Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Really. Big. Deal.

In the past 2 days a confidential document that was prepared by the the International Committee of the Red Cross in 2007 was leaked. It is among the obligations of the Red Cross to visit prisoners of war, check up on their condition and the compliance of the captors with the Geneva Conventions. The report was only for the eyes of the acting general counsel of the CIA, John Rizzo, and whoever he would choose to show it. It concerned the 14 high-value detainees who'd been held in the so called black sites, out of reach of Red Cross monitoring, in some cases for years.

The document states definitively that the treatment of these detainees was torture.

Now that looks like a smoking gun.

Considering the audience this report was intended for, this is a very significant conclusion.

The United States engaged in torture. It was under the direction and approval of the highest officials in the land, who in turn say they were backed up by the United States Justice Department. We have the paper trail of some of the memorandums that detail the efforts to find legal underpinnings for what the Bush administration was doing with detainees. They were later repudiated and withdrawn by the head of the Office of Legal Counsel, Jack Goldsmith, a Republican appointed by Bush.

The United States engaged in torture, and our president and his secretary of state bald-facedly lied when they denied it.

"The gloves came off" after 9/11, said Cofer Black, former head of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center. He was quoted multiple times, including an article by Mark Danner in the upcoming New York Review of Books. The remark hints at one implication for me, and a different one, equally true, for Danner. The implication Danner highlights is that 9/11 happened because the gloves were 'on'. 9/11 was not a result of infighting between US agencies, a "failure of the imagination" of these agencies, miscommunication between agencies, and failure to take the threat seriously enough--no, 9/11 happened because of fetters that had been placed on the US executive after the abuses of the Nixon presidency. The lesson: the President needs monarchical power to "keep us safe".

For me the implication is that the ideals that democracies are founded on, of rule of law, due process of law, humane treatment of prisoners and human rights that make us a free people, are fine in times of peace and stability. But they can be wiped aside and dismissed in the wake of crisis. In other words, our rights and ideals as a nation are for 'sissies'; the real world says when there's a war they no longer apply.

That doesn't say much about our allegiance to these ideals if we fold them up and stick them in a closet when attacked. It seems to say that we believe in them when it's convenient, and when they become inconvenient we put them away.

Perhaps I'm remiss in generalizing my own response to the ICRC report to the American populace at large, but I've not sensed an upwelling of outrage and repudiation. Is apathy an American trait, or could it be a sort of fatigue? Maybe it's because this isn't really news; since the revelations of the torture memos in 2004 and the black sites in 2005 we've seen a steady dribbling of leaked documents, accompanied by official denials. By time the facts are confirmed and summed into a conclusion by a document such as the ICRC report it's not new really, just a rehash of what has been known already. I can't deny that the whole issue seems an abstraction to me (and perhaps the American people? Which is why there isn't a wholesale expression of condemnation at this fresh reminder?), and that bothers me. I should feel outrage, as tangible as nausea, pressing against my insides.

I think I'm overwhelmed by this stark question: is it naive to believe we can behave decently and still keep ourselves safe from enemies? Or is there a dirty little secret that our ideals rest on a basic bedrock of thuggery, face it like a big girl, this is reality? And if so, how do we reconcile this with our beliefs? Can we really tout our professed values and ignore the core?

To begin to answer this question, the American people need to investigate this for ourselves. We need to know what torture gained us, and what it has cost. (As Danner pointed out, one of the prices we paid was the ability to bring the 14 detainees to justice. How can they be tried if the evidence was extracted under torture? Does this amount to justice for the people who suffered and died in the twin towers?) We need to assess whether it was worth it. There needs to be a strict examination of the details of the assertion that torturing these men prevented and foiled further attacks. We need to be able to answer the question for ourselves: Can we behave decently, and still be safe?

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