Ten years ago when President Clinton’s behavior in the White House was making headlines, William Bennet wrote a book, “The Death of Outrage,” asserting that Americans had lost the capacity to be morally furious.
Some people thought outrage deserved a better cause than Bill Clinton’s sex life, but there is today an outrage which, if it does not provoke a public outcry, will prove that Bennet was right.
On October 4, the lead story in the New York Times was headlined, “Secret U.S. Endorsement of Severe Interrogations.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/04/washington/04interrogate.html). The article, authored by three reporters, detailed secret Justice Department legal opinions that gave expansive approval to the Central Intelligence Agency for use of the harshest interrogation techniques when questioning detainees in the war on terror. These techniques, which include waterboarding (the practice of simulated drowning), are torture by any reasonable definition. The secret opinions circumvent and contradict prior opinions issued for public consumption and fly in the face of expressed Congressional opinion. And the use of these techniques is, as the Times articles states, unprecedented in American history.
This furtive, dishonest and cowardly legal maneuver, exercised under the President’s former quisling, Alberto Gonzalez, was vehemently opposed by some brave and principled lawyers within the Justice Department who, as one can imagine, have had to find work elsewhere. One of these was quoted in the Times as having told his superiors that they would “all be ashamed” of themselves when these opinions came to light.
They should be. To argue, as some will and the White House has, that Al Queda is not a sovereign state or a signatory to the Geneva Conventions and therefore exempt from protections is to miss the point: outrage about this matter is not, primarily, a matter of humanitarian concern for detainees. Moreover, there are knowledgeable people who say torture produces only unreliable or bad information. And the oft-cited justification - that, hypothetically, using these techniques on some detainees could produce information about an imminent nuclear explosion or a dirty bomb - is just that: hypothetical. In an instance in which there is specific and credible evidence of such a plot, certainly extraordinary means would be justified.
But note that the secret Justice Department opinions were not issued in response to specific and credible evidence of any particular threat, but as a blanket policy. The real issue at stake is the rule of law, a principle the United States used to stand for, and the best guarantor of the safety of our own people. As one military lawyer quoted in the Times story said, “The problem is, once you’ve got a legal opinion that says such a technique is OK, what happens when one of our people is captured and they do it to him. How can we protest then?”
And the furtive, guilt-ridden way in which the Justice Department’s secret opinions were issued ought to be an embarrassment: if the President believes the harshest interrogation tactics are necessary, let him make a case to the public and to Congress and persuade us, as leaders do. The moral calculus of interrogating bad guys in a nuclear age—how much force to use and when, under what conditions, to get what kind of information—is complicated; so, what’s required is the formulation of rules and policies and protocols informed by knowledgeable debate, not government edicts issued, as it were, in the dead of night.
The challenge of religiously inspired fascism is a real one. (I take my lead on this from Christopher Hitchens, which ought to tell you everything you need to know about how important I think this is.) But I also think the blanket authorization of torture, in secret, is an enormous retreat in the war on terror, because it abdicates our most valuable strategic asset, which is the higher moral ground.
By colluding with our leaders in this, we as a public are trading our integrity for a “security” purchased by the covert use of interrogation techniques that flatly contravene professed American values. I hope everyone in Lakewood writes or calls Sherrod Brown and George Voinovich and Dennis Kucinich to demand that Congress put a leash on this administration and reassert the rule of law. Tell them you are outraged.