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Commentary ::
Torture(d) Logic
19 Jun 2004
Q: What’s worse (much worse, actually) than a U.S. Attorney General tussling with U.S. Senators over a definition of torture? A: Finding out the U.S. government has actively sought a way to commit it. Can anything be done to counter this insanity? There’d better be, for our country’s soul depends on it.
I must admit, I was taken by surprise the other day. Until John Ashcroft's appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, I thought I was ready for anything that could be thrown my way in this once-fair land turned Bushworld. (Boredom Alert: Personal details ahead; don’t say you weren’t warned!) I’m 48 years old and, as they say, I’ve been around (and being 48, I’m allowed, by law, to use an expression like “I’ve been around” with no self-consciousness whatever): I am twice-divorced (but happily-married now; Ann made me include this), have gone through the requisite drink/drug problem years ago (hey, I’m a writer, remember?), and worked two decades for a company that helped prepare me for the surrealism in which America is now enveloped (pun probably intended), the U.S. Postal Service. In other words, I've got my scars. (Here--want to see 'em? Oh, god, I am getting older.) I've also attended more than my share of counseling sessions and had my heart broken by the San Francisco Giants on a too-regular basis; hell, I've even been to Europe! (For the Franco-phobes in the reading audience, the French were welcoming and warm, so put THAT on your freedom fries—or is it now, after the Spanish election, freedom fly?) And, of course, I've been here in the old "homeland" (what a putrid word) while George W. Bush has gone out of his way to make it into a feared and despised pariah nation, appearing to delight in smirkingly stomping on whatever goodwill this country ever had (and after 9/11, it had a lot) with his decidedly unTexas-sized boots.

But (naively, I see now), I never envisioned the day when a discussion of what constituted torture and whether America could technically find a way to commit it would ever be held in the Senate--or, for that matter, the House, even with the execrable Dennis Hastert as speaker. (As an aside, I think this should also, from this point forward, officially render any future discussion of Bill Clinton’s parsing of the word “is” as laughably irrelevant.) As I watched the United States Attorney General refuse to provide to United States Senators a 50-page, August 2002 Justice Department memo allegedly outlining legal pointers to the administration on how to dodge trite little annoyances like laws prohibiting torture so America can blithely engage in it, I realized even more just how heinously this country’s soul has been assaulted. (I was especially troubled by another rumored memo in which the Justice Department opines that being forced to listen to hours of non-stop Rush Limbaugh broadcasts will not result in long-term emotional damage.)

During his non-testimony, Ashcroft, who is wound tighter than a one-dollar watch and represents both an American nightmare and a therapist’s dream, looked for all the world like the little boy who, caught lying one more time, instinctively issues loud denials and angrily points fingers. As he didn’t answer query after query, I had this vision of a marathon joint Bush/Aschroft press conference in which each tries to outdo the other by not being the first to actually answer a question, like two intellectually-stunted adolescents (although that may be slurring intellectually-stunted adolescents), who snickeringly try to see how long they can carry it off.

Aschroft squirmed, twisted, bobbed, weaved, ducked, dodged, hemmed, and even hawed. In fact, according to Lawrence M. O’Rourke of the Sacramento Bee, when Senator Patrick Leahy asked the attorney general, “Has there been any order directed from the president with regard to interrogation of detainees, prisoners, or combatants? Yes or no,” and Aschroft responded, “I’m not in a position to answer that question,” he was literally telling the truth, having made so many moves he was now sitting on his mouth.

He’s in no position to answer? Well, then, who is? Bush?? Oh, right—I guess he’ll provide the response once he finally gets around to telling his buddy Ashcroft who in the White House outed CIA agent Valerie Plame; first things first, of course—or later, or at least until after the election. Leahy wasn’t even asking if Bush had condoned torture, only if he had given orders about interrogations. But even that was too much information for Ashcroft to divulge, since it would violate the 11th Commandment he and his presidential partner-in-piety have apparently issued: Thou shalt not reveal. (Perhaps they figured God just overlooked one, and since they’re charged with doing His work down here anyway, maybe they thought the Big Guy wouldn’t mind if they “got His back.”)

But, as mightily as he tried to avoid it, Ashcroft did manage to let some truth slip: Bush is the one, of course, who needs to answer, and answer immediately, instead of having his wild-eyed right(eous)-hand man run congressional interference for him. Ashcroft’s assertion, “This administration rejects torture,” seems a might fatuous considering so many damning communiqués have emerged (and continue to do so) that we are assured of inheriting a sizeable cache of scary memo(rie)s long after this whole sick crew gets its collective walking papers. According to the New York Times, here’s at least a partial memo list (quoted directly):

· January 2002: A series of memos from the Justice Department…provided arguments to keep U.S. officials from being charged with war crimes for the way prisoners were detained and interrogated. The memos…provided legal arguments to support administration officials’ assertions that the Geneva conventions did not apply to detainees from the war in Afghanistan.
· Jan. 25: White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, in a memo to President Bush, said the Justice Department’s advice in the Jan. 9 memo was sound and that Bush should declare the Taliban and al Qaeda outside…the Geneva conventions. That would keep American officials from being exposed to the federal War Crimes Act, a 1996 law that carries the death penalty.
· August: A memo from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel provided a rationale for using torture to extract information from operatives. It provided complex definitions of torture that seemed devised to allow interrogators to evade being charged with that offense.
· March 2003: A memo prepared by the Defense Department legal task force drew on the January and August memos to declare that Bush was not bound by either an international treaty prohibiting torture or by a federal anti-torture law because he had the authority as commander in chief to approve any technique needed to protect the nation’s security.

Well. Or, as Jack Benny used to say, “Well.” For an “administration that rejects torture,” it sure has sought a lot of advice on how to engage in it. It is clear: In today’s America, run by a cadre of truly ill, inhumane narcissists who possess not a molecular-sized shred of decency between the whole rotten lot of them, anything goes, as long as those in charge believe it will suit their mad pursuit of American empire. It is also obvious (as if it were ever really doubted, at least in this corner) that Bush’s oh-gosh-gee-whiz-how-could-they assessment of the Abu Ghraib prison abuses as “abhorrent” rings more hollow than an empty oil tanker. Hard evidence—not conjecture nor opinion, but an ever-growing paper trail—exists in reams (an appropriate word, given Bush’s actions) showing that the go-ahead to torture detainees was conducted with the full knowledge and at least tacit, if not outright, approval of the President of the United States of America.

Thus, America takes one giant step toward becoming more like those who truly do seek to destroy it. I can hear the counter-argument now: "No way. We're not like the monsters who killed 3,000 people by flying planes into buildings." That's right: We're now the nation that has killed 10,000-plus civilians in a country that had nothing to do with the monsters who fly planes into buildings. And now we're the nation with a leader whose legal advisers have told him that because we're so righteous and our pain is unique, we are above all law, and torture can take its place alongside baseball and apple pie.

Some may exclaim, “Morality and legalities be damned! If torture saves American lives, so be it!” Even if one can coldly set aside ethics and law, there’s a slight problem with this theory: Torture doesn’t even work. I’ll let a named “senior administration source” clarify: Susan Schmidt of the Washington Post reports that in response to a question from Senator Joe Biden asking if there might be some justification for torture, Ashcroft himself replied: “I condemn torture. I don’t think it’s productive, let alone justified.” (At this point, I would like to momentarily suspend my self-imposed prohibition against using certain verbiage as I hereby announce John Ashcroft to be the unanimous winner of the 2004 Mark Drolette “NO SHIT!” Award. Now back to our somewhat regularly-scheduled column.)

Throughout all this, a fundamental, simple truth has been missed: America will never be destroyed from without, but it most certainly can be from within. As horrific and gut-wrenching as it would be, even a nuclear bomb set off by terrorists in New York City or Los Angeles or Des Moines, killing hundreds of thousands, would not destroy America. Ten such bombs, killing millions, would not destroy America. But, without proper vigilance and action, we Americans most definitely can, and all without a single American death.

America is and always has been about ideas and ideals, beautifully exquisite things like freedom, democracy, and equality. If those values die, then so does America. At this moment, as too many of us watch silently while: people are arrested for exercising their First Amendment rights; American citizens are "disappeared"; laws like the Patriot Act(s) strip away constitutional protections; corporate and political interests become indistinguishable; redistricting power grabs become ever more brazen; social and religious intolerance are the watchwords of the day; stagnant wages and lower benefits turn the American dream into a misty memory; a failed drug war fills prisons to bulging; defense spending rises every year at social programs’ expense; as long as all of this and much, much more are allowed to continue, our beloved America is slowly dying the death of a thousand cuts. This, then, is how the mortal enemies of America will see their visions of her demise fulfilled--not by their sudden, catastrophic actions, but by our inexorable, incremental lethargy.

And now we are a country whose government employs torture as a legitimate tool. How does that make you feel? If it’s something akin to revulsion or rage, good. For perhaps that will prompt you, if you haven’t done so already, to contact your senators, to demand they insist the administration hand over immediately to the Senate Judiciary Committee all materials regarding interrogation techniques; to email your representative to urge him or her to call for an immediate, independent investigation of this whole wretched mess; to write the editor of your local newspaper to voice your disgust; and to tell your relatives, friends, and co-workers about it, so they, too, can contribute their indignant voices to a rising din. Or take some other non-violent action that you think will help, for it’s as certain as another car bomb in Baghdad that unless we, the people, forcefully declare we absolutely will not stand for this, the result will be yet one more painful slice applied to America's already bleeding soul, and at some point, her death cut will be delivered. And this will be the moment when all of the discussion in the world, whether in the Senate, House, or elsewhere, no matter how Kafkaesque, won’t make a jot of difference because by that time, it will be a done deal. We, by our complacent complicity--and not because of some enemy, regardless how vile or vicious--will have collectively delivered the fatal wounds.

And the only surprise left then, will be that anyone is surprised at all.

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