Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Torture Deserves No Compromises

I am more than a little horrified to think that our nation is actually busy having a high-level debate (between certain Senators and the President, no less!) about how exactly to interpret the Geneva Conventions against torture. If there is any issue under the sun about which all Americans should be able to agree, it ought to be that we are universally against torture of any kind. After all, it’s awfully hypocritical for America to proclaim the supposed divinely inspired equality of all mankind while our President and Senate haggle over just how much inhuman cruelty it is permissible to visit upon our war detainees. Gone already is the presumption of innocence for these people, our fellow human beings. Their humanity was stripped away when they were convicted of being swarthy Middle Easterners in the presence of an American “War on Terror”. Their rights as human beings lie as mute casualties of our collective fear. No great nation can act this way and still claim greatness.

It’s not as though our nation doesn’t have experience with dehumanizing others and committing torture against them, either. I just watched Mississippi Burning again this weekend and was struck as powerfully as ever by how close our putatively free society sits to Nietzche’s abyss. We look into it again and again, seeing different strange faces over the years as whole segments of our society embrace hatred of that stranger. So it is again today, with the “War on Terror”. Too many Americans looked into the face of the evil that bled us on 9/11 and saw not a ragtag bunch of religious extremists who scored the ultimate sucker punch, but a roiling mass of existential evil bent on the destruction of free society. The Bush administration and its complicit Republican Congress whipped that fearful horse into a frenzied gallop, running campaigns and public policy on delusions of Al-Qaeda’s grandeur. And for those of us who were, and remain, skeptical about the breadth of the Islamic extremist threat, there has been nothing but contempt and attacks upon our patriotism. Bush and his sycophants in the rightwing media have used their bully pulpits and media megaphones to shout down dissent, sowing fear and hatred against the dreaded "Other" once again in America. Even the slightest voice of reason that penetrates that mighty Wurlitzer is welcome.

Which is why, I think, it was so easy for many liberals, against their better judgment, I hope, to give Senator John McCain and friends at least a somewhat interested ear when they began to question Bush's proposed dismantling of the Geneva Conventions. The legend of McCain’s moral individuality, his "maverick" status, is grossly undeserved yet one of the most persistent myths in Washington. McCain is, and always has been, a loyal conservative Republican with a penchant for talking a bigger game than he plays. He consistently votes with his party, regardless of his rhetoric in the policy debates. It should have been no surprise to anyone, liberals especially, that McCain would eventually agree to a "compromise"; which, among Republicans, means doing whatever Bush wants with a little phony political theatre to entertain the rubes. I don’t doubt John McCain is against torture, but I also don't doubt that he's much more invested in a Republican majority and a future McCain presidential administration than he is in a principled moral stand. We’ve been around this block too many times for me to believe that McCain and his fellows actually believe taking Bush and Hadley at their words is a compromise of any kind. It was election year politics and nothing more.

Given that it was nothing but strange Washington kabuki, the silence of the Democrats during this debate is possibly the most damning mark against us in some time. For a party that continually battles the well-worn conservative stereotype that Democrats do not stand by their principles, failing to vocally take a stand against gutting the Geneva Conventions may possibly be the worst political mistake the party’s made this election season. Even I am beginning to doubt whether the leadership of my party has any sort of grasp of what motivates American voters. Voices like Russ Feingold’s, who has been vocally against the Bush administration’s torture policies, are welcome, but Russ isn’t the prominent national voice that a Clinton or Reid is. The Democrats were largely silent, hoping that this might finally be the issue that splits the Republican party apart while again forgetting how passive-aggressive and opportunistic that approach appears to the voters. Torture should be a no-brainer issue for Democrats; they should have been shouting from the mountaintops about what a disgusting display of immoral hypocrisy the entire Republican debate was. National security is not the end that justifies all means, but the Republicans will continue to use it that way if their ambitions remain unchecked.

Instead, most of what we got from my Democratic party was similar to President Clinton's remarks on Meet the Press: a pragmatic support of the Geneva conventions. That’s not to say that defending the Conventions on a pragmatic basis is not worthwhile or effective; torture doesn’t work and its use does put Americans at risk. Unfortunately, the electorate does not vote on issues pragmatically. The Republicans, Bush and Rove especially, understand this very well. Rarely does Bush try and defend his policies from a practical point of view. Instead, it's high-minded rhetoric about "clashes of civilization", "good versus evil" and our "duty to history". While that approach is not intellectual and not very enlightening about the issues, it is effective in winning elections. And, at the end of the day, losing elections is the only thing that is going to stop movement conservatism from permanently damaging our democracy.

For my own part, I think the pragmatic arguments against torture are needless. Some issues can stand purely on their moral foundations. A ban against torture in any form is one such issue. The Geneva Conventions are writ broadly and somewhat vaguely on purpose: to force those abiding by them to question their governments’ policies on an ongoing basis. What Bush seeks to do, and what other violent authoritarians, such as Augusto Pinochet in Chile have sought to do, is define torture down to specifics in order to weaken the Geneva Conventions. There is no need for specific, delineated rules about torture for any nation, unless that nation wishes to know where the limit lies in order to walk as closely to it as possible. That, I believe, is what the Bush administration is attempting to do: set a standard so specific that it leaves a vast array of inhuman depravations legal. There should be no need for a debate on the pragmatic reasons against torture; the sickening, inhuman immorality of it should be the beginning an end for our nation, or any other. We have no claim to decency as a nation or a people otherwise.

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