Our country recently reached a crossroads. America now wields its freedom, swinging it to and fro in a maddening, destructive search for her enemies, rather than carry that freedom as a mantle of enlightened existence.
This country is involved in a conflict of righteous morality with a determined enemy. We would be mistaken if we were to fall into the same trap of arrogance as those that oppose us. We do not have a mandate from above any more than our enemies do. This conflict, which holds before us the futures of the United States and the peoples of the greater Arab world, constitutes a clash of belief systems, exacerbated by the stubborn nature of those who believe, unquestioningly, that bringing death is the best way to settle this disagreement. It is, but only if you believe that truth comes to all those who enter the afterlife.
No, our problems do not come from above, but have the familiar stench of all manmade dilemmas. What is not lost on either side is the importance of victory.
As I said, this is a moral war. It is one where the body counts, low or high, pale in comparison to the possibility of what the future holds for the side that loses the will to fight. Indeed, neither side — the U.S. as a whole, nor the forces of Islamic extremism — will ever lose the ability to wage this conflict from a material standpoint. What will happen is a loss of purpose — an acceptance, almost a reckoning — that the fight is no longer worth waging. The loser and the victor alike will have to confront their consciences when all is said and done. They will have to ask themselves if the sacrifices they have made, in lives lost, but more importantly, in pushing aside the restraint dictated by their respective beliefs in right and wrong, were worth the cost. I think that the victor, once the relief and elation at victory has all too quickly subsided, will find that they have been irreparably changed for the worse by this war. Hate is the one hallmark of this war that is beyond dispute.
We like to think of this country as a beacon of freedom for the world. We like to feel that we are kind and gracious benefactors. We like to think this way, but lately we have been behaving with all the greedy maliciousness of the robber barons of the past century. We have the wealth. We have the privileges. We have the freedom. No one deserves our respect. And no one had better question our prerogatives.
When war was brought to our shores, we justifiably responded in kind, but a new flaw has arisen. We present this conflict to ourselves and to the world as one of freedom vs. tyranny, as right vs. wrong, and as American values vs. barbarism. In light of how we are presenting the justifications for this wider conflict, I would think that certain methods of detention and interrogation which would be unthinkable when applied inside these United States, would remain equally taboo when applied to those we have detained overseas.
In August of 2002, a document was prepared by the office of Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee regarding conduct for interrogations during wartime. In short, this memorandum provides limitless powers for the President and his charges to conduct interrogations any way, and with whatever methods, they see fit. In a larger context, this document is indicative of the way the administration has no regard for any person or body other than its own, and it offers a disturbing insight into the thinking that goes on behind closed doors in Washington.
Part of our understanding of fundamental human rights is the understanding that a prisoner will receive humane treatment. When deprived of personal freedom, the freedom not to be harmed is all that’s left. There should never be a double standard regarding this issue as applied to those who we would like to think of as undeserving of our mercy, nor should there ever be a fine line between the necessity of winning a war and the methods of waging it. The United States learned a hard lesson in Vietnam when it was both unwilling and unable to pursue the military campaign to its logical end, due to restrictions placed on the military’s wish to escalate the conflict. The government had no cause to raise the level of the conflict to one of unabashed national, economic, and military necessity that would allow the full might of the armed forces to come to bear. In addition, the war lacked the flavor of a conflict that would wipe out the very American way of life were it to be lost. Thus, when the body bags began arriving en masse, public outcry began, and the war was unwinnable. (It is worth mentioning here that the Vietnamese who were opposing us were an enemy we took for granted. They were willing to sacrifice themselves in staggering numbers in a fight for their independence that, for them, lasted some thirty years. They recognized that they could never defeat us in numbers on the battlefield, but they could outlast our will to wage the war, just as they had with the French. Victory for them was all they had, and they were willing to wait.)
The war on terrorism does hold implications that make defeat an untenable outcome, but I think the situation in Iraq relates to the one in Vietnam in the sense that it is a battleground we should never have been engaged in, and the general public in this country is painfully coming to that realization as well.
The Powell doctrine of overwhelming force (essentially doing everything it takes to win an armed conflict as brutally and as quickly as possible) makes complete sense, especially after the defeat we suffered thirty years ago. When a war is waged, there should be nothing standing between the military and its objective of complete victory. At least that is the theory.
The Department of Justice document cited above touches on the unassailable, Constitutional authority of the President to protect this nation free from interference which could hamper that effort. Section B of Part V, “The President’s Commander in Chief Power,” begins, “As the Supreme Court has recognized...the President enjoys complete discretion in the exercise of his Commander-in-Chief authority and in conducting operations against hostile forces.” Additionally, “if executive officials were subject to prosecution for [their conduct] when they were carrying out the President’s Commander-in-Chief powers, ‘it would significantly burden and immeasurably impair the President’s ability to fulfill his Constitutional duties.'” What this presents is an interpretation of American history and law by which the President and all those carrying out duties in support of the President during a national crisis are above the law. Common sense will tell you this is not true. The law and reality have always operated on different plains. The law is a world of black and white; of right and wrong that while succeeding in a procedural fashion, fails to capture many of the nuances and subtlety that is a prominent part of everyday life. It is easy to say that the President should have carte blanche to defend this country as he sees fit. It is easy to say he should be able to do anything to anyone without any consequences, for the greater good of our way of life. However, Presidents have also always understood that there are inherent limits to this power that, while not expressed on paper, are part of this country’s overall makeup.
In wartime, the President is expected not to become a dictator, nor is he allowed to dissolve Congress and the Courts and declare martial law. He is not allowed to order summary executions of dissidents, at home and abroad. He is not allowed to install complete censorship of media outlets and publishing houses. He is not allowed to confine all those born beyond our borders in concentration camps. The list of what he is not allowed to do, by common sense, by public outcry, and by the fact he is not the only person running this country, goes on and on and on. Yet, according to a document prepared for him almost two years ago, he is allowed to authorize our military and law enforcement agencies to commit torture, in many ways perhaps the most despised and indefensible of all human conduct, in order to gather information from those detained in the war on terror.
According to this document, agents working on his behalf are allowed to pull out a defendant’s fingernails and teeth, string him upside down and whip him, run electric current through his genitals, make him consume his own feces, force him to play Russian roulette, threaten his family with death if he does not cooperate, administer mind-altering drugs whose aftermath could be complete psychosis, insert pins into his eyes, rape his wife in his view, hold him in isolation in a cell with no light, water, or toilet, hang him by his wrists until his joints can no longer sustain the weight, make him crouch on his toes until his Achilles tendons are frayed and torn...any number of horrific practices that are not just cruel and inhuman, but are sadistic, unconscionable, and entirely outrageous when we are waging a war based on our higher morality.
This fifty-page memorandum works through every possible defense of these actions, from necessity of self-defense to the illegality of questioning the President’s judgment in defending America. It asks how we could possibly let restrictions fall upon our President’s duty to protect us. It asks how we could not allow torture if it were to save lives. It is shocking, almost to the point of being beyond words, that we have gotten to the point that these questions are even considered, especially in such a cold and methodical way as a legal brief. This document stinks of a process whereby our government has sought permission to become reprehensible and evil, all in the name of preserving the American Way of Life. This document would not carry the weight that it does were it not for the conduct of the guards, interrogators, commanders, contractors, and whoever else has charge over those we have managed to take away from the fight.
Part V ends, “There can be little doubt that intelligence operations, such as the detention and interrogation of enemy combatants and leaders, are both necessary and proper for the effective conduct of a military campaign. Indeed, such operations may be of more importance in a war with an international terrorist organization than one with the conventional armed forces of a nation-state, due to the former’s emphasis on secret operations and surprise attacks against civilians. It may be the case that only successful interrogations can provide the information necessary to prevent the success of covert terrorist attacks upon the United States and its citizens.”
I agree. But our conduct will now force us to consider just what ideals we represent, and realize that they have drastically changed. We no longer have the mantle of greatness, if we ever really did. Perhaps it was all just illusion. Maybe we believed just a little too much in our benevolence. It is now plainly obvious that there are people who work in our government who never did, and they have managed to bring reality crashing through our overcrowded, collective idealism.
Well then, let me be the first to say it, “Freedom is a currency. Freedom is a measure of wealth, to be earned, traded, acquired, lost, or stolen. Freedom can be owned. Freedom can be created or destroyed. Freedom can be threatened, and when it is, freedom becomes its own worst enemy. Finally, it seems, freedom is for Americans only.”
This and other torture documents are not law. They are memorandums interpreting law that is already in existence, should the need ever arise for an American to defend the conduct of an interrogation. It is understandable that someone within the administration would want to know precisely what is permissible.
What befuddles me, and many others, are the spectacular conclusions the Department of Justice comes to in what it feels are permissible tactics. I believe the document is flawed. But after reading the entire text, I believe a large part of the problem lies with the laws against torture themselves. In this country and abroad, laws against torture are far too specific in just how much pain a person must endure before torture has occurred. This must be changed.