On Torture: Win One for the Gipper!
It would be hard to pick the stupidest meme floating among the Beltway stenographic pool, but it might just be the claim that the demand for accountability for torture comes from figures on the left wing of the Democratic Party. In fact, opposition to torture is hardly a left-right, liberal-conservative, Democrat-Republican sort of issue. But in Beltwelt, the "realities" of partisan politics offer an answer to every question.
Those who have taken the time to learn something about the history of the issue know that in the American setting, opposition to torture and insistence on its prohibition as a tool for warfare come from the Republican Party. The first prohibition issued from Abraham Lincoln (General Orders No. 100 from 1863), and it came from the pen of Francis Lieber, a Columbia law professor and leader of the Union League. The idea was propelled forward by figures like Theodore Roosevelt and Elihu Root, who famously called the push to make this prohibition a part of international law a tribute to Lincoln and one of the principal foreign policy accomplishments of the Republican Party. So if we're putting a label on the opposition to torture, it surely wouldn't be marked "Democrat."
So when did the G.O.P. go off the tracks on torture? It was under George W. Bush. In fact, the last pre-Bush dynasty Republican leader had unmistakable ideas about torture. His name was Ronald Reagan. He championed U.S. ratification of the Convention Against Torture. Here's what Reagan had to say about the Convention back in 1988:
It marks a significant step in the development during this century of international measures against torture and other inhuman treatment or punishment. Ratification of the Convention by the United States will clearly express United States opposition to torture, an abhorrent practice unfortunately still prevalent in the world today. The core provisions of the Convention establish a regime for international cooperation in the criminal prosecution of torturers relying on so-called "universal jurisdiction." Each State Party is required either to prosecute torturers who are found in its territory or to extradite them to other countries for prosecution.
Note that word: required. Not "encouraged." No qualification about doing it when it's politically expedient to do so, as David Broder envisions.
Moreover, Reagan was serious about the prohibition on torture. In 1983, the Reagan Justice Department secured a conviction of a Texas sheriff named James Parker on grounds that he waterboarded a suspect in an effort to get information. Parker got a ten-year sentence for his crime.
So here's another charge for the prosecutors who will shortly undertake an investigation of the Bush era torture program: Go win one for the Gipper!
© 2009 Harper's Magazine