Stay Tuned For Hell To Freeze Over

Words I never thought I would write dept: Andrew Sullivan's Sunday NYT book review article on American torture is … brace yourself … remarkably sensible:

The critical enabling decision was the president's insistence that prisoners in the war on terror be deemed ''unlawful combatants'' rather than prisoners of war. …

The president's underlings got the mixed message. …

What's notable about the incidents of torture and abuse is first, their common features, and second, their geographical reach. No one has any reason to believe any longer that these incidents were restricted to one prison near Baghdad. They were everywhere: from Guantánamo Bay to Afghanistan, Baghdad, Basra, Ramadi and Tikrit and, for all we know, in any number of hidden jails affecting ''ghost detainees'' kept from the purview of the Red Cross. They were committed by the Marines, the Army, the Military Police, Navy Seals, reservists, Special Forces and on and on. …

Whether we decide to call this kind of treatment ''abuse'' or some other euphemism, there is no doubt what it was in the minds of the American soldiers who perpetrated it. They believed in torture. And many believed it was sanctioned from above. …

Who was responsible? There are various levels of accountability. But it seems unmistakable from these documents that decisions made by the president himself and the secretary of defense contributed to confusion, vagueness and disarray, which, in turn, led directly to abuse and torture. The president bears sole responsibility for ignoring Colin Powell's noble warnings. …

Worse, the president has never acknowledged the scope or the real gravity of what has taken place. His first instinct was to minimize the issue; later, his main references to it were a couple of sentences claiming that the abuses were the work of a handful of miscreants, rather than a consequence of his own decisions. …

And the damage done was intensified by President Bush's refusal to discipline those who helped make this happen. A president who truly recognized the moral and strategic calamity of this failure would have fired everyone responsible. But the vice president's response to criticism of the defense secretary in the wake of Abu Ghraib was to say, ''Get off his back.'' In fact, those with real responsibility for the disaster were rewarded. Rumsfeld was kept on for the second term, while the man who warned against ignoring the Geneva Conventions, Colin Powell, was seemingly nudged out. … Alberto R. Gonzales, who wrote memos that validated the decision to grant Geneva status to inmates solely at the president's discretion, is now nominated to the highest law enforcement job in the country: attorney general. The man who paved the way for the torture of prisoners is to be entrusted with safeguarding the civil rights of Americans. It is astonishing he has been nominated, and even more astonishing that he will almost certainly be confirmed.

But in a democracy, the responsibility is also wider. Did those of us who fought so passionately for a ruthless war against terrorists give an unwitting green light to these abuses? Were we naïve in believing that characterizing complex conflicts from Afghanistan to Iraq as a single simple war against ''evil'' might not filter down and lead to decisions that could dehumanize the enemy and lead to abuse? Did our conviction of our own rightness in this struggle make it hard for us to acknowledge when that good cause had become endangered? I fear the answer to each of these questions is yes.

I'm not saying that those who unwittingly made this torture possible are as guilty as those who inflicted it. I am saying that when the results are this horrifying, it's worth a thorough reassessment of rhetoric and war methods. Perhaps the saddest evidence of our communal denial in this respect was the election campaign. The fact that American soldiers were guilty of torturing inmates to death barely came up. It went unmentioned in every one of the three presidential debates. John F. Kerry, the ''heroic'' protester of Vietnam, ducked the issue out of what? Fear? Ignorance? Or a belief that the American public ultimately did not care, that the consequences of seeming to criticize the conduct of troops would be more of an electoral liability than holding a president accountable for enabling the torture of innocents? I fear it was the last of these. Worse, I fear he may have been right.

OK, one might have preferred to see this before the election, but better late than later.

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