Saturday, March 31, 2007

Torture in the Bush Gulag: Remembering the stakes

Scott Horton made a speech at Ole Miss Law School (University of Mississippi) in Oxford MS this past week on the grim subject of torture as practiced by the Cheney-Bush government: Accountability and the Renegade Executive Balkinization blog 03/29/07.

He began, appropriately enough for a presentation in William Faulkner's hometown, with a quote from him, from chapter 3 of Sanctuary:

"The Virginia gentleman one, who told us at supper that night about how they had taught him to drink like a gentleman. Put a beetle in alcohol, and you have a scarab; put a Mississippian in alcohol, and you have a gentleman -"
For some inexplicable reason, Horton ellided the two words "one, who" out. I always think you shouldn't tamper with Scripture without a good reason. (I consider Faulkner's works part of the Biblical canon.)

But Horton's subject was grimmer stuff. He connected the current scandal over the US Attorneys firing with the torture policy:

America today is in the grips of a scandal surrounding the machinery of justice, but it is a scandal being played out on more fronts than the mass media seems to realize. Indeed, in the end it turns on the concept of justice, not simply the bureaucracy that supposedly administers it.
The Cheney-Bush administration's Unilateral Executive theory puts the President and Vice President above the law and the Constitution. Obviously, they haven't been able to fully implement it in all areas.

But they've gone much further in undermining democracy and the rule of law in the US than even Nixon did. Horton said:

It [the firing of the US Attorneys] is tied to a plan to use their offices to go after Democrats, whether a basis existed or not, and to pursue a voter suppression program focused on prospective Democrats. In other words, it's pure politics. Not high politics in the sense that Aristotle uses the term. But the crude gutter politics of the partisan hack. This sort of politics is not the exclusive province of one party. But over the last years, one party has exercised a monopoly on political power, and this appears to have led to a particularly virulent strain of political hackery.

Standing alone, this incident would be cause for grave concern. But it's just one aspect of a far broader crisis in which our country is enmeshed. The crisis has its start in the decision to introduce torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment - in contravention of 230 years of US military tradition, stretching back to George Washington's order after the battle of Trenton. Gonzales had a key role in this process as well, backed up by Cheney's chief-of-staff, David Addington and the now ever-present John Yoo. They tell us that they did this to insure that the president, as commander-in-chief, would have all the tools at his disposal that he might need to fight a war against terror. But if we strip the varnish off that, there are unmistakably unsavory elements underneath: one is a recognition that torture is a crime, and the second is a desire to enlist it into the president's arsenal notwithstanding what the law says. (my emphasis)
Horton is right on that point: the torture policy was the leap into the abyss of Presidential lawlessness. Reversing the torture policy and holding all those responsible for it accountable, legally accountable, is a necessary step to restoring the rule of law to the Presidency.

And he reminds us of the real purpose of torture as a government policy:

A former president of the Argentine bar, with whom I spoke two years ago, told me that his experience with torture in Argentina's "Dirty War" under a military dictatorship had been very clear. The dictator wanted torture as a talisman. It would show that the military rulers were above the law - subject to none of the restraints that marked the rule-of-law state. No one was under the illusion that torture techniques would actually get any useful intelligence. On the other hand, it would instill fear, and that was useful. He spoke to me with some conviction: the legal profession must oppose the introduction of torture, he said. In the end you will learn this is not about interrogation practices, it is about dictatorship, about tyranny. The experience of Argentina and Chile backs him up. Is the experience of America different? America is not governed by a military junta, of course. Nor can the brutality of technique and number of victims of the "Dirty War" yet be compared with the dark underside of the war on terror. But it is striking that most of the abusive techniques used by the Argentine junta were adopted and introduced in what President Bush has called the "program." This includes waterboarding, which the Argentinians called el submarino, the cold cell (or hypothermia), long-time standing and sleep deprivation in excess of two days. Nevertheless, this is a question we all should ponder. (my emphasis)
I'm not sure what he meant in saying, "Nor can the brutality of technique and number of victims of the 'Dirty War' yet be compared with the dark underside of the war on terror." It would be nice for Americans to be able to claim that. But I'm not at all sure it's true.

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