Is it possible for the U.S. to further degrade itself on the world stage? Only days after videos showing Canadian citizen Omar Khadr being tortured in a U.S. torture chamber, videos taken when he was only fifteen years old, the House Judiciary Committee members gathered themselves together to determine if any al-Qaida suspects in the custody of the U.S. had been tortured.
It appears that discussions of torture, what it is and what it isn’t, have become commonplace in U.S. political circles. During his confirmation hearings, Attorney General Michael Mukasey was questioned about waterboarding, a practice dating back at least to the Spanish Inquisition and one that the civilized world bans. Mr. Mukasey was asked if the practice constituted torture and was therefore illegal. He was unable to state that it was.
President George Bush has stated categorically that the U.S. does not torture its prisoners. This is the same man who, addressing the United Nations on September 12, 2002, categorically said the following:
“Iraq employs capable nuclear scientists and technicians. It retains physical infrastructure needed to build a nuclear weapon. Iraq has made several attempts to buy high-strength aluminum tubes used to enrich uranium for a nuclear weapon.”
The thoughtful reader will base his or her knowledge on the degree of truthfulness of the latter statement (none) to judge the probable truthfulness of the former.
Why, one wonders, does a civilized society need to have discussions at the highest levels of government to determine what is and isn’t torture? Don’t civilized societies shun anything even remotely resembling such barbaric practices? Perhaps the key word here is ‘civilized.’ Civilized nations also do not invade sovereign nations for no better reason than to steal their natural resources.
But as this farcical hearing proceeded, former Attorney General John Ashcroft assisted it in achieving a circus-like atmosphere. Mr. Ashcroft, known for his tendency to warble saccharine, patriotic songs, sometimes written by his own hand, had this to say during his testimony: “You know, I’m just right now, next to standing up and singing the national anthem.” Based on Mr. Ashcroft’s past behavior, one would not be surprised if he did just that. So much for the dignity of the U.S. Congressional process.
One may well wonder why, in a discussion about whether or not the U.S. has tortured political prisoners in the recent past (no discussion of present torturing was included; perhaps that will occur after Mr. Khadr is tortured to death), there is anything to sing patriotic songs about. Continuing to act the buffoon, a part for which he seemed to have been born, Mr. Ashcroft said this: “You had a situation where there’s people who have differing legal opinions. And eventually somebody has to decide. And the president comes down on the side of the Department of Justice. What’s wrong with that picture? … Eventually you get to the right decision being made. That’s something I would expect a free society to do, involve vigorous debate.” So while all these ‘differing opinions’ were being ‘vigorously debated,’ people held as political prisoners by the U.S. were being tortured. Why, one might ask, are there ‘differing opinions’ about a practice that has been banned by civilized societies for hundreds of years? Why must there so recently, in 2004 which is the time period Mr. Ashcroft was referring to, be ‘vigorous debate’ about whether or not waterboarding is torture?
Mr. Ashcroft and Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-CA, announced darkly that, had it not been for what they euphemistically call these ‘harsh interrogation techniques’ (the rest of the world simply calls them torture), countless attacks on the U.S. would have been perpetrated. Said Mr. Gallegly: “There have been many direct attacks that we’re aware of have been foiled by our interrogation process. Had we not used those, would the probability of another attack not only be a probability but a certainty?” Mr. Ashcroft’s response: “It could well have been.”
What those near misses were they did not bother to say. There seems to be a belief among government officials that their statements should be accepted by the citizenry as solid fact. For those with very short memories, it may be. For the rest, the current statements coming out of the Judiciary Committee hearings are considered worthless.
As members of Congress pontificate over whether or not their approved practices against political prisoners constitute torture, they only demonstrate the depths of moral depravity to which they and the nation have sunk. Sitting in their comfortable offices and meeting rooms they discuss the academics of torture, as if the entire world did not know about Guantanamo. They talk about how the nation has benefited from torturing prisoners, not realizing that their own behavior puts them at least on par, if not beneath, their political victims. They issue pseudo-patriotic statements to the press, careful not to commit themselves to anything more definite than that tried and true principle, inherent only in the U.S., of ‘my country right or wrong.’ They seem not to care about how often they come out on the ‘wrong’ side.
It is highly unlikely that the Judiciary Committee will determine that torture was inflicted on the three prisoners in question. That mild phrase ‘harsh interrogation techniques’ will be used repeatedly, and will be approved; after all, think of all those aborted attacks on the U.S. that those ‘harsh interrogation techniques’ prevented.
Should Iraq or some other nation begin practicing such ‘harsh interrogation techniques’ on U.S. soldiers, it should be difficult for Congress and the president to criticize them. But the fact that it should be will not make it so. One can picture members of Congress now, standing in front of a flag, filled with angry indignation that invading soldiers should be so treated. The response will be more bombs, more blood-letting and more death. Yet they will see not connection between their own torturing of political prisoners and increased hatred of the United States. That is the situation the nation finds itself in today; that is how the leadership of the U.S. leads.
It is a further sad commentary that the current candidates for president are not proclaiming that they will end the torture of the U.S.’s political prisoners. Rather, Republican candidate Senator John McCain is busy talking about Social Security, while his Democratic opponent, Senator Barack Obama fumes about criticism of his wife. Anyone looking for moral leadership after the moral vacuum of the Bush Administration will be disappointed. Mr. McCain represents business as usual, and Mr. Obama, the self-proclaimed candidate of change, seems increasingly to be the candidate of the status quo. Congressional leaders have long since proven themselves hopeless.
How low the U.S. will sink remains to be seen. It will be tragic if in its long descent it takes innocent victims with it. Yet that is what it has traditionally done, and continues to do today.
ROBERT FANTINA is author of ‘Desertion and the American Soldier: 1776–2006.