Thursday, November 01, 2007

Roots of Cheneyism

I started off to blog about a column that pulled several seemingly very different things together in a surprising way. Then I realized I was linking several different things in the way I was thinking about the column, too.

One thing is that it struck me that the current controversy in the Senate over Judge Michael Mukasey to be Attorney General has taken an important step back on the road to Constitutional government without fireworks going off. Even if the Republicans and Joe Lieberman manage to get Mukasey confirmed, the phrase "water-boarding" has been put front and center in the political vocabulary. And that's important.

Pat Lang blogged a year or two ago about how when he gave speeches related to the so-called war on terror", he would often get questions about the torture policy. But they were usually worded euphemistically, as in "aggressive interrogation techniques" or something similar. And he said he could often tell from the expression on the questioner's face that they thought the idea was dandy.

But he always made a point in responding to mention specific acts that were being committed on prisoners: extreme sensory deprivation, partial drowning (water-boarding), tying people in painful "stress" positions for extended periods, etc. This normally wiped the smile off the questioner's face. His speculation was that lots of suburbanites enjoyed a Sadie-Masey fantasy about torture, as long as they could picture it as some relatively benign coercion. But once he framed it realistically as the cruel, sadistic practice that it is, it wasn't such a charming secret fantasy any more.

And that's what's happened with the Mukasey hearings. The issue with him has become a specific practice of torture: tying a helpless man or woman onto a table, their head tilted back, covering their face with a cloth, and pouring water on their face to give them the terrifying and painful feeling of drowning. And then repeating it again and again. This is what our Christian President has made standard American policy. This is what becomes of our politics and government policy when men like Dick Cheney with the mentality of the worst segregationist misfits get the power to hurt people. They use it to hurt people.

Like the more secular-oriented dogmatic conservatives, Christian fundis will try to dodge responsibility for the torture policy - even while they support it like good segregationists supported lynch-murder and the associated torture - by arguing that the Cheney-Bush administration didn't represent pure Christian fundamentalist theocracy. But in reality, the mentality and the political support of the Christianists (politicized fundamentalists) were very much a part of these people like Cheney and Rummy thinking they could do this and get away with it.

Christian fundamentalism promises certainty about the state of one's soul. That's one of its primary emotional appeals. Often that level of certainty is carried over into more material matters, as well. The reasons trials and legal due process are barriers against tyranny and arbitrary government is that they require the government to prove its accusations against individuals it accuses of wrongdoing, i.e, they recognize that divine levels of certainty are impossible for us mere mortals.

When vicious characters like Cheney or Rummy get the power to just arrest somebody and order them subjected to sadistic torture with no restraints and no requirement to obey due process, the only real result is to exercise state-sponsored terrorism. Which is the only real function of torture anyway. (Individual sadism does exist; but torture is overwhelmingly a practice of governments because only governments can create the conditions - imprisonment, secrecy, etc. - to use it on a wide scale.)

Another line of thought is the way Spain proceeded against those who were just convicted of involvement in the "11-M" (March 11) bombing of a Madrid train station three years ago. They tracked down the perpetrators, prosecuted them under the law without (so far as anything I've seen reported) recourse to torture or evidence tainted by torture, and got convictions for most of the accused. Did the trial achieve 100% justice? I don't know. But that's why we have trials, to require the government to prove its case on a systematic basis.

The trial also produced reality-based information on the terrorists involved. It showed that the Basque separatist group ETA was not involved, and that the conservative government in office at the time used accusations against ETA to demagogue the election that took place a few days later. The facts that emerged also raised real questions as to whether the attack was really part of some systematic Al Qa'ida effort to target Spain for the presence of its troops in Iraq, an assumption that American rightwingers immediately weaved into a bogus narrative about Spanish "appeasement".

In the 9/11 attacks, one of the consequences of the torture policy is that we are unlikely in the extreme to ever have a trial of the accused perpetrators that produces anything like the amount of real information that Spain's prosecution of the 11-M perps has.

It also made me think of something that Larry McMurtry argues in his very informative but not especially cheerful book Oh What A Slaughter: Massacres in the American West: 1846-1890 (2005). Which is that even though no amount of atonement or contrition can bring back the dead, in some real way these sorts of crimes have a way of coming to light. At the risk of slipping into purple prose, it's like the way Abel's blood was said to cry out of the ground against Cain, his brother and murderer. The Mountain Meadow Massacre of 1857, for instance, continues to haunt the Mormon Church to this day. And when a number of bones were discovered at the massacre site in 1999, it became evident that even the cover-up is far from over. That massacre, by the way, took place on September 11. McMurtry observes that it is "a date that might be said to favor massacres".

The torture policy couldn't stay secret. But, as Paul Kiel and Marty Lederman point out, Congress' disgraceful grant of retroactive immunity for many of the torturers greatly complicates the possibility that any of them will be prosecuted, even by a succeeding administration that moves to restore the rule of law in such matters.

It reminds me so much of the situation in Argentina that I was reading about recently in connection with the election of the new President. One of her long-time political goals is to prosecute government officials who perpetrated crimes during the "long war" of the military dictatorship there that fell a quarter of a century ago. The military extracted a grant of amnesty in ceding power, but the Argentine Supreme Court eventually overturned it.

The more I think about the task before a Democratic administration, if we get one elected in 2008, the more I realize that to restore Constitutional processes and the rule of law, something very much like the post-dictatorship actions of other countries with relatively-new or recently-restored democracies is essential to make the restoration is to be as permanent as possible. Although the Ford administration (in which Cheney and Rummy were key players) blocked any such broad process around the Vietnam War, Congress did take actions like the War Powers Act, the Church Committee investigation of CIA abuses, and subsequent legal limitations on covert operations and domestic spying, that substantively addressed some of the abuses of power that had come to light.

The Argentine junta practiced much more widespread domestic brutality (I don't know if they used water-boarding but they did torture a lot of people) than the Cheney-Bush administration has. But Cheney's government has gone much farther in trashing the Constitution than Richard Nixon's did, or than Ronald Reagan did with the Iran-Contra covert operations.

Which brings me to the article that set me on this train of thought, The sad decline of Michael Mukasey by Sidney Blumenthal Salon 11/01/07. In a narrative that's surprisingly coherent given the twisted paths it travels, he discusses some of the ways that the Iran-Contra operations became the template of the current administration for foreign policy and for Cheney's version of unlimited Presidential power.

In charting how the Republican Party got to the place it is today, where defending "water-boarding" has become a touchstone of Party loyalty, we could adapt the saying "follow the money" to: "Follow Dick Cheney" and "follow the segregationists". Those two intertwining paths are the main pathways that took the Republican Party from the party of Eisenhower to the Party of Dick Cheney and water-boarding.

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