Saturday, November 17, 2007

Vanity Fair

One of the minor ironies of the Bush interregnum is that Graydon Carter -- editor of a glossy magazine devoted to movie stars, ads for expensive watches and clothes, and the occasional gossipy story about some media mogul -- has for some time written some of the best and most accurately scathing attacks on the reigning junta. His Editor's Letter in this month's Vanity Fair -- spliced between ads for Land Rovers, articles about stage moms, and a photo spread featuring Julia Roberts -- is one of his best and one that gives me a great deal of hope.

Discussing a fictional account of a Tony-Blair-like former British Prime Minister who gets called to account for his role in approving torture, Carter notes:

All things being equal, such a legal fate may well await not only Tony Blair but our own President Bush, once his clenched-white fingers have been pried from the nuclear “football” for the last time, in January 2009. It is now evident that the United States, beginning at the very top levels of the administration, has been engaged in a coordinated and widespread campaign of extraordinary rendition and real torture—offenses that would have appalled most thinking Americans an administration ago. Thanks to a major report in The New York Times in October, we furthermore know that the Bush White House was enabled at every stage by a compliant Justice Department that clandestinely re-wrote U.S. laws so that the president wouldn’t technically be in violation of them when he broke them.

A year before his Iraq invasion, Bush sent a memo to his Cabinet declaring that the administration would hereafter not be constrained by the principles of the 1949 Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. The White House document argued that, because a war on “terrorism” was not a conflict with a particular state or “High Contracting Parties,” the rules of war as stipulated by the Convention—especially those involving torture and due process—did not apply. Detainees suspected of having ties to al-Qaeda would thus not be covered by the historic conventions of war, because al-Qaeda is not a conventional nation-state. The administration then sought to legally and narrowly define what torture was. (Remember those balmy days of our youth when we got in a snit over a president who was parsing what was or was not sex?) Almost every manner of humiliation and punishment short of major-organ failure or death was declared permissible under the administration’s definition of torture. Note: the Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines torture as the infliction of severe bodily pain—as punishment or means of persuasion. It is worth remembering that America and her allies emerged victorious from both World War II and the Cold War without resorting to any form of organized or authorized torture.

Water-boarding, as we all know, gets two thumbs up from this administration. I’ve read many descriptions of it, but Robert Harris has one in The Ghost that is to the point. The prisoner is tightly bound to an inclined board with his feet higher than his head. His face is covered with cloth or cellophane, and when water is poured over it—some of which might leak into his lungs—the prisoner experiences an immediate drowning sensation. Harris says C.I.A. officers who have been subjected to water-boarding during their training have lasted an average of 14 seconds before giving up. Water-boarding can result in damage to the lungs and the brain, as well as long-term psychological trauma. In 1947, Harris says, a Japanese officer was convicted of a war crime for water-boarding an American prisoner and was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that the administration’s program for trials of accused terrorists by military commissions violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice as well as Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. Article 3 is very clear on two points this White House has chosen to ignore. Subsection (c) forbids “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment” (my italics), and Subsection (d) forbids “the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples” (my italics again).

Should this all follow the president out of office, . . . the lieutenants and functionaries who provided enabling documentation should recall that, when it comes to war crimes, following orders is no defense. No less an authority than Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s chief propagandist, had this to say on the subject in an article he published in May 1944: “No international law of warfare is in existence which provides that a soldier who has committed a mean crime can escape punishment by pleading as his defense that he followed the commands of his superiors. This holds particularly true if those commands are contrary to all human ethics and opposed to the well-established international usage of warfare.” Goebbels was talking not about the Nazi atrocities—war criminals rarely discuss their own atrocities—but about Allied aerial-bombing attacks on Germany. And just as his words came back to haunt him, the White House’s re-writing of our own codes of conduct will most surely come back to haunt them and us.

About the only thing stopping the International Criminal Court from going after the president, the vice president, and the former secretary of defense and attorneys general is that the U.S. is not a signatory to its conventions of warfare. Most nations (and all other Western nations) are, but not us. China’s not a signatory; neither is Iraq. Such is the company we keep these days. You don’t even have to care about the safety of detainees in our custody to care about this issue, because it also governs how other nations treat our sons and daughters (or, in the case of the Iraq war, fathers and mothers of people in their 20s) when they are captured.

At the end of the day, the torture conversation is a reflection of how much America’s moral compass has shifted since 9/11. The administration’s colossally wrongheaded reaction to the attacks has caused the U.S. to retreat to the dark, Cheney-esque shadows. The issue of torture goes to the heart of any discussion of who we are as a world citizen. It is not just the top levels of the administration that bear the guilt of war crimes committed in our name. Every government lawyer who helped construct the legal paper trail for the White House is guilty. So are the administration underlings who turned blind eyes to things they knew were wrong. Every legislator and journalist who chose silence over the withering furies of right-wing demagogues and talk-radio hosts is guilty, too. We are all guilty, and we should be ashamed. A nation that used to be better than its enemies has, under the Bush administration, become its own worst enemy.

Carter has been doing this sort of thing since the beginning, back when it was as good as your job (Phil Donahue) or your entire career (the Dixie Chicks) to dare to even suggest that the emperor might be a bit shy of leggings, shirts, and various other accoutrements. I especially appreciate his acknowledgement that, "We are all guilty and we should be ashamed." I'm guilty of letting this go on. You're guilty. It's done in our name with out tax dollars and it's done because there aren't enough of us willing to throw ourselves against the barricades until it fucking stops. I hope that I live to see the war criminals tried and punished. Many of them are likely to live a long time and Karma, that brilliant bitch Goddess, is reputed to have a v. long memory. Now it would be nice of the folks in the middle, you know, the "serious" journalists somewhere above dirty bloggers and the silly editors of high-end gossip mags, would start to do some of the heavy lifting. Carter's been almost on his own for quite some time.


four legs good said...

So true.

Anonymous said...

And Harris's 'fiction' ends with the former PM being blown to pieces, his wife having fooled him all their married life as an agent for the USA. I expect that's the kind of fate such as you would REALLY like for both Blair & Bush.

Recognise your friends - you might then be better able to know your enemies.