Jonathan Schell on the Torture Vote

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Recently I wrote once again about the spread of torture as a way of life in the Bush administration’s offshore imperium. I offered my version of a national “self-portrait” for the New Year (American Gothic) and considered the latest torture news, now practically pouring through leaks in the Washington and Pentagon bureaucracy. While I was at it, I made a partial listing of some of the grisly tortures reported in the news as 2004 was ending. As now often happens (especially when right-wing blogs comment — disparagingly, of course — on Tomdispatch material), I received an abusive letter. It called me “disgusting” and a “coward”; wondered whether I wasn’t a “pervert” as well as a godless sot; suggested I get help; complained that I ignored “beheadings” (in a portrait of America) — and suggested, as proof that something was “wrong” with me, that I worried instead “about someone put in underwear.”

Most of this text was, as I’ve learned, pretty much the norm for such abusive letters, but that last little comment stuck in my mind. The letter writer had clearly read my accounting of recently reported tortures (many contained in e-mails sent back to the U.S. by outraged or unnerved FBI agents observing interrogation tactics at our Guantanamo detention camp) and picked from a horrific list that included beating people to death, dousing hands in alcohol and lighting them, administering electric shocks, and putting lit cigarettes in ears, the least horrific sounding — “paraded naked around a courtyard while photos were being snapped.” But — and here’s what caught my attention — my outraged correspondent found even that too much to bear and so, undoubtedly quite unconsciously, put those naked, humiliated prisoners in a courtyard at Guantanamo back in their underwear.

That spoke to me of the power of denial in the “homeland” that the loosing of torture in the imperium seems to have set free. That somehow speaks to me as well of the fact that not a single senator, Democratic or Republican, has announced the intention to filibuster the nomination of White House Legal Counsel Alberto Gonzales, thus assuring that the face of legalized torture is attached to the position of Attorney General of the United States. Most of them would evidently prefer, like so many other Americans, to put underpants back on the President’s legal counsel and confidant when, thanks to leakers in the administration, he has been photographed naked in legally compromising positions.

Much media attention was paid last week to the conviction of Abu Ghraib prison guard (and former U.S. prison guard) Charles A. Graner Jr. and his sentencing to a military brig. (My hometown paper headlined the Sunday story about Graner’s conviction, “Ringleader in Iraqi Prisoner Abuse Is Sentenced to 10 Years,” and as is the news style of our moment, wrote of “the abuse scandal”; but to give credit where it’s due, elsewhere the paper had a bold, blazing headline, “Torture From Above” — it led off the Times‘ Real Estate section with the subhead, “A Neighbor’s Renovation Can Be a Nightmare.”) Graner was a cruel man who evidently took pleasure in horrific acts. But his obvious enthusiasm for torture, as related by witnesses, his desire to hear prisoners scream, to add just one extra punch, to inflict just one more ounce of pain, that enthusiasm wasn’t restricted to the low-level guards of Abu Ghraib or others like them elsewhere in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, and at stops in-between; that spirit of enthusiasm for torture was evident at the very top of the administration as the war on terror began; it permeated the legal documents that came out of the Office of the White House Counsel; it can be felt in Donald Rumsfeld’s scrawled comments on torture memos sent to his office.

We should all stop putting the underpants back on the men in the courtyard. It’s time to assess what’s happening for exactly what it is. So, when next you write me an angry, abusive letter, at least be honest and keep the underpants off.

As Jonathan Schell says in the piece below (which the editors of the Nation magazine have kindly allowed Tomdispatch to publish on-line), with the upcoming vote on the nomination of Alberto Gonzales for Attorney General, the Senate is preparing, in our name, to cross a line of no return — and that’s something we shouldn’t fool ourselves about. Tom

What Is Wrong with Torture
By Jonathan Schell

By Jonathan Schell

The war in Iraq has given birth to an issue that may one day be seen as more important than the war, the question of torture. Just as H.J. Res. 114, by which Congress authorized the war, was the key vote for that conflict, so now the vote whether to confirm White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General will very likely be the key vote in regard to torture. At the recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the nomination, the senators seemed almost as interested in flattering one another as in examining the nominee. The former committee chair, Senator Orrin Hatch, did not thrust a lighted cigarette into the ear of Senator Patrick Leahy. Senator Joseph Biden did not “waterboard” Senator John Cornyn — that is, he did not strap Senator Cornyn to a board and thrust his head under water, holding him there until he believed he was being drowned. Senator Arlen Specter did not force Senator Russ Feingold to eat his lunch from a toilet. Senator Biden did not strip Senator Mike DeWine naked, attach a leash to his neck and force him to crawl around the hearing-room floor. Senator Specter did not kill Senator Edward Kennedy and then pose for a photograph next to his corpse, making a thumbs-up sign.

On the contrary, the senators showered one another with compliments. Senator Hatch held up Senator Specter, the new chairman of the Judiciary Committee, as “one of the best lawyers we’ve had serve in the United States Senate.” Senator Biden agreed, calling Senator Specter “the finest constitutional lawyer in the country — maybe not the country, but in the Senate (laughter).” Senator Leahy called Senator Hatch “one of the most experienced lawyers ever to serve.” The senators praised Gonzales, too. His “beautiful family” (Specter), including his mother-in-law, was introduced and feted.

And yet the acts mentioned above, all performed by U.S. forces upon prisoners in Iraq or elsewhere, were the actual substance of the hearing. Under the President served by Gonzales, torture has become endemic, and the lines of connection between the nominee’s advice and those acts were clear and undeniable. In a memo to the President, Gonzales advised that the Geneva Conventions did not apply either to Al Qaeda or Taliban soldiers in Afghanistan. He opined that if the conventions were set aside by the President, any soldiers accused under the US War Crimes Act might defend themselves against the charges of having committed war crimes under US Code Section 2441 of American law. He wrote the President, “Your determination [that the Conventions didn’t apply] would create a reasonable basis in law that Section 2441 does not apply, which would provide a solid defense to any future prosecution.”

In other words, his advice was to throw out international law so that torturers could escape the consequences of U.S. law. He solicited and participated in the preparation of a memo in the Justice Department that redefined torture only as the kind that might destroy bodily organs or kill the victim. That same memo stated that the President alone has the power to make rules for the treatment of prisoners, although the Constitution declares that “Congress shall have power to make rules concerning captures on land and water.” He oversaw an interdepartmental discussion in which waterboarding and other forms of torture were condoned.

The senators’ language regarding torture reflected, with exceptions, the horror of the matter as dimly as their flowery praise of one another. None, it is true, went as far as to suggest that restrictions on the abuse of prisoners were “unilateral disarmament,” as a recent Wall Street Journal editorial did. Most of the senatorial defenders of Gonzales’s record concentrated on denying his responsibility for one or another of the damning memos. More striking were the arguments against torture by those skeptical of the nomination. Two dominated. One was that torture hurts the image of the United States in the world. In the words of Senator Lindsey Graham, “I can tell you that it is a club that our enemies use, and we need to take that club out of their hand.” Or in the words of Senator Herb Kohl, “winning the hearts and minds of the Arab world is vital to our success in the war on terror,” and “Photographs that have come out of Abu Ghraib have undoubtedly hurt those efforts.” The second argument was that enemy forces would torture U.S. forces in retaliation. In Biden’s words, “This is about the safety and security of American forces.” Even Gonzales, who declined at every opportunity to repudiate the policies that had led to the torture, was ready to agree that Abu Ghraib had harmed the image of the United States.

But are these the fundamental reasons that torture is unacceptable? Can this nation now understand pain only if it is experienced by Americans or, through some chain of consequences, it rebounds upon the United States? Have all the people in the world but Americans become invisible to Americans?

Torture is not wrong because someone else thinks it is wrong or because others, in retaliation for torture by Americans, may torture Americans. It is the torture that is wrong. Torture is wrong because it inflicts unspeakable pain upon the body of a fellow human being who is entirely at our mercy. The tortured person is bound and helpless. The torturer stands over him with his instruments. There is no question of “unilateral disarmament,” because the victim bears no arms, lacking even the use of the two arms he was born with. The inequality is total. To abuse or kill a person in such a circumstance is as radical a denial of common humanity as is possible. It is repugnant to learn that one’s country’s military forces are engaging in torture. It is worse to learn that the torture is widespread. It is worse still to learn that the torture was rationalized and sanctioned in long memorandums written by people at the highest level of the government. But worst of all would be ratification of this record by a vote to confirm one of its chief authors to the highest legal office in the executive branch of the government.

Torture destroys the soul of the torturer even as it destroys the body of his victim. The boundary between humane treatment of prisoners and torture is perhaps the clearest boundary in existence between civilization and barbarism. Whether the elected representatives of the people of the United States are now ready to cross that line is the deepest question before the Senate as it votes on the nomination of Alberto Gonzales.

Jonathan Schell is the Harold Willens Peace Fellow at the Nation Institute. His most recent book is The Unconquerable World.

Copyright C2005 Jonathan Schell

This article will appear in the upcoming issue of The Nation magazine.