ATHENS -- The French Catholic novelist Georges Bernanos found himself in Brazil when World War II broke out. When he returned to his own country he was asked what change he had observed in Europe during his wartime exile. He replied, "with the camps, Satan has visibly reappeared over the world."
Sixty years later, what should be said about the adoption of torture by the largest and most influential democratic state in the modern world? What moral significance lies in the adoption by the United States of a policy of torture, and the creation of secret U.S. political prisons? The question has to be asked first of all to Americans. Torture clearly has enjoyed connivance, acquiescence or endorsement by high officials in George W. Bush's administration: and not merely by officers in its clandestine and military services.
It was conducted to the accompaniment of considered legal opinions and rationales provided by Justice Department and White House lawyers, and other legal officials of the administration. The matter was reviewed in the president's office, we are told, but Bush says that he never authorized torture. It nonetheless continued to be practiced.
The adoption of torture as an interrogation practice was the most significant step taken by the United States following Sept. 11, 2001 - when Americans, or at least their leaders, decided that "nothing could be the same." This proved to mean curtailed respect for domestic law and international agreements prohibiting torture, and abandonment of the established American interpretation of the Bill of Rights in treating citizens and captives.
On June 28, the U.S. Supreme Court majority ruled against certain Bush administration claims to possess exceptional "wartime" authority to ignore, suspend, or declare null or non-applicatory the Fifth and Sixth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
The Fifth Amendment says that no person shall be "deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law."
The Sixth Amendment declares that in criminal prosecutions "the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial...and be informed of the nature and cause of the accusations, to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense."
The Court said that these rules apply to American citizens being denied due process as "enemy combatants," and to persons being held at the Guantánamo naval base in Cuba, effectively controlled in perpetuity by the United States, where the administration contended that the Bill of Rights does not apply.
The Guantánamo prison camp, and "holding facilities" in other foreign locations, most of them kept secret from the American press and public, have been operating since 2001. This system bears dismaying resemblance, in essential character and in its deliberate isolation of prisoners from American legal institutions and constitutional guarantees, to the Nazi and Soviet prisons and camps of the totalitarian decades.
Hence moral and even theological judgments on what the Bush administration has done become inevitable. The president has invited this by repeatedly justifying his conduct of the war on terror in religious terms, declaring the prisoners held by the United States as "evil," resisting the extension to them of legal and human rights protection for that reason.
In response, one can quote Al Gore, the defeated Democratic presidential candidate in 2000. He said that "one of the clearest indications of the impending loss of intimacy with one's own soul is the failure to recognize the existence of a soul in those over whom power is exercised, especially if the helpless come to be treated as animals, and degraded." Such is the definition of torture. Those who so degrade others reveal their own – and their nation's - degradation.
The attribution of religious or theological significance to policy has been common practice in the Bush White House, under organized pressure from the evangelical right, which has apocalyptic expectations concerning the imminence of the biblically prophesied Last Days. These are beliefs which the public as a whole does not share.
To give Bush his due, his policies were also undoubtedly motivated by his own frequently affirmed religious beliefs, which conduce to categorical judgments on what, and who, is good and evil.
However, no U.S. government has the right to conduct policy based on its members' private religious beliefs and theological assumptions. An American president is elected to act according to the national interest as defined in generally acceptable secular terms.
That is why the Supreme Court rulings of June 28 were so important. They were a national step back from ideologically justified lawlessness.
Copyright © 2004 the International Herald Tribune