'Out of the mouths of babes," goes the old saying -- to which we now may add, "and from the mouths of attorneys general."
When Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey went before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week to testify about the Bush administration's use of torture to obtain information from terrorists and suspected terrorists, it's fair to assume that he had no intention of highlighting the moral absurdity of the government's position. Still, that's exactly what he did.
The question at issue was waterboarding. At his confirmation hearings, Mukasey -- who replaced President Bush's hapless sycophant in chief, Alberto R. Gonzales -- refused to give an opinion about whether waterboarding was legally torture. The issue arose again Wednesday during the AG's first appearance before the committee since he took office.
Just to be clear, waterboarding is a form of torture that dates back to the Spanish Inquisition -- along with the rack, thumbscrews and branding with hot irons. The way it works is that the victim's body is inclined so that his head is lower than his feet. A porous cloth is placed over his nose and mouth and then is repeatedly saturated with water. The American media, incurably addicted to evasive euphemism, like to describe the terrifying result as "simulating the sensation of drowning."
Simulated or not, unless the process is halted, the victim dies of asphyxiation. When our Navy and Air Force fliers undergo brief waterboarding as part of the training that prepares them to resist interrogation if captured, a physician is present. One of the trainers at a Navy school in San Diego has written of how he traveled to Cambodia to learn about the process of waterboarding, because it was a favorite Khmer Rouge technique during Pol Pot's reign of terror.
When Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and their cadre of crackpot tough guys decided they wanted the Central Intelligence Agency to torture captured Al Qaeda terrorists, the agency reportedly had to go to the Navy to learn how to do it, because the only people in our system who knew were the ones who were simulating bad guys, the ones assigned to help our fliers learn to resist torture.
That should have told somebody something, but in this administration, the learning curve is a right angle.
And thus, at Wednesday's hearing, there was this exchange between Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Mukasey:
Kennedy: Even though you claim to be opposed to torture, you refuse to say anything whatever on the crucial questions of what constitutes torture and who gets to decide the issue. It's like saying that you're opposed to stealing, but not quite sure whether bank robbery would qualify. ... [You] also ignored the fact that the CIA continues to use stress positions, sleep deprivation, other techniques that are every bit as abusive as waterboarding, techniques that our own Department of Defense has rejected as illegal, immoral, ineffective and damaging to America's global standing and safety of our own servicemen and women overseas.
So I won't even bother to ask you whether waterboarding counts as torture under our laws because I know ... that we won't get a straight answer, so let me ask you this: Would waterboarding be torture if it was done to you?
Mukasey: I would feel that it was.
Here we have precisely the moral vacuum that a cloyingly pious and ostensibly faith-based White House has created. The standard proposed here isn't an intricate sophistry; it's ordinary schoolyard barbarity: It's OK if I do it, but not if somebody does it to me. Those who believe this do not require instruction in law or philosophy. They need to be sent back to their mother's knee and made to pay attention when she speaks.
Mukasey isn't the only administration official to make this admission, by the way. In a recent interview with the New Yorker magazine, J. Michael McConnell, the director of national intelligence, was asked how he would feel if subjected to waterboarding.
"If I had water draining into my nose," he said, "oh God, I just can't imagine how painful! Whether it's torture by anybody else's definition, for me it would be torture."
Does anybody really wonder why the CIA destroyed the videotapes of the interrogations during which it waterboarded Al Qaeda terrorists?
"Out of the mouths of babes" is an old phrase, so old that we tend to forget its antiquity. It's from one of the Davidian psalms: Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings/you have fashioned praise ... /to silence the hostile and the vengeful.
We have suffered terrible casualties in the war with the Islamic terrorists, but the only real victory they've achieved was the one the Bush administration handed them when it replaced law with vengeance and sanctioned torture.
Copyright 2008 Los Angeles Times