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The Great Exception: If We Do It, It Doesn't Count
On this one-way planet of ours, it’s hard sometimes to imagine things any other way, but for a moment let’s try. Imagine, for instance, that in recent years the director of Iranian intelligence oversaw a program of “extraordinary rendition” aimed at those who were believed to be prepared to commit acts of terror against that country’s fundamentalist regime. Practically speaking, what this often meant was kidnapping suspects -- some quite innocent of such aims -- off the streets of Middle Eastern or South Asian cities and transporting them secretly to Iran, to “black sites” set up abroad, or to allied regimes known for their torture practices.
Imagine that these suspects, once in the hands of his agents -- the Geneva Conventions having been declared not applicable to them -- were then tortured, abused, and sometimes murdered. Imagine that, for this, the director, in a public ceremony with great hoopla, was awarded the Ayatollah Khomeini Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the land, and on retiring honorably wrote a bestselling memoir about his years in office. Imagine as well that, to help Iranian interrogators, lawyers close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had rewritten the law so that acts which the world had long agreed to be torture were now redefined as not so, and on that basis, they were instructed to do such things as waterboarding suspects, even as the fundamentalist regime regularly announced that, on the basis of its own definitions, it did not condone torture.
If such a scenario had occurred, we know what we would think of such people. We know what our media would say about such people. We know what we would demand as a fate for such people -- that they be brought to justice. The present regime in Iran has proven itself quite capable of committing its own set of horrors and tortures. The above description, however, could not be mistaken for the recent history of any agency but the CIA and associated outfits under the purview of the top officials and lawyers of the Bush administration. Indeed, George Tenet, CIA director from 1997-2004, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian honor possible, by George W. Bush in December 2004, when much of the above was already on the public record (and the president certainly knew far more). Tenet did then write At the Center of the Storm, a bestselling memoir, and so on.
Now, a new administration is in power and it has decided to investigate CIA interrogations -- but only those acts by Agency operatives (and its private contractors) that went beyond the bounds of Bush administration extremity, beyond the bounds, that is, of that administration’s pretzled definitions of what was not torture. The rest gets a pass.
On the day that decision made headlines, another report, “U.S. Says Rendition to Continue, but With More Oversight” by David Johnston in the New York Times, barely got noticed, even though it indicated that a now-notorious program of the Bush years would be continued in the Obama era. In other words, the U.S. will go right on turning terror suspects over to third countries for incarceration and interrogation (something criticized by Barack Obama in his presidential campaign), only with undoubtedly meaningless “diplomatic assurances” of no-torture policies. (Johnston did not even mention the kidnapping part of the process.) I’m still waiting for someone to ask the question: Why turn suspects over to seedy regimes if you don’t expect them to act seedily?
Had China announced that it was going to turn rebel Uighurs captured outside the country over to Uzbekistan, or Myanmar made it clear that it was planning to send dissidents kidnapped in Thailand to Syria, we would denounce such policies to the skies. But it’s us, and we are the great exception. If we do it, it essentially doesn’t count -- and perhaps more remarkably, it never dents our urge to stand on the highest moral ground around and accuse others of heinous acts. Of course, when you still want to think of yourself as the planet’s sole superpower, you naturally feel you have license to do such things, and leave yourself out of the equation. It’s evidently the global equivalent of James Bond’s license to kill, or Monopoly’s get-out-of-jail-free card.