Torture and Alberto Gonzales

First Jonah Golberg runs the following:

TORTURE [Jonah Goldberg]

So many readers have made variations of this point, many, many from personal experience:

After I was captured, my hands were tied behind my back and I was struck repeatedly in the face with an open hand. After enduring the beating I was thrown on the water board, where under questioning the enemy would drown you till the verge of losing consciousness, only to revive you and start all over again. Then a black bag was secured around my head and throat which made it difficult to breathe. I was confined to a three by four foot tiger cage with a coffee can for a toilet. Loud music blared from speakers in the compound and I was repeatedly dragged from my cage for more beatings and interrogation. At night when it was freezing the guards would pour cold water on me. I was deprived of any food for five straight days.

Sounds pretty bad, doesn't it? Well that is only part of what EVERY U.S. Navy and Air Force pilot and flight crew goes through in survival school. The Army does it for their special forces guys as well. We do this to our own people for training but we can't do it to terrorists?

Of course the obvious answer to this point is that at the end of these "tortures", the person being brutalized can look forward to being commissioned as an officer in the Navy or the Air Force or as an Army Special Forces person. If you're a captured Iraqi being brutalized, you have no way of knowing what the endgame is, where you'll end up, if your tormentor is going to go crazy on you and start cutting off limbs or nailing your hands to the floor or whatever. There is no certainty that the torture will ever stop under any circumstances. In his next comment, Jonah sort of, kind of appears to maybe understand this:


I'm getting a lot of flack for my point in my syndicated column that Air Force Academy cadets get water-boarded in their training and that therefore it might fall somewhere short of actual torture. Here's a typical email:

dont you think its a bit preposterous to cite torture simulation as a reason that torture is acceptible? "Our soldiers experience torture simulation as part of their training. Thus it's okay to torture prisoners." Do you actually see no difference between a simulation and the real thing? This is not just a ridiculously bad argument as a simple matter of rhetoric, it's a morally despicable argument that reveals some seriously warped thinking.

Me: Of course I see the difference between the two: it's a psychological difference. And while I don't want to be categorical about this and say "as long as it's only psychological, it's not torture" I do think this is an important distinction.

But then Jonah goes on to describe simulations of torture vs the real thing and making the reasonable point that cutting off a finger and preteding to cut off a finger are two different things.

Which means no, I don't think he gets it.

Torture is not properly defined as a certain intolerable level of pain. Torture is defined as inflicting pain for the purpose of getting information out of people. If you're puttiing someone's fingers in a vise in order to demonstrate "This is what can happen to you if you're captured by the enemy", that's one thing. If you're putting someone's fingers in a vise because you're under the impression he has information you want, that's torture and that's morally wrong.

If someone's undergoing beatings because he is knowingly keeping valuable information from the people doing the beatings, it won't be difficult for him to undergo still more beatings. If you're being beaten because you were getting a soda from a convenience store just as the cops made a sweep and you get tossed into jail along with the anti-government protesters, then having someone put bamboo slats under your fingernails in an attempt to find out why the protesters were arguing with the government then the torture is going to take on a very different meaning for you.

Are the people tormenting you going to give you medical care? Will someone see to your bleeding fingertips? Not if they're trying to extract information. Being nice and getting information out of people are two entirely different things. That's why torture is unacceptable. Not merely because it's bad to stick bamboo slats under people's fingernails, but because it's morally unacceptable to try to get information via torturing people in any event.

For anyone to make the attempt to define torture as a certain level of physical pain is first of all, completely beyond the interrogator's ability to measure, as it not only depends on the physical pain being endured, but how painful it is very heavily depends on the prior experiences and current physical condition of the person being brutalized. If you're a frail old lady in her 80s, your level of intolerable pain is going to be very different from a physically-fit man in his 20s.

Ah, but what about the practical argument? What about all of the valuable information we get via torture? To which my answer is: "What valuable information?" The abuses of Iraqi prisoners began shortly after the US occupied Iraq. At first, Iraqi saboteurs were confined to the outlying areas. By the time the photos from Abu Ghraib was discovered, the Iraqi resistance had a real foothold in the country and could move around pretty much as they pleased. In other words, US forces didn't learn much that was of any real value. The resistance continued to grow stronger and more capable while US personnel were torturing Iraqis.

Has the Bush Administration learned anything? Have they sworn off torture? Will they refrain from doing it in the future? The signs are not hopeful. From LiberalOasis:

Does Gonzales think the president has the power to authorize torture by immunizing American personnel from prosecution for it?

During the hearing, [Sen. Pat] Leahy called this idea, which comes from the August 2002 document dubbed the "Bybee memo," "the commander-in-chief override."

And by hearing's end it was clear that Gonzales believed in it.

That refers to this extremely telling and disturbing exchange:

LEAHY: The Bybee memo concludes that a president has authority as commander in chief to override domestic and international law as prohibiting torture and can immunize from prosecution anyone -- anyone -- who commits torture under his act.

Whether legal or not, he can immunize them.

Now, as attorney general, would you believe the president has the authority to exercise a commander-in-chief override and immunize acts of torture?

GONZALES: First of all, sir, the president has said we're not going to engage in torture under any circumstances.

And so you're asking me to answer a hypothetical that is never going to occur.

This president has said we're not going to engage in torture under any circumstances.

And therefore, that portion of the opinion was unnecessary and was the reason that we asked that that portion be withdrawn.

LEAHY: But I'm trying to think what type of opinions you might give as attorney general. Do you agree with that conclusion?

GONZALES: Sir, again --

LEAHY: You're a lawyer, and you've held a position as a justice of the Texas Supreme Court, you've been the president's counsel, you've studied this issue deeply.

Do you agree with that conclusion?

GONZALES: Senator, I do believe there may come an occasion when the Congress might pass a statute that the president may view as unconstitutional.

And that is a position and a view not just of this president, but many, many presidents from both sides of the aisle.

Obviously, a decision as to whether or not to ignore a statute passed by Congress is a very, very serious one.

And it would be one that I would spend a great deal of time and attention before arriving at a conclusion that in fact a president had the authority under the Constitution to --

LEAHY: Mr. Gonzales, I'd almost think that you'd served in the Senate, you've learned how to filibuster so well, because I asked a specific question:

Does the president have the authority, in your judgment, to exercise a commander-in-chief override and immunize acts of torture?

GONZALES: With all due respect, Senator, the president has said we're not going to engage in torture.

That is a hypothetical question that would involve an analysis of a great number of factors.

I agree with LiberalOasis that this answer is completely unacceptable. Gonzales is deliberately evading and fuzzing over and obscuring a very simple and important question. Does the President have the authority to override the Geneva Conventions at any time, under any circumstances, for any reason? Being a progressive of course, my answer is NO, the President does not, never did and (God willing) never will have any such authority and anyone who says he does, did or will is, by definistion, in favor of torture.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

well done. i got here from your comment at digby. yes, we all strive for accuracy in our lefty rants and articles, constrained by morality as opposed to J. Goldberg. it does sometimes seem an outmoded restriction, maybe even "quaint" ala Gonzalez, but we do truly sink ourselves if we relent. thank you.

dread pirate roberts