President Bush and members of his Administration hold the law in contempt. Any law that they find a hindrance to their aims and goals, stated or otherwise, is to be ignored. When even the conservative, pro-Bush Supreme Court—now featuring two of his own appointees—calls the Administration on their flagrant law-breaking, there is no hint of contrition, no attempt to stop the law-breaking; instead, Bush and his allies simply try to change the law.
That is what they are doing right now, as reported by the Washington Post, with the War Crimes Act of 1996. Passed into law by a Republican Congress and a Democratic President (about as bi-partisan a process as we get these days), the War Crimes Act stipulates that any “member of the Armed Forces of the United States or a national of the United States” who commits a war crime will be subject to penalty, be it fines, imprisonment, or even death.
What is a war crime? The Act is plain about that as well: whatever crimes are covered in the Geneva Convention.
Oops. That includes Article 3, the one that the Supreme Court ruled applied to prisoners being held in Guantanamo Bay. Not only that, but depending on your reading of the Conventions, CIA agents, military personnel, and even members of the Administration could be prosecuted under the authority of this law.
They could face the death penalty. Prisoners under the custody of the United States Government have died because of treatment that specifically violates the stipulations of the Geneva Conventions. These facts are not in dispute. That is why the Administration is desperate to change the law—retroactively, no less—to extend immunity to whatever underlings carried out these crimes.
Yes, they are crimes. It doesn’t matter if the victims were terrorists or not, whether they were the most despicable scum imaginable. The reason these laws exist is because we, as Americans and decent human beings, consider ourselves above the conduct of terrorists and torturers and other vile criminals. Or at least we used to.
Now, it seems that everyone from politicians to pundits are debating what the word “torture” means, whether a little judicious beating—all in the name of security and justice—might be OK, or perhaps a tentative water boarding. Maybe it’s all right to make someone feel like they’re drowning as long as they don’t actually drown.
The problem is drawing any sort of line here. What if they do drown? And how do we make it up to them if they are innocent? It’s impossible to paper over the kind of ill will that torturing an innocent man or woman creates. Think of the prisoners in Guantanamo. The military has conceded that the vast majority of the men there have committed no crime, and cannot be charged even under the loose rules established for their illegal military tribunals. And yet we keep them there, month after month, year after year, in humiliating conditions, conditions not fit for dogs.
The only line that can be drawn on torture is absolute. We should not do it. It is against our laws to do it, against the writ of treaties that we have signed and ratified. It is against everything that America stands for. And time after time, we hear from professionals that torture doesn’t even achieve the goals its apologists claim. In truth, confessions and information dragged out of the victims of torture cannot be trusted. What would you say to avoid drowning? Anything? Me too.
Let’s not let the Bush Administration weasel its way out of the consequences of its actions. If people broke the law of the land, let them stand trial and plead their case to the public and whatever judge or jury has jurisdiction over their case. It’s time the American people found out what is being done in their name, and in the name of security. Let no one say of America that we are a place that sanctions torture and murder.