Kiss the Era of Human Rights Goodbye

What Bush Willed to Obama and the World

These days, it's virtually impossible to escape the world of torture
the Bush administration constructed. Whether we like it or not, almost
every day we learn ever more about the full range of its shameful
policies, about who the culprits were, and just which crimes they might
be prosecuted for. But in the morass of memos, testimony, op-eds,
punditry, whistle-blowing, documents, and who knows what else, with all
the blaming, evasion, and denial going on, somehow we've overlooked the
most significant victim of all. One casualty of the Bush torture
policies -- certainly, at least equal in damage to those who were
tortured and the country whose laws were twisted and perverted in the
process -- has been human rights itself. And no one even seems to

So let's be utterly clear: The policies of the Bush administration
were not just horrific in themselves or to others, they may also have
brought to an end the human rights movement as we know it.

One need only glance at the recently released Justice Department memos,
which have caused such a media storm of late, for the story of what has
happened to human rights in American hands to become clearer. It is not
just, as New York Times columnist Frank Rich recently wrote,
that "our government methodically authorized torture and lied about
it." No less important, though hardly commented upon, is this fact: the
United States succumbed to the exact patterns of abusive state action
that the human rights movement was created to outlaw forever. What the
Bush administration pursued, after all, was a policy of
state-sponsored, legally codified dehumanization designed to torture
(and in some cases destroy) individuals, which was to be systematically
and bureaucratically implemented in the name of the greater good of the
country, however defined.

The documents that the Obama administration and Congress have just
released make this conclusion impossible to avoid. These include four memos written by the Office of Legal Council between 2002 and 2005, the Senate Armed Services Committee Report on Interrogation Practices, and the Senate Select Committee Narrative on the Chronology of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) Memos. Added to this must be the publication by Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books of a previously secret International Committee of the Red Cross report on abuse at Guantanamo Bay.

As a group, these documents reveal that the pattern of systematic abuse
at the hands of the American government during George W. Bush's Global
War on Terror has been a textbook case of human rights violations
designed and implemented at the highest levels of government. First,
there was the assault on the English language, a necessary initial step
in the process of changing the national mindset of a country about to
become a first-class human-rights abuser. As Susan Sontag once wrote in a piece about the Bush administration and its pretzeling of language, "Words alter, words add, words subtract."

Creating American-style Torture Techniques and Manuals

Just as the U.S. military at Guantanamo was instructed
in January 2002 never to refer to that detention facility as a "prison"
and never to call the inmates "prisoners," so the infamous OLC August
1, 2002 "torture memo"
that came out of the Justice Department, and was made public in 2004,
officially banished torture to the dust heap of history when it came to
American actions. It was now to be considered only physical pain of "an
intensity akin to that which accompanies serious physical injury such
as death or organ failure," or mental pain which produced "lasting
psychological harm."

Now, that memo's twin has just been released, providing more
detailed reasoning about the redefinition of torture. This second
August 1, 2002 memo gives us an even more comprehensive picture of the
rationale behind the insistence of the Justice Department that the
techniques being applied to detainees in the War on Terror in no way
amounted to torture.

Examining specific techniques of coercive interrogation, all of
which would technically violate the U.S. Anti-Torture Statute [18
U.S.C. SSSS 2340-2340A], Justice Department officials craftily reasoned
their way out of old, well-accepted definitions of universally
agreed-upon acts of torture. Thanks to creatively worded explanations,
this new August 1, 2002 memo declared that neither "the waterboard,"
"walling," nor being placed in a box amounted to torture. In situation
after grim situation, torture, it was explained, just wasn't the right

focus of the just released memo was the interrogation of al-Qaeda
terror suspect Abu Zubaydah. According to the memo, Zubaydah simply
wouldn't feel pain or suffer repercussions as others might have from
these redefined acts of torture. Similarly, extreme "stress positions"
could be used on him because he "appears to be quite flexible despite
his wound," and because he had already proven he could withstand other
abuses. "You have orally informed us that you... have previously kept
him awake for 72 hours. From which no mental or physical harm
resulted." The Justice Department lawyers, informed by the CIA that
Zubaydah was in exceptional physical and psychological condition,
conveniently reasoned that the techniques in question wouldn't harm him
-- and, of course, they would be oh-so-helpful to the longer term
torture goals of the Bush administration.

The next step from offering reasons for redefining torture for just
one individual -- Zubaydah -- to a general policy proved easy, despite
the fact that Zubaydah's powers to withstand and recuperate from these
techniques were deemed exceptional. The memos assumed that the next
detainees to undergo these methods of interrogation were somehow in the
same category as the Navy Seals who had experienced them while
undergoing training to resist the techniques of torturers from
totalitarian or rogue regimes. Repeatedly, that August memo insisted
that such techniques, rather than being the property of torturing
regimes, really added up to little more than "physical discomfort," to
(at worst) only temporary psychological disorientation, rather than a
"profound" disruption of one's psyche. "No prolonged mental harm," the
memo asserted, "would result from the use of these proposed

One by one, then, the techniques were intricately described in ways
that repainted them the color of mere "abuse," which sounds so penny
ante, rather than torture. When it came to sleep deprivation, for
example, the reasoning was that, even if "abnormal reactions" did
result, "reactions abate after the individual is permitted to sleep."
Likewise, "the goal of the facial slap is not to inflict physical pain
that is severe or lasting. Instead the purpose of the facial slap is to
induce shock, surprise, and/or humiliation."

The subjects might believe themselves tortured, but they would be
wrong. "The idea," as the memo wrote about what's now called "walling,"
"is to create a sound that will make the impact seem far worse than it
is and that will be far worse than any injury that might result...
[whereby] the interrogator pulls the individual forward and then
quickly and firmly pushes the individual into the wall. It is the
individual's shoulder blades that hit the wall," but his "head and neck
are supported by a rolled towel... to help prevent whiplash."

Even when there is a modest admission that some damage could
actually occur -- that, for instance, "placement" in "small," "cramped"
confinement boxes could "disrupt profoundly the senses" -- it was
quickly dismissed on the grounds that such confinement wasn't to extend
beyond two hours. And finally, there were those assurances in the
matter of waterboarding, or so-called simulated drowning, that "the
sensation of drowning is immediately relieved" once the procedure is

And this, of course, just grazes the surface of these nightmarish
documents that should bring to mind the demonic regimes that gave rise
to the human rights movement. Among other things, the Justice
Department lawyers writing them weren't just changing the language and
redefining torture out of existence, they were offering nothing short
of a detailed manual for those about to go to work on actual human
beings in just how to perform torture. Take for instance, this
description of how to waterboard correctly:

"...[T]he individual is bound securely to an inclined
bench, which is approximately four feet by seven feet. The individual's
feet are generally elevated. A cloth is placed over the forehead and
eyes. Water is then applied to the cloth in a controlled manner. As
this is done, the cloth is lowered until it covers both the nose and
mouth. Once the cloth is saturated and completely covers the mouth and
nose, air flow is slightly restricted for 20 to 40 seconds...This
causes an increase in carbon dioxide level in the individual's blood...
[stimulating] increased effort to breathe... [producing] the perception
of 'suffocation and incipient panic,' i.e. the perception of

One day, perhaps soon, much of the rest of the minutiae produced by the
Bush administration's torture-policy bureaucracy will come to light.
Procurement lists, for example, will undoubtedly be found. After all,
who ordered the sandbags for use as hoods, the collars with chains for
bashing detainees' heads into walls, the chemical lights for sodomy and
flesh burns, or the women's underwear? The training manuals, whatever
they were called, will be discovered: the schooling of dogs to bite on
command, the precise use of the waterboard to get the best effects, the
experiments in spreading the fingers just wide enough in a slap to
comport with policy. The Senate Armed Services Committee's report,
released last week, has already begun to identify the existence of
training sessions in techniques redefined as not rising to the level of

For now, however, we have far more than we need to know that what
the United States started when, in 1948, it led the effort to create
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and became the moral
figurehead for human rights concerns worldwide for more than a
half-century, has come to an end. Eleanor Roosevelt, who led the
commission that drafted that 1948 Declaration, remarked at the time
that the United States was "the showcase" for the principles embodied
in the declaration. Sixty-one years later, that is no longer true.

The Human Rights Movement Is History

From the very beginning of my own descent into the world of Bush
administration torture policy -- and, among other things, I was the
co-editor of a 2005 collection of documents, already leaking out then,
called The Torture Papers
-- I have resisted associating what U.S. officials were doing with past
state atrocities. That was another, far worse realm, I reasoned, one in
which countless people were disappeared and millions murdered. After
all, the unfolding torture policy didn't kill (though some detainees
certainly did die from maltreatment in U.S. secret and not-so-secret
prisons abroad), it only inflicted pain. Others pointed out
similarities between such Bush administration outrages and past
barbarisms, but I veered away from analogies which, to my mind,
undermined the evils of this particular story. So when Scott Horton compared the Nazi commandant of Auschwitz Rudolf Hoess to those who crafted the U.S. torture policy or Susan Sontag compared administration abuses of language to the linguistic perversions that preceded genocidal acts against the Hutus in Rwanda, I recoiled.

Analogies of such an extreme order just didn't suit me. But what I've
resisted for five years, since the first Abu Ghraib revelations in the
spring of 2004, I now find sadly indisputable. The supposed moral
exceptionalism of the most powerful nation on Earth is no more. In its
action-packed eight years, the Bush administration ensured that the
United States would be the most ordinary of abusing, torturing nations.

Through perverse language, a twisting of the law, and an immersion in
the precise details of implementing torture techniques, the United
States renounced its position as the leader of the global human rights
movement. Abandoned by the country it long considered its greatest
ally, that movement now teeters at the edge of its grave. That's what
the torture memos and the present media uproar over torture really

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