bulwark abuse

I have hesitated to add my two cents on the matter of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse simply because there is little to say on it that doesn’t strike me as obvious. However, on a matter of such extraordinary impact, I would be remiss to not at least record a few observations.

It disheartens me to hear many Americans be dismissive of the torture of prisoners. The argument we have heard can be abbreviated to something like, “well, we aren’t as bad as Saddam”-which sounds to me not significantly different from the old fashioned, “the ends justify the means”.

I am in the midst of reading the excellent David McCullough biography of John Adams, and the famous words of Adams to the effect that United States is a nation of laws, not of men, was more haunting to me now than when I had read them some years ago. Haunting because of the extraordinary willingness lately of Americans to ignore the rule of law.

This goes much deeper than the stupidity of this administration’s repudiation of the Geneva Convention: in the last two decades we have collectively looked the other way on numerous occasions to avoid stumbling over the rule of law. The most notable, and I think foreshadowing, of the various incidents of America Shrugging are the Iran-Contra affair and Presidential perjury impeachment trial. I was literally laughed at back then when I said we are setting precedent for all kinds of bad government behavior when we ignore such serious extralegal government activity.

I wonder who is laughing now.

The respect for individual sovereignty and the rule of law have been the bulwark of ideas that has helped make the United States the most successful nation in the history of the world. If we lose that, we have lost everything.

The fact of the prisoner abuse in Iraq is horrible. It is inexcusable that the responsible parties where not called to account immediately and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Sadly, even those in agreement with me on this point generally are making the argument based on notions of realpolitik, not on what is right. Of course based on pragmatic concerns alone we should be enormously upset, but where is the outrage? I for one wish for louder expressions that this kind of behavior is not what we are about as a people.

But then, as I have said recently, I’m not sure what we are about as a people anymore.

With all of the concern I have over the acts of abuse, and the lack of a credible response from the current administration, it isn’t even my most serious concern that arises from this crisis. The words of Donald Rumsfeld in his testimony before Congress should send shivers up the spine of every living American, and most dead ones as well:

We’re functioning with peacetime constraints, with legal requirements, in a wartime situation in the Information Age, where people are running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and then passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise.

In Rumsfeld’s world, the most upsetting thing is that you and I found out about it; that the veil of secrecy was not an iron curtain, but rendered a sieve by modern technology. This guy is one of the ones in charge people, not some blogger delivering glib commentary. While his remarks did stir up a dust devil of anger, I should think there would be a real fury of calls for his resignation.

Instead, Rumsfeld’s boss gives him a pat on the butt and like so many serious issues of our day, people get bored and soon the passions subside. And of course the press will soon follow suit too because the pictures of naked prisoners sell more copy than do the details of a government run amok. After all, its just one more lie. Just one more little secret extralegal government activity. A little torture for a good cause.

Anyone still laughing?


7 thoughts on “bulwark abuse”

  1. This comment facility is here for whatever purpose somebody might choose to use it. I don’t plan on deleting anything unless it is just flat irrelevant or without decorum.

    I disagree totally that we should change the law to reflect torture being allowed under <>ANY<> circumstances. We can not trust government with that power. You need look no farther than how this administration has run amok to see that you are dealing with fire.

    Just because put in a situation I might make a choice of the one over the many doesn’t mean I want to delegate that power to the government, nor does it mean I even want the power to make that choice myself. We humans are dangerous creatures and not to be trusted.

    If the situation is truly urgent, nobody will prosecute someone for making the call. If you ask me fear of incarceration is a great check on abuse of power. If one knows that extreme actions could land one in jail, then an individual is far more likely to make the right choice.


  2. Do you want these comments here, on at your blog site?
    🙂 I assume that since you emailed this one… email
    back will work.

    “President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and
    Attorney General John Ashcroft “signed off on a secret
    system of detention and interrogation that opened the
    door to such methods.”

    I think if you throw Congress in on the above… and
    make this as public as you can to the citizens (i.e.
    NOT SECRET) … that is basically what I said we need.
    I think we should hardly ever torture … if we are
    lucky… NEVER. That said, both you and I have already
    agreed there would be times if we were President, we
    would do WHATEVER was required to protect lives (i.e.
    a city) in SOME rare circumstances. If the two of us
    can morally imagine situations where torture would
    happen… then it would be immoral not to provide laws
    (or procedures) available to the President / Congress
    (i.e. it would be immoral to have a President be put
    at risk legally when he was making the same moral
    choice most US citizens would make). If we can imagine
    it… we can make laws for it. If we make laws the
    best we can for the real world (i.e. not some abstract
    vison of the world)… that provide for the rare
    situations where we have to protect ourselves via
    torture or whatever… than we can do so legally. If a
    large enough percentage of the population disagrees
    with that, and decides this is something worth “going
    down with the ship over”… than fine. But one way or
    the other… it’s a conversation that needs to happen.
    It will be an awkard debate because although most
    americans are on board with “we all have individual
    liberties” concept… you will lose most of them when
    you phrase the concept as “an individual liberties
    (including the guy about to nuke a city” trumps any
    rights of those about to be nuked … i.e. the nukees
    have no right to violate the nuker’s individual
    liberties in order that their’s may live on. Tough
    sell… reminds me of the line in the Chevy Chase
    movie…. “You think mom will buy it”.

    “In addition to the fact that torture is morally
    repulsive, it also doesn’t work. “

    Have you ever noticed how many self-appointed experts
    there are on torture … who have never tried it. As
    Dershowitz says… duh.. yeah it works sometimes.

    I think the “ME, individual liberties” works pretty
    darn good as a basis for human rights and our society
    (even global human rights)… That said, I find the
    argument that one’s rights under any circumstances
    always trumps the other thousands at risk because of
    that one… doesn’t compute. Sounds like an abstract
    solution to a problem that isn’t abstract.


  3. “He was always just that particular. Full of principle.”

    Huck Finn … referring to Tom Sawyer … The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn


  4. I’ve always viewed your “black and white no exceptions” argument as a moral one. I think you can make a moral case that NOTHING is worth sacrificing our values or violating our laws for, including our SURVIVAL. Said another way, I think it is a perfectly moral argument to say that as a society/nation, we agree to accept whatever loss of life, including a nuke going off in a city…. rather than violate established law. The extreme would be a willingness to accept the loss of the entire nation rather than compromise on any written law. Totally moral… but unfortunately not likely to sell in the real world. When you preach to the residence of Manhattan, or Washington, or Boston that Mr. al Qaeda (who knows where the nuke is), is entitled to his Geneva Convention jogging suit… don’t be too surprised when they pass on the suicide pact. Maybe that makes them weak, and morally inferior to those without relativist thoughts… or maybe it just means they can make value judgements about an imperfect world that are different than yours.




  5. Nice relativistic thinking there Dorf. Here in the US, we have never before viewed human rights as alterable by the state…they are inherent. You would put it in the hands of Shrub to make the call on what a person’s protection from the government should be? Either torture is wrong or not.


  6. Alan Dershowitz got this one right. Any act of interrogation that goes beyond the Geneva Convention should require signoff from the top (i.e. President). It’s unjust for those at the top to endorse this behavior via “winks and nods”, and then use those below as scapegoats when the sh*t hits the fan. I think it is naive to think that there is no possible situations where a president would not be forced to use whatever means necessary to protect the public…. but on those rare situations it should be a matter of record signed off on by the President, and probably the Congress. Iraq wouldn’t even come close to warranting one of those rare situations, IMO.



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