If the U.S. was ever considered a moral guide for the rest of the world, surely that myth has now evaporated like a city in a nuclear explosion. The country is now involved in a discussion of how to define torture, as if there is some fine line that one does not wish to cross.
This discussion is centered around the barbaric, inhumane practice known as waterboarding. In this ‘interrogation technique,’ the victim is made to feel as if he or she is drowning. It is banned by U.S. law and international treaties.
But as President Bush keeps telling us, the threat of terrorism is so great that new measures are required. The Geneva Conventions, his former, disgraced Attorney General Alberto Gonzales advised us, are ‘quaint’ reminders of a bygone era. The constitutionally guaranteed rights of free speech and freedom of assembly, we are reminded, pose too great a risk and must therefore be curtailed. And the civilized practices that nations are supposed to abide by in regard to their prisoners of war must disappear as fast as the illusion of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
A recent story from the Associated Press announces the ‘successful,’ CIA-sanctioned waterboarding of one Abu Zubaydah, alleged to be a ‘top al Qaeda’ figure. Former CIA agent John Kiriakou, who apparently ‘administered’ or at least witnessed this ‘interrogation,’ states gleefully that Mr. Zubaydah only needed 35 seconds of torture in order to talk. He further purports that information so obtained from Mr. Zubaydah probably disrupted dozens of terrorist acts.
There are many disturbing elements to this story. First and foremost is the total absence of humanity. If, as one might argue, a terrorist does not act in a humane way, and therefore he or she should not be treated in a humane way, it could be counter argued that that puts the interrogator/torturer in the same league as his prisoner.
Mr. Kiriakou lauds the prevention of ‘dozens’ of terrorist acts, although he did not reveal any specific situations. Since the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 it would be difficult to count the number of terrorist acts the U.S. has perpetrated against that nation. While that count is difficult to make, the number of victims is somewhat easier to estimate: at least 1,000,000 Iraqi citizens have died due to U.S. terrorism. Would Mr. Kiriakou suggest that waterboarding be used on Americans to prevent thousands of terrorist acts?
One further wonders about the U.S. organization that is charged with obtaining foreign intelligence when it seems to feel it can operate outside of U.S. law. Yet perhaps the CIA, which exists to serve and advise the president, was merely following orders. Mr. Kiriakou, in his elegant way of speaking, said the following: “This isn’t something done willy nilly. This isn’t something where an agency officer just wakes up in the morning and decides he’s going to carry out an enhanced technique on a prisoner. This was a policy made at the White House, with concurrence from the National Security Council and Justice Department.” So apparently before Mr. Kiriakou carried out ‘an enhanced technique’ on a prisoner, word came down from the White House that he had Mr. Bush’s blessing to violate U.S. and international law, and torture a prisoner.
Dana Perino, Mr. Bush’s press secretary and happy face for whatever it is her boss requires, added more light to the shameful situation. “It’s no secret that the president approved a lawful program in order to interrogate hardened terrorists. We do not torture. We also know that this program has saved lives by disrupting terrorist attacks.”
Herein we have an interesting juxtaposition: the methods are lawful, Ms. Perino tells us, and, as Mr. Kiriakou said about the waterboarding of Mr. Zubaydah, it has disrupted attacks. It seems logical that these statements indicate that Mr. Bush has determined that waterboarding is an acceptable method of ‘interrogation.’
Why, one wonders, was there a need for Mr. Bush to approve a new program of interrogation? What was wrong or lacking with the old one that adhered to the Geneva Conventions? Perhaps since the previously existing policy excluded torture, Mr. Bush felt the need to approve the new methods. And ‘lawful’ seems to be in the eye of the beholder; if the Commander-in-Chief, the self-styled ‘war president,’ the Decider, determines that something is legal, than it must be legal. Who, one asks, is going to question it? Theoretically that would be Congress, but we all know better. The governing body that can’t decide how to end the war (‘just say no’ to funding would work) is certainly not going to question Mr. Bush as he tortures prisoners. Doing so apparently means the terrorists win. Or perhaps the current Attorney General, Michael Mukasy, might want to take a look at the situation. But then again, he might not. Why jeopardize his job weeks after accepting it?
A quick review of the U.S.’s recent moral leadership in the world is instructive to all who preen about the glories of life in America. In January of 2001 the U.S. inaugurated as president a man who received fewer votes than his opponent. Then that president granted a tax refund that overwhelming benefited the rich as he began to chip away at the largest budget surplus in U.S. history that he had inherited. Then he looked the other way as foreign citizens plotted and then successfully perpetrated attacks on civilian sites in the U.S. Next he saw that he could invade Afghanistan, overthrow the government there, and thereby allow Union Oil to run a pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan with the ultimate destination of India, which had been forbidden by the Taliban, all in the name of ‘fighting the terrorists.’ Then he and his minions lied to the world about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction, got the U.N. to issue additional sanctions, ignored the fact that U.N. weapons inspectors were gaining unprecedented access to Iraq, told the U.N. to evacuate its inspectors and sent 130,000 dedicated American soldiers to war without the proper equipment to help ensure their safety, all when it was totally unnecessary. He then began eavesdropping on U.S. citizens’ telephone calls, sending people he determined were enemies to foreign countries for torture, and successfully convincing Congress that the best way to support U.S. soldiers in mortal danger was to prolong their time in that danger.
It seems little wonder that there is now a national debate about torture; when the common denominator of morality as been reduced as low as it has in the U.S., a discussion of torture and its advantages and disadvantages cannot be surprising. But as it continues, as more people are victimized by it and as the U.S. continues to run amok on the world stage, with little relief in sight despite an upcoming presidential election, it will be helpful for people to see the U.S. for what it really is: not a beacon of freedom and opportunity, but an imperial nation, seeking colonization of oil-rich countries at whatever cost, for the benefit of the ruling, corporate classes. It is a nation that starts costly wars for colonization as 45,000,000 of its own citizens lack basic health care. It sends dedicated soldiers to unnecessary battles and then ignores them when they return home, physically and emotionally scarred. It is estimated that up to one-third of the U.S.’s significant homeless population is comprised of veterans. It is a nation whose leaders value photo opportunities above service, and re-election above statesmanship.
If the world is looking for moral leadership, there is (and has been for generations) a deep void. Perhaps it could look to a variety of nations that provide medical coverage for their citizens, have little crime (and for many of them, virtually no gun crime), respect due process and have no imperial designs. Such nations are not difficult to find; the U.S.’s neighbor to the north, Canada, might fill the bill. But the long-held illusion that the U.S. is the world’s moral leader has always been that: an illusion. That that illusion is now shattering can surprise no one.
ROBERT FANTINA is author of ‘Desertion and the American Soldier: 1776–2006.‘