Saturday, 3 November 2007
U.S. attorney general nominee Michael Mukasey told a Senate panel this week that he didn't know exactly what was involved in waterboarding, so he couldn't tell them whether he considered it to be torture or not. If Mukasey really doesn't know what waterboarding entails, he clearly lacks the intelligence and awareness of current events to be attorney general. If he really has been living in a box for the past year or more, blissfully unaware of what is involved in waterboarding, all he has to do is go and watch the movie Rendition, which illustrates the technique perfectly. While he's watching and trying to figure out if the naked prisoner is experiencing torture while undergoing waterboarding or is merely taking an afternoon constitutional, perhaps he might ponder some other disturbing realities of the latter day Bush administration's embrace of techniques and procedures once thought to be the exclusive domain of tyrannical third-world dictators.
Waterboarding simulates drowning, and as anyone who has ever found themselves "in over their heads" in a literal sense knows, the very thought of drowning is terrifying, a word that sounds disturbingly like the word terrorist, which is exactly what a nation that embraces torture has become. If waterboarding is really not torture, then maybe adding a few thousand volts of electricity to the water will make it so. Wait, we shouldn't give the CIA any ideas!
The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlaws cruel and unusual punishment. If waterboarding isn't cruel and unusual punishment what is? "Oh, but we're in a time of war," some might say. No, we're not. First, only Congress can declare war, which it hasn't done since World War II. Second, since the U.S. has had military involvement in one country or another for at least the better part of the last century, the current state of affairs is nothing more than life as usual, not war. Even if one could successfully demonstrate that the U.S. were at war, however, the constitutional prohibition against torture--sorry, cruel and unusual punishment--would not thereby be abrogated. The Constitution does provide for detention without trial of combatants during war, and even the suspension of habeas corpus under certain very particular circumstances (not circumstances that obtain today), but the prohibition against torture can never be superseded, neither by law nor by court order, and certainly not by executive fiat. Simply put, the president has no constitutional authority to authorize torture, and any attorney general nominee who does not know that should be shown the same door through which Alberto Gonzalez recently passed.
While Mukasey is pondering waterboarding, perhaps he should also consider the practice of extraordinary rendition, or illegally detaining American citizens or residents and shipping them to undisclosed countries whose interrogation techniques are exquisitely painful and generally ineffective. In other words, the U.S. government ships them there so that they can be tortured. Maybe that's why the Bush administration is so adamant about waterboarding not being torture. After all, why pay someone else to do the dirty work when it's cheaper and more fun to do the torture ourselves, if we can just convince a compliant Congress and a bought and paid for Supreme Court to go along! "Oh, but the U.S. government doesn't really do anything like that. Rendition is just a movie!" True, Rendition is a fictional account, but it is not fictitious. An unknown number of people have been sent overseas to be tortured by the federal government, at least one of whom, Maher Arar, has come forward to accuse the Bush administration of complicity in his torture. The Canadian government also played a role in Arar's rendition, a role it has admitted and for which it has not only apologized, but for which it has also paid compensation in the amount of $10 million (Canadian, I assume, which is now worth about 7 percent more than it would be in U.S. dollars, thanks to Bush's "handling" of the U.S. economy, but that's a different form of torture). In another case, the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that Khaled el-Masri cannot hold the U.S. government accountable for its role in the torture he experienced when he was illegally transported by government agents to a third country for "enhanced interrogation."
From a purely ethical perspective, torture is wrong, at any time and under any circumstances. The argument usually used to justify torture, that information gleaned might save innocent lives, is specious. Interrogation experts agree that information garnered from victims of torture is less reliable than information obtained in other ways. Is it possible that lives might be saved by torturing someone until he or she provides the desired information? Of course it's possible. It's even more likely, however, that of all the innocent people who were tortured to obtain information they didn't have, a few will turn their hatred of the government into acts of violence. Torture doesn't prevent violence, it is violence, and it incites escalated violence.
It seems likely that Michael Mukasey will be confirmed as attorney general, because there simply aren't enough members of the Senate with either the ethical aptitude to insist that the nominee explicitly excoriate torture or the courage to take a principled stand. If he is confirmed, maybe he will take steps to curb the Bush administration's commitment to torture, but don't bet on it. More than likely, he will join his predecessor in kowtowing to a president and vice president who have no qualms about breaking both federal and international law in their prosecution of the so-called "war on terror," a war to which they are adding fuel to the fire every day. He will also join a Congress that lacks moral leadership, and a Supreme Court that has forgotten that they serve the American people, not the political party that gave them their cushy lifetime appointments.