly defines torture as "causing mental harm through procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality." The Geneva Conventions explicitly prohibit "violence to life and person," "outrages upon personal dignity," and "conditions exposing [prisoners] to contagion or infection." All of the previously-listed techniques meet one or more of those definitions.

So George Bush is free to say that the "United States does not torture," but it is equally fair for others to bring up the actual definition of the US Code he has sworn to uphold in claiming he's lying. It's not a matter of opinion whether or not these acts are torture. There are legal definitions, and they are all met.

The administration, of course, does all this under the umbrella of homeland security. You've gotta break a few eggs to stop all the terrorists attacks. This first requires the belief that a government that missed a massive attack spanning two presidencies is suddenly competent enough to act upon what some schmuck says in conditions designed precisely so he'll say anything to get out of them. But, that aside, this again begs the question: When did the Executive Branch become responsible for interpreting and re-writing the law?

All good intentions aside, if the laws need to be changed, get them changed. Through legislation, not back-room semantic mangling by a sycophant flunkie. As much as it pains me, I mostly think Bush is a somewhat pitiful, hopeless idealist. I don't believe him to be inherently evil. But one thing is clear, and that is that the United States has flouted international treaties it has promised to uphold--and expects other countries to uphold when detaining our soldiers--and its own code.

Bush often says that history will be the true judge of his presidency. Sadly for him, I think that's true, because we haven't reached the end of the line yet. For all its egregious acts and slaps in the face to representative democracy, this administration has proven time and again that something more scandalous always lurks just around the corner.

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