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June 14, 2004, 3:40 P.M.

America No More: Last week the Houston (Texas) Chronicle published an editorial calling into question the Bush administration’s “legal machinations” undertaken to justify the use of torture against prisoners in the so-called “war on terror.” Indeed, the article referred with some skepticism to the Bush administration’s attempts to downplay a Justice Department memorandum which purports to support the position that, “as commander-in-chief in a time of war, President George W. Bush is neither bound by federal law, nor the tenets of the Geneva Conventions that ban torture as a means of extracting information from detainees.”

This memo, dated March 6, 2003, asserts that interrogators may inflict “severe pain” on a detainee, as long as the reason for inflicting the pain was something “other than to torture.” It went on to say that an “interrogator” would only be culpable if he knew his actions would cause suffering severe enough to induce “prolonged physical or mental effects.” Perhaps most astonishing is the memo’s conclusion that the interrogator would be “immune from punishment if he believed he acted to prevent a larger harm.”

To begin with, this memo is clearly an attempt to justify the abuses committed in the name of our government at Abu Ghraib. The Chronicle also points out that, in addition to attempt to provide cover for actions that violate both federal and international law, the memo concludes that “the prisoner abuses uncovered at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were not merely the grave mistakes of a few soldiers, but resulted from policies formed at the highest levels of government.” The article also raises questions about how this apparent policy of tolerance for torture by our government is affecting prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay and in Afghanistan, far from the watchful eyes of our civil and criminal justice systems and beyond the reach of international tribunals which we rely on to prosecute those who torture their enemies for what they may call a “higher purpose.”

In high school I remember reading a piece called “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema.” The piece, written through the eyes of an anthropologist, described bizarre body rituals of a newly discovered culture in a way that made most high school students want to be sick. The piece was in fact describing what we would call a normal grooming ritual for an ordinary American. The point of the story was that different cultures view and describe things differently. Certainly, what we see as preventing a “larger harm” is very different than what others around the world see from their perspective.

Our government has now gone on record and said, in effect, that if the torturer believes he has a higher purpose, the method of extracting information is not subject to scrutiny. First and foremost, this is not an accurate statement of federal or international law by any stretch of the imagination. It is also an ill-defined and extremely dangerous proposition. After all, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. There are a lot of people who we would call terrorists who believe that their actions in achieving their goals or in preventing what they call “larger harm” are every bit as pure as our motives in trying to protect our society from perceived threats.

There is also an extreme, and equally dangerous arrogance in this view of the world that we now seem to hold. That is to say that in our case, and only in our case, the ends justify the means. It’s okay for us to torture detainees, but it is not okay for U.S. prisoners to be harmed in any way. The former being justified, the latter a war crime or human rights abuse. This duplicity is straining our national credibility and it is making the world a far more dangerous place for Americans. On one hand, we press for prosecutions by the world court and on the other, we bribe countries throughout eastern Europe to have them avoid the use of the world court in the prosecution of American of allied “operatives” or “interrogators” accused of war crimes abroad. This terrible double standard will come to no good.

Our president and our government have repeatedly attempted to place themselves and now our nation above the law. With a moral certainty they have pronounced their world view to be righteous and they have set about to use any means to impose their will while stripping away the constraints of federal and international law in dealing with “detainees” abroad, and through the erosion of civil liberties in dealing with the rest of us at home. Unless this process is reversed, our credibility and stature restored, we will be America no more.


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