I'll write at more length when I'm back off my summer bloggatical, but the question of torture – and the United States' embrace of inhumanity as a core American value under the presidency of George W. Bush – remains, in my view, the pre-eminent moral question in American politics. The descent of the United States – and of Americans in general – to lower standards of morality and justice than those demanded by Iranians of their regime is a sign of the polity's moral degeneracy. Compare these two stories today. Item One:
The charges of rape and torture have struck directly at the moral and religious authority the nation’s theocratic leaders claim. The government initially denied Mr. Karroubi’s charges, and the speaker of Parliament, Ali Larijani, said a review had proved they were baseless.
But Mr. Karroubi has refused to back down even as clerics and military leaders aligned with the government have called for his arrest. Faced with public disgust and outrage, the Parliament agreed to review his evidence. A parliamentary committee met with Mr. Karroubi on Monday. One member, Kazem Jalili, told Iranian news agencies that Mr. Karroubi had said that four people told him they had been raped.
You will notice once again that the New York Times is able to use the word "torture" to describe torture – but only when it is committed by governments other than that of the US. The NYT under the editorial guidance of Bill Keller has, by cowardice and weakness, abetted the degeneracy that Cheney accomplished. Every time the NYT uses a different standard to judge foreign and American torture, it undermines the core moral basis of liberal democracy. And if the NYT cannot stand firm, what chance someone like Pete King? Here he is, responding to acts that included murder, rape, sexual abuse and torture conducted by the CIA under the command of George W. Bush:
"When Holder was talking about being 'shocked' [before the report's
release], I thought they were going to have cutting guys' fingers off or something – or that they actually used the power drill," he said. Pressed on whether interrogators had actually broken the law, King said he didn't think the Geneva Convention "applies to terrorists," and that the line between permitted and outlawed interrogation policies in the Bush years was "a distinction without a difference."
"Why is it OK to waterboard someone, which causes physical pain, but not threaten someone and not cause pain?" he asked, warning of a "chilling" effect on future CIA behavior.
King is right, of course, that the difference between what Bush authorized and the new revelations is non-existent. There is no moral or legal distinction between subjecting someone to 960 hours of sleep deprivation (as Bush did to Qahtani), or slamming people against walls, of freezing them to near-death, or murdering them by stress position … and threatening to murder someone's kids or stage a mock execution. But King then draws the inference that all of it is fine, as long as it cannot be portrayed in the tabloids as literally drilling through a detainee's skull. (He seems unaware that this would actually kill someone, not torture them.)
But King is not alone in believing that the US should be less restrained by moral qualms than Iranians demand of their own illegitimate regime. Indeed, much of the American people, especially evangelical Christians, expect less in terms of human rights from their own government than Iranians do of theirs'. In fact, American evangelicals are much more pro-torture in this respect than many Iranian Muslims.
This is what Bush and Cheney truly achieved in their tragic response to 9/11: two terribly failed, brutally expensive wars, the revival of sectarian warfare and genocide in the Middle East, the end of America's global moral authority, the empowerment of Iran's and North Korea's dictatorships, and the nightmares of Gitmo and Bagram still haunting the new administration.
But what they did to the culture – how they systematically dismantled core American values like the prohibition on torture and respect for the rule of law – is the worst and most enduring of the legacies.
One political party in this country is now explicitly pro-torture, and wants to restore a torture regime if it regains power. Decent conservatives for the most part simply looked the other way. Unless these cultural forces in defense of violence and torture are defeated – not appeased or excused, but defeated – America will never return the way it once was. Electing a new president was the start and not the end of this. He is flawed, as every president is, but in my view, the scale of the mess he inherited demands some slack. Any new criminal investigation which scapegoats those at the bottom while protecting the guilty men and women who made it happen is a travesty of justice. If it is the end and not the beginning of accountability, it will be worse than nothing.
But it need not be the end of the story. Indeed, it can be the beginning if we make it so. We cannot stop this sad and minuscule attempt to restore a scintilla of accountability to some individuals low down on the totem pole. Eric Holder is doing what he can. But we can continue to lobby and argue for the extension of accountability to the truly guilty men who made all this happen and still refuse to take responsibility for war crimes on a coordinated scale never before seen in American warfare, and initiated by a presidential decision to withdraw from the Geneva Conventions and refuse to abide by their plain meaning and intent.
Our job, in other words, is to raise the core moral baseline of Americans to that of Iranians. That's the depth of the hole Cheney dug. And it's a hole the current GOP wants to dig deeper and darker.