Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Four Reasons Why the Torturers Must Be Prosecuted

I agree completely with Evan that the torturing of prisoners that went on during the Bush administration was unambiguously criminal, and that the Justice Department needs to charge somebody with these acts, even if the burden of proof may represent a steep uphill battle. The torture of a few al Qaeda operatives is important because it violates U.S. and international law, but it's not important for that reason alone. I'm confident that the law is violated all the time - sometimes flagrantly, sometimes accidentally - and not all of these infractions merit public indignation over whether the Justice Department decides to prosecute. So why this time?

- First, because this crime is uniquely heinous. As Christopher Hitchens has said, "It used to be in the press you remember people would say that it simulates the feeling of drowning. You've read that I'm sure. In fact it doesn't simulate it at all in fact you are being drowned." There is a reason that both the Republican and the Democratic candidate for president this Fall came out strongly against torture, and it had less to do with McCain's war experience than it did with the fundamental incongruity of torture with modern society.

- Second, because this is not just a legal violation - it as a constitutional violation as well. While some of the Bill of Rights protections of criminals arguably do not apply to prisoners of war, and those who are tried by military tribunals, the injunction against cruel and unusual punishments has no such distinction. The numerous protections guaranteed by the fifth amendment are qualified by a very vital loophole that the Bush administration has ably exploited: "No person shall be held to answer for any capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." The eighth amendment, for what should be obvious reasons, includes no such qualification: "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."

- Third, and quite simply, the Bush administration has to be held accountable for something with respect to the prosecution of the war on terror and the Iraq War. History will judge the American people to be as complicit with the Bush as the American people were found to be with Jackson's Trail of Tears or FDR's internment camps if they do nothing to right this wrong. The specific points of the Patriot Act, the War on Terror, the Iraq War, the Plame Affair, extraditions, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Gharib, etc. can certainly be debated by reasonable people, and several of these cases have already been tried. Not all critiques may end up being legitimate critiques (I've agreed with the administration on a few of these concerns. For example, I'm a strong supporter of a vigorous War on Terror, and I don't think there's anything wrong with having a prison at Guantanamo, so long as the proceedings there are legal). This third point is therefore not meant to be a thoughtless, blanket indictment of the Bush administration. Instead, it is a recognition that life in America and abroad was radically different between September 11th, 2001, and January 20th, 2009. Some of it was handled quite well, and some of it was handled not as well. But we cannot abandon an evaluation of these years in an effort to "move forward". We can't move forward with confidence without knowing where we may have misstepped in the path. Obama's justification for failing to prosecute for these crimes is completely wrong-headed. If we don't grapple with what was done we have no road map with which we can move forward.

- Fourth, and by far the most important, we must prosecute as a defense against fascist tendencies. I have been enormously critical of news outlets that apply labels like "fascist" or "socialist" to President Obama. That kind of hyperbole is incredibly destructive. So why do I use this word now? It is because I'm concerned about letting the mindset of fascism take root in this country. Allow me to explain my distinction: it is my opinion that the Iraq War was aggressive and unprovoked - that we should have focused our energies on the War on Terror, which we actually had cause to prosecute. Despite my strong disagreement with Bush on the Iraq war, I don't think the war had any tendency towards fascism at all. Bush made a case to the people. He made a case to the international community. He had allies. He got the approval of Congress. A reasonable person could say that he didn't intentionally and recklessly abandon international law. In other words, the Iraq War may have been ill-advised, inappropriate, and perhaps even illegal: but it was done in broad daylight, it was not executed by personal fiat, and it was prosecuted in line with the Constitution. It was therefore not fascist. The same is true of the stimulus package and the TARP program. I'm infuriated when these things are called "fascist", not just because I agree with their necessity, but also because the critics ignore the clear consistency of the method of passing the stimulus package and the TARP with the liberal political tradition and democratic principles. No such consistency exists for these acts of torture, and while they may not be fascist themselves, they represent "fascist tendencies". Fascism is about method, not policy. A "benevolent dictator" could implement the same programs that any presidential administration in history has enacted, but they would still be fascist if they did so by will of the president, rather than by the will of the people, through the Constitutional apparatuses designed and assented to by the people. Likewise, democracies are capable of a great deal of misery, but poor or even ruthless decisions on the part of democracies are not "fascist" so long as they are implemented by a government limited by well defined constraints on it's power and the will of the people. I think this distinction is important to make, because we have flirted with fascism on more than a few occasions in our country's history. The bedrock fascist position is best stated by Nixon, probably the closest we have come to a president with a truly fascist mindset: "When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal." Nixon probably hurt his policital adversaries more than anyone else - his crime ultimately didn't result in much more of substance than a broad-based loss of innocence - but this man's very mindset was a fascist mindset. He was, and I think he will be remembered as, a fascist who held an official position in a democratic Republic for a number of years in the late twentieth century. Was Bush a fascist in this mold? Was Cheney? Prosecuting torturers won't answer that question, and we may never know. We probably won't have the benefit of a Frost interview for those men, like we had with Nixon. But the tortures reek of something terrible, in the same way that Watergate did. And even if the torture could be explained away in various ways (just like Watergate could have itself been explained away as quite insignificant), the entire endeavor is indicative of "fascist tendencies" in the Bush White House - a tendency to place the president above the law, rather than under it. We need that tendency to be scrutinized in the light of day. And perhaps I have it all wrong and the torturers will be found not guilty, and this whole post was all a big mistake - but I think the preponderance of evidence for enough people suggests that we need to shore up the value and strength of the law in America. We're likely to have very trying times ahead - we don't want a charismatic president like Obama to enter trying times without a firm message from the American people that fascist tendencies are not acceptable, regardless of the objective desirability of the program that the fascist is offering.


  1. At least the door is being cracked open a bit on the question of investigations and accountability.


  2. I had a two and a half hour drive down to Williamsburg this morning, and it was about two hours and fifteen minutes worth of torture prosecution on CSPAN and NPR. I think this is moving somewhere - I think something will happen. It may just be a congressional committee, but at least there will be some acknowledgement and sunlight.

    Thanks for commenting, David - please come back again! We try to keep to a weekly posting schedule.

  3. Yes, it does seem things will move forward... I was in the city yesterday and didn't get to hear any news. Actually, a draft of my post mentioned Obama & Holder offering assurances, and then I corrected it because it sounds like I was lumping the Justice Dept. a little too quickly.

    It's unfortunate that Obama first spoke up with the wrong response, even as this does move towards prosecution. If it was a way to ease people into the eventual response to the practices, then maybe it will have some effect, but I could see it being remembered rather badly with regard to Obama's legacy.


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