There’s a fantastic article in this week’s New Yorker about the US government’s use of torture in the War on Terror. The article indicts the government for clearly and knowingly violating the Geneva Convention, for using techniques at Guantanamo that, if not outright torture, certainly count as cruelty:
Qahtani had been subjected to a hundred and sixty days of isolation in a pen perpetually flooded with artificial light. He was interrogated on forty-eight of fifty-four days, for eighteen to twenty hours at a stretch. He had been stripped naked; straddled by taunting female guards, in an exercise called “invasion of space by a female”; forced to wear women’s underwear on his head, and to put on a bra; threatened by dogs; placed on a leash; and told that his mother was a whore. By December, Qahtani had been subjected to a phony kidnapping, deprived of heat, given large quantities of intravenous liquids without access to a toilet, and deprived of sleep for three days. Ten days before Brant and Mora met, Qahtani’s heart rate had dropped so precipitately, to thirty-five beats a minute, that he required cardiac monitoring.
These are not techniques that were previously deemed acceptable, signalling a significant change in US policy. Whatever your thoughts on the US military, it’s fairly clear that international human rights law, like the Geneva Convention, has historically been taken quite seriously. Of course there are exceptions, and there are certainly plenty of instances of egregious military violations of human rights. But in 2002 President Bush specifically made the decision to circumvent the boundaries of the Geneva Convention, refusing to outlaw cruelty towards suspects.
Of course, the Pentagon now says that this has been taken care of, that post-Abu Ghraib the list of “approved interrogation techniques” has been significantly limited. But there is still no evidence that the military is taking the Geneva Convention as a framework in which to limit these actions, and there is no clear deliniation between acceptable and unacceptable techniques in terms of cruelty or torture.
But even more significant than this–and this is very significant– is the overall Bush Administration movement toward greatly increased and consolidated presidential power.
Lawrence Wilkerson, whom Powell assigned to monitor this unorthodox policymaking process… said, “I saw what was discussed. I saw it in spades. From Addington to the other lawyers at the White House. They said the President of the United States can do what he damn well pleases. People were arguing for a new interpretation of the Constitution. It negates Article One, Section Eight, that lays out all of the powers of Congress, including the right to declare war, raise militias, make laws, and oversee the common defense of the nation.” Cheney’s view, Wilkerson suggested, was fuelled by his desire to achieve a state of “perfect security.” He said, “I can’t fault the man for wanting to keep America safe, but he’ll corrupt the whole country to save it.” (Wilkerson left the State Department with Powell, in January, 2005.)
The President should NOT have the right to do whatever he wants. In fact, the idea that the President CAN do whatever he wants is in direct violation of the Constitution, the general philosophy of checks and balances in government, and is the first step towards a far less democratic and far more despotic type of government.
I’d urge you to read the whole article: coming about a week after the new photos from Abu Ghraib and the UN urging the US to shut down Guantánamo, it really shows how incidents of torture of “terror suspects” are NOT, by ANY means, isolated incidents of a few people acting inappropriately. Rather, they are systemic, condoned from the top-down, and part of a larger discourse of expanded presidential power that should concern all Americans, no matter what their political leanings. In case you can’t tell, I’m really, really bothered by this, and I’m trying to figure out if there is anything that the citizenry can do about it.