"These are the times that try men's souls."
It is no secret that the Bush Administration has a reputation for being the most secretive and disciplined administration in a long time. So it is extremely interesting when both the President and Vice-President were quoted recently saying things that unwittingly speak volumes about their true beliefs and core values.
The President's apparent Freudian slip occurred during his disastrous sojourn to Latin America in November. The President could not have chosen a more symbolic, bitterly ironic, and impolitic venue than Panama for his denials concerning torture. Panama, of course, is the former home (from 1946-1984) of the notorious School of the Americas (often called the "School of Assassins" for its training of death squads and torture techniques used to terrorize Latin America throughout the 1970's and 1980's,) before the school was relocated to Fort Benning, Georgia.
As Naomi Klein reminds us in her article, entitled "'Never Before!' Our Amnesiac Torture Debate", posted December 9 on CommonDreams, graduates of the SOA were accused of countless atrocities, culminating with the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador, and the murders of six Jesuit priests and their housekeepers. Panama is also a country the U.S. terrorized in order to capture one man, who probably ranks as the SOA's most famous graduate. Of course, the U.S. did not invade Panama in 1989 in order to punish Manuel Noriega for his atrocities; rather, it wanted to punish its former henchman for defying the U.S. and then-President George H. W. Bush.
The record shows that the U.S. attacked Panama, killing thousands of civilians in order to capture the upstart Noriega. So it would have been difficult for President George W. Bush to find a more tainted venue from which to claim that, "We do not torture." The President's remark on Monday, November 7 was widely quoted in broadcast and print sources following his remarks, and the full text of his statement has been circulating on the internet and cited in many places.
What is most interesting, however, is something else the President said in his response. He said: "Any activity we conduct is within the law." This is an equivocal statement to say the least. Notice that he did not say, "Any activity we conduct must be within the law"; he merely said that "any activity we conduct is within the law." I cannot help wondering whether the President is saying that whatever we (America and its proxies) do is within the law because it is we who do it, in which case, the President is saying that we ARE the law (because we make the law); or is his claim that we only conduct activities that are within established U.S. and international law and no more?
Several disturbing facts support the former interpretation of the President's claim rather than the latter: First, he has been threatening until recently to veto the entire Defense Appropriations Bill if the anti-torture amendment (sponsored by ex-POW and torture-survivor, Sen. John McCain) were included in the bill. (Ironically, such a veto would have been his very first since taking office in January 2001.) Simply
put: why would he have a problem with an anti-torture amendment if "we do not torture"? Then, the CIA acknowledged the existence of "black sites" where detainees are held, off-limits to the International Red Cross and other human rights organizations. Why do we need secret prisons if we do not engage in unseemly, inhumane, abusive, and degrading practices? Then, one recalls that the Bush Administration refused to sign onto the International World Court and other international tribunals. And now the ACLU has reported that at least 44 prisoners in U.S. custody have died, 20 of which have been labeled homicides. Splitting hairs, the U.S. position seems to be that unless organ failure or death occurs, cruel, degrading, and abusive treatment does not rise to the level of torture. And thus the picture becomes quite clear.
Given this Administration's pattern of flouting law, from the most fundamental principle of the U.S. Constitution, the right to be charged or released, to have the opportunity to confront one's accusers, and to know the charges against one, to the "pre-emptive" justification for invading Iraq (in violation of international law), to the disregard for the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners, to which the U.S. is a signatory, to the irresponsible, vindictive "outing" of an undercover CIA analyst in violation of national security laws, it would be easier to believe that the President intended the first interpretation of his statement, rather than the second.
Vice-President Cheney is quoted from a speech he delivered at the allegedly 'conservative' American Enterprise Institute on Monday, November 21. He proudly asserted: "We will not retreat in the face of brutality." While the Vice-President was ostensibly referring to "retreating" from the violent insurgents in Iraq, his vigorous defense of "getting tough" and endorsing torture as U.S. policy, it was hard not to reply, "Yeah, we know; we're bringing brutality to the brutes!" I wonder whether the man who has been dubbed "V-P for torture" realized just how much he was saying when he acknowledged that we will not retreat from brutality.
Sure, he probably intended his statement to be construed as meaning, "We won't retreat in the face of other people's brutality", but he seems equally capable of embracing the principle that Americans (or at least the lucky ones chosen to do this dirty work) will not and should not retreat in the face of our own brutality!
With a President and Vice-President who attempt to make their own laws in arrogating to themselves the right to torture, it is no wonder that America has taken on the traits and actions of the brutal, inhumane dictator we allegedly went to Iraq to depose. The sad irony that the United States of America not only used Saddam Hussein's former torture chambers and former Soviet gulags for their own torture sessions, and that the U.S.A. used the same chemical weapons on Iraqi civilians in Fallujah as Saddam used on the Kurds in 1991, is too much to bear.
Indeed, Walt Kelly's slogan on his 1970 Earth Day poster rings truer now than ever: "We have met the enemy and he is us." Perhaps, here, however, a more fitting line from the Vietnam war better captures what has happened to our sense of ourselves and the principles and values we claim to uphold. The claim that "We had to destroy the village to save it" seems more apt to our own moral devolution.
If America is to be worthy again of calling itself "America the Beautiful", it will have to renew its dedication to the rule of law, for as the song goes:
"O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America, America, God mend thine every flaw.
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law."
---stanza 2 of "America the Beautiful") by Katharine Lee Bates
Dr. Gary Alan Scott is a philosophy professor at Loyola College in Maryland. He is currently the Director of Loyola's International Nachbahr Huis in Leuven, Belgium. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.