Sunday, January 18, 2009

Ethics, Law and Torture

Glenn Greenwald sets it up.
Binding U.S. law requires prosecutions for those who authorize torture - Glenn Greenwald -

International treaties which the U.S. signs and ratifies aren't cute little left-wing platitudes for tying the hands of America. They're binding law according to the explicit mandates of Article VI of our Constitution. Thus, there simply is no way to (a) argue against investigations and prosecutions for Bush officials and simultaneously (b) claim with a straight face to believe in the rule of law, that no one is above the law, and that the U.S. should adhere to the same rules and values it attempts to impose on the rest of the world. Last week, Paul Krugman stated about as clearly as possible why this is so:

I’m sorry, but if we don’t have an inquest into what happened during the Bush years — and nearly everyone has taken Mr. Obama’s remarks to mean that we won’t — this means that those who hold power are indeed above the law because they don’t face any consequences if they abuse their power.

It's just as simple as that. Once Eric Holder stated unequivocally that waterboarding is torture, and once a top Bush official used the word "torture" to describe what the U.S. did at Guantanamo using authorized techniques other than waterboarding, the "discretion" to investigate and prosecute disappeared-- at least for people who believe in the most basic precepts of the rule of law and equality under it, Western principles of justice established at Nuremberg, and the notion that the U.S. is bound by the treaties it signs. There simply is no way to argue against investigations and prosecutions (and no way to argue that we should use torture-obtained evidence against Guantanamo detainees) without fully rejecting all of those principles.

Precisely. And let us not fall into the trap of thinking this is a matter of political viewpoint, although, tragically, the breakdown is along political lines. But let us remember that if we leave these damnable precedents in place, if the international community does not demand an accounting in support of US "Leftists" such as Greenwald - then the precedent will stand that "It depends on who's doing it."

Here's the fundamental principle. Torture is an affront against human dignity. It is not just accidentally or coincidentally a form of terrorism, or a contributory factor to terrorism, it is and has always been a primary MEANS of state terrorism. It is always the first choice of oppressive states, and the fact that Saddam Hussein used torture was one of the favorite talking points for removing him from power.

Well, it was and remains a persuasive argument. And the fact that it is legally impermissible under law to NOT investigate and prosecute is a fortunate thing for the Obama administration, for if they present this fact to the American people, they can ensure that justice is done without undue political fallout.

Not that it should matter. Nor should it even be a question, any more than it should have ever occurred to the Bush Administration to USE torture in the first place.

But then, perhaps we should consider why it is so easy for the US to consider the use of torture and condone the abuse of authority in the first place. Perhaps citizens should consider why they condone domestic excesses that are not all that much different, save to degree, and factually much greater in scale.

But if the moral argument is insufficient, I point to a larger and very urgent concern: the economic argument.

As Kevin Phillips outlines in his book, Wealth and Democracy, a primary cause of the decline of the last three Western empires (Spain, Holland and Great Britain) has been bankruptcy through militarization.

As each of these empires became wealthy and powerful, it attempted to maintain its world position through military spending, each time imagining that its wealth and power were limitless. In each case, the vast military expenditures crippled the empire, leading directly to its decline. It should be obvious that the United States is well into this process of damaging itself with its own military expenditures. With a $10 trillion debt (much of it to countries that could easily use it against us) and an annual deficit that has been running close to $500 billion, the time is ripe to push for a maximum reduction in military spending (that could reduce the average deficit to zero). While our nation does not have moral right to forego those aspects of the military budget that pay for past wars (primarily veterans' benefits), transforming our military from an offensive weapon into an institution for national defense would be an affirmation of American principles stated in our founding documents, while saving our country from the historical course of all empires that turn toward militarism.

I am by no means a pacifist, nor do I discount the importance of a professional defense establishment. But it's utterly insane to devote more than half of one's economy to the miliatry. It's a stunning waste of money and human talent. The price of ignoring Eisenhower's advice to beware of the "Military-Industrial complex" has been high, and it's corrupted society to an extent that easily rivals the issues that faced the citizenry of the Eastern Roman Empire.

But the deeper problem, as David Hilfiker illustrates in the above-cited article, Now I Understand Why They Hate Us, is realizing that US culture has come to unquestioningly accept that force based approaches are the first and best way to deal with any issue, a mindset that expresses itself in everything from education to economics. The cultural cure for any complex problem is simply a bigger hammer.

And this leads to situations that are not merely made worse by the means of response, not merely more costly, not merely appalling from the viewpoint of honest ethical understanding, but which create situations which would allow Sun Tsu to kick the US and it's collective assets with a girl scout troop.

That is one significant reason why I have decided to return to Canada. While by no means a perfect nation, Canada is neither blind to the consequences of it's own action nor enslaved by a military-industrial fetish. It has a small, but extremely professional military and a government that has as it's primary ethos this motto: "Peace, Order and Good Government."

By contrast, the United States has not had peace, outside or inside it's borders, for more than fifty years. It certainly has no order. It cannot even make a pretense of good government. Yet these three things are things citizens of any government are entitled to, as a matter of obvious first principles; these are the things that make it desirable to have a government in the first place.

I'm fortunate in that I could choose to walk away. I decided that, while I have great hope that the United States will re-invent itself in a positive way, I could see many ways in which that process could fail, or take a great deal of time and cost much misery. I admit to being unwilling to be part of an army of change, particularly when I question the very oppositional paradigm that expresses.

I'm deeply concerned that the United States has become, in fact, two nations, at the very least, with entangled but uncommunicative populations that are unwilling to even consider, much less respect the viewpoints of others. I don't think it unfair to describe the culture of the United States as being violently insane.

I have come to the point where I doubt the utility of trying, even in my own small way, of resolving the difference between the various camps. Right now, I'm watching Barack Obama trying very hard to be seen as a president for all Americans. I'd advise him to make such an effort - but to expect it to be rejected and for his political and social enemies to emerge very quickly.

I would also advise him to see them as such - for in truth, the views generally described as Progressive and the views of the religiously-motivated Right Wing are antethetical. Actually, the views of the religiously motivated domininous right wing are antethetical to the Constitution, to the Enlightenment and to the very concept of individual liberty. I do not see this as a tension between Liberal and Conservative, but far more starkly; I see it as a matter of right and wrong.

Anyone who could even possibly consider the justification of torture, much less brag of it and promote it as something that enemies deserve should have no place within any rational political discourse, within any proper civilized society, regardless of political philosophy. Some things, some ideas are simply wrong and they are wrong for very concrete reasons - because these ideas always lead to the downfall of the civiliztions that employ them.

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