Just say no to torture


What part of No exceptional circumstances whatsoever don't you understand?

(The main title, by the way, is credited to Semi-Anonymous Blogger.)

Recently George Friedman published a thoughtful essay on what a proper national policy on the use of torture ought to be in the real world, which appeared on various op-ed pages. He began with the famous old example: What if you had caught the guy who knew where the bomb was set to go off tomorrow? What would you do to save the city? We sophomores had a good time hashing that out around the dining table in 1961; apparently he liked it too, devoting half the column to ringing the changes on it. He ends by pleading for a nuanced view, no simplistic arguments; the matter is so difficult that he wouldn't like to have to write a memo on the use of torture.

I agree that I wouldn't like him to write one. His approach is to push us down the slippery slope by snowing everyone with fake complexities. If you doubt it, consider this: in a whole newspaper column on how it might be necessary to torture people, he did not once in any way use or allude to the phrase "clear and present danger". (For non-US readers: It's the criterion for suppressing rights such as free speech, formulated by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.) By all means, let's think about hypothetical extreme cases so that we won't have time to think about obvious limits to human knowledge and action, even under principles that have been US law for a century.

Actually, though, writing the policy is not that hard. We omitted something from our discussion in 1961, something remarkably simple; and so did Friedman.

Here, then is a document so secret that no living human being has ever seen it: the preliminary draft of next week's presidential policy on the use of torture.

[First, though, a note on terminology. Break: to cashier [an officer]; to deprive of commission; to degrade from rank. Oxford English Dictionary, sense 35.]
We in the United States do not do torture, and we mean it.

The United States of America has lent its full force and dignity to international treaties against torture. Under the Constitution that all military and civilian officers of the United States have sworn to uphold, these are our policy and our law. Our nation was created with "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind": a respect that does not allow for quibbling or evasion, or for constant testing of the limits, like an unruly and impertinent child.

It is sometimes said that in some extraordinary cases only extreme measures (torture) could obtain the information to stop an imminent and monstrous act of terror. Under the relevant treaty, which is the law of the United States, the special circumstances that would allow torture are as follows: No exceptional circumstances whatsoever.

The United States does not engage in torture, or tolerate those who do. Any officer of the United States who does, whether to address some imagined future problem or just to gain favor by gathering more information than others can by legal means, will be broken, and further punished according to the specific offense.

If it happens on your watch, you will be broken, and further punished according to the specific offense. An officer has reponsibility for what happens in his or her command, and has the authority to maintain discipline.

It is with great regret that I announce today the resignation of one of the finest public servants it has been my privilege to know, Donald Rumsfeld. The abuses at Abu Ghraib and other places were not ordered by Mr Rumsfeld; nor were actions taken that could have prevented those abuses or limited their extent. Mr Rumsfeld recognizes that military principles of responsibility must apply to the civilian command and to other high civilian officials.
You see, we sophomores left out one thing that a highly intellectual discussion of torture really ought to mention, at least: it's simply, flatly illegal in the United States, as in every country that has a claim to a civilized government. We had an excuse for the omission, considering that the treaty didn't exist yet. What's Friedman's excuse?

There's no way of equivocating around this or fudging it, any more than there is for sending people somewhere else where they'll be tortured, or pretending that torture isn't really torture if it doesn't come too close to killing somebody. All this is covered on the first page of that long-winded treaty.

According to the same source that revealed the memo, there is a policy initiative to consult with the other civilized nations of the world on a revision to the No Exceptional Circumstances Whatsoever clause. In the meantime, of course, the Chief Executive and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces is holding himself and everyone else to the law of the land. To do otherwise would be an impeachable offense.

Unfortunately, this imaginary memo was written in Microsoft Word, and therefore contains some deleted text that no one was supposed to see. Hacking reveals, for instance, that the "impertinent child" was much debated, but impertinent eventually prevailed on grounds of dignity over smart-ass.

Further hacking revealed this text at the end:
Consistent application of these principles would call for my own resignation as well, but fer Christsake do you know who'd be President then?
And further,
But as to that shmuck Gonzales who rationalized us into this abomination—Gonzales who? The vacancy in the office of Attorney General will be filled with all deliberate speed.

1 comment:

Samantha said...

Hi! Welcome online! An actual adult blogging? Huzzah! I've got you bookmarked.

(I wonder who on earth that semi-anonymous blogger could be?)