I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Looking in the mirror

Is it possible -- while maintaining one's credibility and claim to moral superiority-- to righteously condemn certain behavior while at the very same time engaging in that exact behavior and overtly embracing the right to engage in it?

Here is Mark Noonan of Blogs for Bush celebrating a new poll showing that a majority of people favor the use of torture in some circumstances:

. . . I think it does illustrate why the phony stories about Americans torturing terrorists don't grab hold of imaginations outside the fever swamps of the left: I think, on balance, that we'd all rather risk having the wrong guy roughed up from time to time [ed: by "roughed up," he means "tortured"] rather than have the right guy sit there smilingly silent while the bomb goes off on the school bus.

And here is Bluto at MyPetJawa sharing his explanation for the results of that poll -- what he refers to as the "Red Hot Poker Up the Ass Poll":

Thinking people are fed up with terrorist apologists bleating about "dignity" for captured jihadi babyhunters. Originally posted at The Dread Pundit Bluto, where we always keep a nice warm poker or two in the fire.

And now here is John Burns' account in the New York Times of the testimony provided yesterday in the Saddam Hussein criminal trial by one witness who was tortured by Saddam's secret police:

During today's session, an unidentified male witness, testifying behind a beige curtain to conceal his identity, said he was arrested after the assassination attempt and taken to Baath Party headquarters, where he found people "screaming because of the beatings," according to The Associated Press.

The witness said Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti was present."When my turn came, the investigator asked me my name and he turned to Barzan and asked him: `What we shall do with him?' Barzan replied: `Take him. He might be useful.' We were almost dead because of the beatings."

The A.P. said that under questioning by the judge, the witness said he was blindfolded at the time and believed it was Mr. Ibrahim speaking because other prisoners told him so.

The witness said he was taken to Baghdad "in a closed, crowded van that had no windows.""When we arrived at the building they asked us to stand along the wall," he said. "We were told to stand only on one foot, and we kept on this position for two hours before we were taken to cells with red walls. I was thirsty but the water was very hot."

And here is Burns' summary of the testimony of a female witness who was also tortured:

One witness, a woman identified as Witness A, recounted how security officers forced her to strip and tortured her with beatings and electric shocks at a secret police center. She was 16.

"They lifted my legs up and beat me with cables," said the woman, whose voice was electronically disguised. Several times, she broke into sobs. "Is this what happens to the virtuous Iraqi woman that Saddam speaks about?" she asked, her voice cracking.

Later, she told how she was taken to Abu Ghraib prison, where torture and humiliation became routine. She recalled that guards used to pull on the penis of a deaf male relative with women and children watching. She said she had seen camels at the prison and envied their freedom.

"God is great, oh, God!" she moaned, briefly unable to continue.

So these are the witnesses who are being called at Saddam Hussein's trial in order to demonstrate that Saddam is a despicable, criminal tyrant worthy of death. On what grounds can we possibly condemn any of this?

It is just indisputably true that much of what these witnesses are testifying to are things that the U.S. has been doing -- and in the case of Abu Ghraib, in the very same place where Saddam did it. And we're not just doing those things, but expressly insisting on the right to do it. Doesn't that present a rather significant problem given that our stated goal in Iraq is to bring human rights and democracy to that country and to demonstrate to the wider Muslim world the true nature of American values?

For decades we self-righteously preached democracy and human rights while propping up Middle Eastern dictators who viciously suppressed and persecuted their citizens. Did we think that the people in those countries wouldn't notice that? They did. And they're certainly noticing that the parade of horrors which Saddam perpetrated on Iraqis is not all that different from the things which we and some of our Shiite allies have been doing and are promising more of.

It's one thing to take the attitude that war is hell and we have to break some eggs to make an omelette and all of those other manly cliches which are trotted out t0 justify any sort of behavior during war. That's all well and good.

But this is supposed to be a different kind of war, according to the people who wanted to wage it. The idea here isn't to conquer cities or compel capitulation but to change the nature of the Middle East and to improve how we are regarded in that region. Once that becomes the objective of the war, one can no longer take the oh-so-tough approach of being dismissive of what other people think about our methods -- since what other people think about us is what the war -- at least this war -- is supposed to be about.

And while one can perhaps employ any and all means to win in a garden-variety war, one cannot employ things like torture, sexual humiliation, due processless detentions and disappearances -- what Mark at Blogs for Bush calls just a little "roughing up" and Rush Limbaugh calls "letting off steam" -- in a war that is supposed to be about bringing democracy and human rights to a place that hasn't previously had either. This is the case not because doing those things is wrong in some moral sense; it is because they undermine and preclude the fulfillment of what we claim are our goals.

It is surely the case that the U.S. has not yet fully sunk to the level to which Saddam descended, but the fact that this has become our defense -- our standard -- is by itself significant. Listening to the testimony at Saddam's trial, it seems clear that the differences between Saddam and what we are doing is one of degree and not of level. But give us time. Saddam had 35 years to perfect his torture and terrorizing techniques. We're just getting started.

After all: "Thinking people are fed up with terrorist apologists bleating about "dignity" for captured jihadi babyhunters. "


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