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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Torture as an American Value

Let's start off a quote:

Iraq is a free of a brutal dictator. Iraq is free of the man who caused there to be mass graves. Iraq is free of rape rooms and torture chambers. Iraq is free of a brutal thug. America did the right thing.
-- George W. Bush, 2003

As the original reasons for invading Iraq fell through -- no WMD, no ties to al Qaeda -- and the insanely optimistic predictions of troops being met in the street by cheering crowds with 'sweets and flowers' proved insanely optimistic, the administration relied more and more on one incontrovertable truth -- Saddam Hussein was a really bad guy.

It's kind of a silly argument. Only about half of the world's nations are democracies and even some of those don't respect human rights. If we're required to act militarily when we know a government is committing crimes, then we've got one helluva lot of work ahead of us -- we can start with North Korea, move on to China, then roll around the world overthrowing governments until we finally go to war with Cuba or Turkmenistan. Of course, that will require a huge sacrifice in lives. As far as the cost in dollars goes, many people would learn numbers they'd never heard of before. "What the hell's a 'quadrillion?' That one of those made up numbers like a 'jillion?'"

Oddly, no one who uses the 'Saddam was evil' argument follows through on it like this. Good thing, too. It turns out that Iraq's rape rooms and torture chambers never closed, they just changed hands. If we were required to overthrow any government that did these things, we'd have sort of an interesting problem -- how does a nation overthrow itself?

Seymour Hersh has a piece in The New Yorker which recounts crimes committed at Abu Ghraib that we've never heard before. The article is actually about Army Major General Antonio M. Taguba, who's truthful investigation into the crimes committed by US forces in Iraq destroyed his career. The powers that be wanted a coverup, not a factual report. We, after all, were the good guys -- whether or not we actually acted like it.

Taguba describes a meeting with Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, among others, where he was called to the carpet for reporting the truth in what has now become known as the Taguba Report. Asked at the meeting if he thought what he found constituted abuse or torture, Gen. Taguba told Hersh that he "described a naked detainee lying on the wet floor, handcuffed, with an interrogator shoving things up his rectum, and said, 'That's not abuse. That's torture.'"

And rape. The sexual abuse of prisoners was horrifying. He saw 'a video of a male American soldier in uniform sodomizing a female detainee' which was 'not made public in any of the subsequent court proceedings, nor has there been any public government mention of it.' "I learned from Taguba that the first wave of materials included descriptions of the sexual humiliation of a father with his son, who were both detainees," Hersh writes.

Rape rooms and torture chambers. Hersh writes that 'early on, a senior general in Iraq had pointed out to [Taguba] that the abused detainees were "only Iraqis."' It's easy to imagine Saddam Hussein offering the same defense.

Donald Rumsfeld looks especially bad in Hersh's piece. Phrases like 'Rumsfeld was in denial' and 'Rumsfeld's lack of knowledge was hard to credit' pepper the piece. To me, this suggests that the cultish nature of the neocons was at work here. The story of the invasion of Iraq was already written, before George W. Bush as president was even a thought, and it didn't include war crimes, just as it didn't include a resistance. The narrative arc had heroic US forces and a grateful iraqi populace -- all had been foretold. The prophets of the Project for a New American Century had determined exactly how the war would turn out in 1998. Donald Rumsfeld was one of those prophets and the idea that his band of visionaries had been terribly, terribly wrong was unthinkable.

It doesn't stop with Abu Ghraib, of course. If it happened there, it can happen anywhere -- and it has. The International Committee of the Red Cross determined that conditions at Guantanamo Bay 'cannot be considered other than an intentional system of cruel, unusual, and degrading treatment and a form of torture.' Similar treatment has been reported in Afghanistan.

There's plenty of evidence that Rumsfeld not only knew about this, but that he ordered some of it. Gen. Janice Karpinski told a spanish newspaper that she'd seen a letter, signed by Rumsfeld, 'detailing the use of harsh interrogation methods.' "The handwritten signature was above his printed name and in the same handwriting in the margin was written: 'Make sure this is accomplished'."

This is the neocon idea in action -- a certainty that evil lies in the motive, not the actions, and that the end justifies the means. It's a philosophy that throws out morality and ethics in favor of expediency. Morals and ethics are old values, unworthy of our new reality. Our new reality requires tough men who do hard things to bad people. You can't be a criminal if your victim is evil and no one is given the benefit of the doubt when the neocons' goal hangs in the balance. It's the belief that police only arrest guilty people and justice is only a pain in the ass that criminals have made up to protect themselves from the righteous and their punishment. It's the philosophy of the cop who reads you your rights while he beats the hell out of you.

This is why the Bush administration has been so unbelievably bad. If I were to list all the crimes these guys have committed over the years, I'd have to write a separate post and I'd be absolutely certain to forget more than one. You just can't keep track of it all -- and there's probably stuff we don't even know about yet. The Bushies all believe that the future they see is the ultimate good and anything at all you do to get there is likewise good. If you have to kick a few innocent people in the teeth or sodomize some poor slob with a light stick to get there... Well, that's just the way it has to be. It's unfortunate and regrettable, sure, but who'll remember them when everyone's living in Utopia? Like those theoretical iraqis, we'll all be incredibly grateful.

If Donald Rumsfeld and Abu Ghraib and Iraq and the neocons and al Qaeda and 9/11 have taught me anything, it's one simple message -- beware of true believers. Absolute certainty is the most dangerous force in history. We've let that certainty lead us to a very bad place and we've let it change who we are.


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