It’s over there

A quick post to register a rather striking piece of news (via), which didn’t seem to get much notice in the British media. First, here’s the complete text of a piece on torture from the January 2008 Washington Monthly:

According to the latest polls, two-thirds of the American public believes that torturing suspected terrorists to gain important information is justified in some circumstances. How did we transform from champions of human dignity and individual rights into a nation of armchair torturers? One word: fear.

Fear is blinding, hateful, and vengeful. It makes the end justify the means. And why not? If torture can stop the next terrorist attack, the next suicide bomber, then what’s wrong with a little waterboarding or electric shock?

The simple answer is the rule of law. Our Constitution defines the rules that guide our nation. It was drafted by those who looked around the world of the eighteenth century and saw persecution, torture, and other crimes against humanity and believed that America could be better than that. This new nation would recognize that every individual has an inherent right to personal dignity, to justice, to freedom from cruel and unusual punishment.

We have preached these values to the world. We have made clear that there are certain lines Americans will not cross because we respect the dignity of every human being. That pledge was written into the oath of office given to every president, “to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.” It’s what is supposed to make our leaders different from every tyrant, dictator, or despot. We are sworn to govern by the rule of law, not by brute force.

We cannot simply suspend these beliefs in the name of national security. Those who support torture may believe that we can abuse captives in certain select circumstances and still be true to our values. But that is a false compromise. We either believe in the dignity of the individual, the rule of law, and the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, or we don’t. There is no middle ground.

We cannot and we must not use torture under any circumstances. We are better than that.
– Leon E. Panetta

This kind of self-congratulatory American visionary liberalism sets my teeth on edge, I have to admit – “We are better than that”? Really? – but at least here it’s being invoked against the barbarities of power, not as a cover for them. And these particular barbarities have flourished exuberantly over the last seven years, so it’s refreshing to hear any sign of unyielding opposition to them from within the US establishment, however syrupy the rhetoric.

Anyway, about that news story. From the 5th January New York Times:

President-elect Barack Obama has selected Leon E. Panetta, the former congressman and White House chief of staff, to take over the Central Intelligence Agency

Obama’s going to let us down – oh, how he’s going to let us down. (I’m particularly not looking forward to his first statement on Gaza.) But this is seriously good news – better than I’d ever have expected.

“We cannot and we must not use torture under any circumstances. We are better than that.”

Leon Panetta, the next head of the CIA.

Update 17/1

Obama, 11/1:

Vice President Cheney I think continues to defend what he calls extraordinary measures or procedures when it comes to interrogations and from my view waterboarding is torture. I have said that under my administration we will not torture

our United States military is under fire and has huge stakes in getting good intelligence. And if our top army commanders feel comfortable with interrogation techniques that are squarely within the boundaries of rule of law, our constitution and international standards, then those are things that we should be able to (INAUDIBLE)

Perhaps more significantly, Bush administration appointee Susan Crawford, 14/1:

“We tortured [Mohammed al-]Qahtani,” said Susan J. Crawford, in her first interview since being named convening authority of military commissions by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in February 2007. “His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that’s why I did not refer the case [for prosecution]”.

Something’s changing out there. The fundamental point is that there is a difference between interrogation and torture: interrogation is about extracting information, but torture is about breaking people. And when a person’s broken they can’t give reliable testimony. This, I think, made Guantánamo Bay too much of an anomaly for even Bush’s attack lawyers to assimilate into legal normality. Give waterboarding – or stress positions, or hooding and white noise in a white room – what names you like, there is still such a thing as torture; it’s defined by its effects, and its key effect is to nullify a suspect’s legal personhood. Under Bush and Cheney that was a small price to pay: it also made terrorist suspects safe, after all, and it might produce some usable intelligence along the way; the rest was just a question of human warehousing. For Obama – as for ‘lifelong Republican’ Crawford, and doubtless many more like her – it’s just not how it’s done.

I like that ‘(INAUDIBLE)’, though.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted 10 January 2009 at 03:36 | Permalink | Reply

    Often though (especially with the Bush administration) the question was not whether or not torture should take place, but rather ‘do these acts constitute torture?’. I think the distinction is important here, because (especially as regards torture) the Bush administration’s legal team went to great lengths to legally justify what they were doing.

    If I was cynical I might suggest that ignoring this allows US liberals to sound pious and progressive whilst failing to answer the real issues at hand. Indeed, the particular strategy of simply accusing the Bush adminstration of breaking the law (and there are legitimate arguments that it has done so, but these need to be articulated properly) as opposed to deploying legal argument in a particular (bad) way often seems to be a way for liberals to rhetorically absolve themselves (and the law) from supporting and participating in this process and from having to answer the hard questions.

  2. Posted 10 January 2009 at 11:01 | Permalink | Reply

    Panetta’s article is either faux-naif or genuinely naive – I mean, he’s writing in the persona of someone who hasn’t read the Gonzales and Bybee memoranda and doesn’t care about the entire strand of argument you refer to, and the simplest explanation may well be that he hasn’t and doesn’t.

    But I think it’s arguable that that’s a strength. Take this line: “We either believe in the dignity of the individual, the rule of law, and the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, or we don’t.” Bybee and Gonzales spent hundreds of words driving a wedge between ‘torture’ and ‘cruel and unusual punishment’, and redefining that boundary as the limit of the rule of law. Whether knowingly or not, Panetta’s having none of it. It’s also significant, and directly relevant to the Bybee/Gonzales/Yoo/Delahunty/etc arguments, that Panetta opens by giving waterboarding as an example of torture. Your argument’s an important one, but I think Panetta’s left surprisingly few openings for it.

  3. brianbarder
    Posted 22 February 2009 at 00:25 | Permalink | Reply

    Now please see
    http://www.barder.com/ephems/1485. Worrying things happening already.

    Brian
    http://www.barder.com/ephems/

  4. Phil
    Posted 22 February 2009 at 01:35 | Permalink | Reply

    Yes. As you say, it would have been nice if the honeymoon period had been a bit longer.

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