George W. Bush made history on March 8, when he became the first American President to use the veto power to preserve the right to torture. Of course, he wouldn't put it that way--he prefers to call it "enhanced interrogation techniques." That sounds so much more civilized. But what, at the end of the day, is the difference?
The President can't actually tell us, ostensibly because if Al Qaeda knew how we interrogate, it would steel its fighters to withstand the tactics. Except, that is, when he has told us--as in the case of waterboarding, a practice the Administration recently admitted the CIA has employed against Al Qaeda suspects, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.
Waterboarding, the Administration insists, was used on only three suspects and is no longer practiced. Nevertheless, since it is the only "enhanced interrogation technique" the Administration has admitted to, it is worth exploring just why they think it's not torture. After all, we've treated simulated drowning as torture when others have used it. We convicted Japanese soldiers for using it on Americans in World War II. The State Department has repeatedly referred to the tactic as torture in its human rights reports on other nations. But when we do it, it's only an "enhanced interrogation technique."
Steven Bradbury, head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, conceded in Congressional testimony in February that waterboarding may be "distressing, uncomfortable, even frightening" but insisted that it is not torture because it does not inflict serious physical harm and doesn't last very long. Severity and duration of pain, it turns out, are in the eyes of the CIA, or the Office of Legal Counsel--but certainly not the suspect who cannot breathe, has water in his lungs and fears that he will drown if he doesn't say what the interrogators want to hear.
It's these kinds of fallacious distinctions that led the world to prohibit not just torture in the Convention Against Torture but all "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment." And it was just these kinds of elusive distinctions that led both houses of Congress to attempt to impose on the CIA the same restrictions that the Army's interrogators live by--restrictions that set forth clearly what can and cannot be done.
Bush says "hardened terrorists" merit different treatment from captured soldiers. But in this conflict that distinction quickly dissolves. What exactly is the basis for treating suspected terrorists differently from other human beings? The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment does not have an exception for suspected terrorists. It insists that all humans be treated equally, with respect for their inviolable dignity--even when they do not respect ours. It is nothing less than that notion of human dignity that was the real object of Bush's veto.
David Cole is The Nation's legal affairs correspondent, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center and author.
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