Wednesday, January 12, 2005

"Terror" tradeoffs?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

Is a prisoner's right to be protected from torture unalienable? Is a prisoner's right to be charged or set free (or to have assurance of release at a foreseeable end to hostilities) unalienable? Is our national manifesto's declaration of human rights limited and contingent--good for Americans and allies only--or is it universal?

Alberto Gonzales' upcoming confirmation as Attorney General provides an opportunity for meditation on these questions. President Bush ought to have his choice of cabinet members, barring gross malfeasance. But two larger issues should encourage progressives to keep a close watch.

First, Gonzales will almost certainly be nominated to the Supreme Court. And second, he authored now-infamous memos on torture and indefinite detention.

Regardless of how Americans interpret his authorship of these documents, we still need to reflect on the international outrage sure to follow his confirmation. Regardless of whether Gonzales was "just doing his job," he countenanced--and perhaps recommended--ignoring arguably the most important international instrument that we have to protect human rights in wartime: the Geneva Convention governing the treatment of prisoners of war.

Gonzales' sophistry enabled the government to argue that it may indefinitely imprison those currently held at Guantanamo Bay (and apparently "Guantanamo Takes on Look of Permanence," NYT 10 January 2005). Presumably, the same arguments will indefinitely detain those currently held in the prisons at Abu Ghraib and in Afghanistan (more prisoners determined by the US to be outside POW protections were recently captured in Iraq; "U.S. Said to Hold More Foreigners in Iraq Fighting," NYT 8 January 2005).

Though imprisonment without charge or foreseeable end violates clear international human rights standards, Bush Administration officials have likened the situation to WWII, asking whether we could have predicted its end from the perspective of war's height. Of course we could not. But during WWII, we held enemy soldiers as POWs, not unlawful combatants. We did not hold them in cages and subject them to humiliation and torture. Detaining men and women indefinitely in these conditions deprives them of dignity and hope, and deprives America of its sacred honor.

Those who argue that these "terrorists" "deserve" such treatment have not sufficiently meditated on the fact that in the great majority of cases, these detainees have not been proven criminals--and often, no evidence at all has been adduced against them. So much for Secretary Rumsfeld's claim that Guantanamo held some of the most dangerous terrorists on earth. But still, though "the vast majority of the 550 prisoners at...Guantanamo no longer had any intelligence value and were no longer being regularly interrogated," the Defense Department palns to "hold hundreds of them indefinitely, without trial" ("U.S. Said to Hold More Foreigners in Iraq Fighting," NYT 8 January 2005).

The indefiniteness of their detention reflects the fact that we have no way of knowing when, if ever, the "war on terror" will end. America has declared war on a tactic, not a nation state, thereby initiating a conflict without a resolution. If the "war" never ends, the detainees will never be free.

Gonzales' confirmation hearings overlapped the trial of Spec. Charles Graner, the first contested court-martial of a serviceman accused of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. Gonzales certainly did not authorize Graner's actions, but it seems clear that his reasoning helped to create an atmosphere of tolerance for unimaginable abuses of human rights, bodily integrity, and dignity. Graner's lawyer opened his defense by comparing the use of naked and hooded detainees to make a human pyramid to the activities of American cheerleaders; the New York Times further reports that the lawyer compared "putting naked prisoners on leashes" to "what parents in airports do with their toddlers." He denied that the treatment constituted abuse; rather, he argued, the detainees were being kept under control ("Portraits Differ as Trial Opens in Prison Abuse," NYT 11 January 2005).

I don't know what to say about comparisons so far beyond the pale of human decency. I would say this, though: we are a proud country, strong because of our democratic traditions and our respect for the dignity and integrity of the human individual. If we acquiesce to a system that holds people indefinitely without charging them or producing evidence of any crime; if we look the other way when that system tortures individuals purely for the purpose of humiliating and breaking them; if we fail to protest, loudly and often, against a regime that is about to elevate a torture apologist and Geneva Convention scofflaw to the highest law enforcement office in our country--we will lose a great deal more than any terrorist could ever take from us.


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