Is President Bush living on Mars? Is he tone deaf?
At a news conference last month, he wrote off as an "absurd allegation" the conclusion by Amnesty International that the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was the "new Gulag" because of the mistreatment of prisoners there.
Bush insisted that "the United States is a country that promotes freedom around the world, and when there are accusations about certain actions by our people, they're fully investigated in a transparent way."
"It's just an absurd allegation," he said.
But how does he account for the slew of reports from the Pentagon and the FBI that some prisoners were subjected to mistreatment, torture and unspeakable indignities during interrogation?
Does he read the reports? Does he care?
None of the reports pins the blame on higher authorities. Instead, the official line is that this mischief was done by low-ranking military guards just having their sadistic fun.
There have been suggestions that the Guantanamo prison should be shut down, as if the buildings there were the problem. It's not the buildings. It's the cruel policies that have shamed the United States.
As soon as the devastating abuse of the prisoners at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib came to light, Bush should have ordered a ban on torture in all prisons under U.S. military control.
He has not done so, despite the horror of it all. Nor has he reaffirmed the U.S. adherence to the Geneva Conventions on Humane Treatment of Prisoners of War.
Bush and his cohorts, including then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales (since promoted to attorney general) and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld tore up that agreement after 9/11. They obviously gave no thought to the consequences of repudiating a long-standing international pact that could affect U.S. war prisoners as well.
No presidential denials can erase the photo images of naked prisoners piled in a pyramid, attack dogs and smiling guards enjoying the scene. All of a piece.
A year ago a very embattled Rumsfeld acknowledged in congressional testimony that the maltreatment of some prisoners as a result of his guidelines made him feel "terrible about what happened to these Iraqi detainees."
"Our country had an obligation to treat them right," he added. "We didn't -- and that was wrong." He said he accepted "full responsibility."
Afterward he tightened some of the rules on interrogation.
At the same time, Rumsfeld hinted that you ain't seen nothing yet, and warned that even more shocking pictures and videos had yet to be released. That was in May 2004.
Since then the Pentagon has had to face allegations of desecration of the Quran as part of the interrogation process at Guantanamo.
Why has the president permitted this circumvention of international treaties and the U.S. Constitution?
An FBI report said some Guantanamo prisoners had been chained to the floor in the fetal position without food or water and sometimes in extreme temperatures. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., likened this to Nazi behavior.
"If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you could certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime -- Pot Pol or others -- that had no concern for human beings," Durbin said.
There were howls from Republicans who could not tolerate such a comparison.
Senate Majority leader Bill Frist called on Durbin to apologize and withdraw his comments. White House spokesman Scott McClellan denounced Durbin's remarks as "reprehensible."
Under a firestorm of right-wing rebuke, Durbin was forced to retreat, saying: "Some may believe that my remarks crossed the line. To them, I extend my heartfelt apologies."
History can be dangerous. That's why the Bush administration should be concerned about how its policies will be treated by history. The president can take a good first step by banning the torture of prisoners.
Helen Thomas is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers.
© 2005 Seattle Post-Intelligencer