In the aftermath of the failed Christmas day plane bombing, in which the alleged bomber set himself on fire before being subdued by unarmed passengers, every Republican politician in sight has become Dick Cheney.
Appearing on MSNBC's Morning Joe breakfast show yesterday, former Republican presidential contender Pat Buchanan argued that the alleged bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, should be denied pain medication for his burns as a part of "hostile interrogation." "I'm not arguing for torture," Buchanan said with a straight face.
As Spencer Ackerman, a senior reporter with the Washington Independent who was appearing opposite Buchanan, pointed out: "You're arguing for torture but with a different euphemism for it." Denying someone treatment isn't merely a matter of comfort - it can also affect survival rates. Furthermore, Buchanan's recommendation, that American authorities deliberately cause Abdulmutallab pain in order to extract information, is a textbook definition of torture.
In some ways, the GOP's reaction is transparently partisan. Despite all the shrieking over treating the alleged bomber as a criminal, Republicans didn't believe that it was a threat to democracy when the Bush administration tried Abdulmutallab's predecessor, the shoe bomber Richard Reid, in a civilian court. Nevertheless, Buchanan hasn't been the only Republican arguing for a return to inhumane lawlessness in the aftermath of the failed attack. Appearing on CNN, supposedly moderate Republican Tom Ridge said of Abdulmutallab: "He's a terrorist, and I don't think he deserves the full range of protections of our criminal justice system embodied in the constitution of the United States." Over at the National Review, former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen - who once arguedthat torturing suspected terrorists who haven't been convicted of anything was necessary because of their religion - declared that the US "no longer" interrogates terror suspects.
Back when the Bush administration was claiming that "the United States doesn't torture," Republicans were in the difficult position of rationalising torture techniques through the euphemism of "enhanced interrogation techniques". Now that Obama is in office, Republicans can revel fully in their embrace of torture - and the GOP has chosen the failed underwear bomber as its latest battlefield. The strategy has the short-term benefit of making the president look weak on national security, with the long term benefit of using public opinion to insulate former Bush administration officials from the potential legal consequences of breaking domestic and international laws against torture. There's also the base emotional appeal of exacting revenge against the bad guys. The bureaucratic errors that led to Abdulmutallab being able to board a plane bound for the US would not have been solved by waterboarding.
The GOP's faith in torture is misplaced. Not only is Abdulmutallab reportedly co-operating with authorities - despite being held as a criminal rather than a soldier - but the most experienced interrogators in the country work for the FBI, not the CIA. Those interrogators have been emphatic in warning that torture doesn't work. It's not just that it's illegal. It's not just that torture produces faulty information, with the victims saying whatever they think is necessary to make the treatment stop. It's also that it is a strategic disaster for the US, drawing sympathy to terrorist groups and swelling their ranks, placing American civilians and servicemen captured abroad at risk of the same treatment, undermining strategic cooperation with other nations, and making the future prosecution of terrorist suspects impossible. For all these reasons, General David Petraeus has said torture is "neither useful nor necessary."
Sadly, the Democrats assumed their usual position of learned helplessness in the face of a sustained assault on the president by the torture wing of the Republican party. Ironically, other than encouraging Americans to panic every time a terror attack is foiled, torture is virtually the only national security policy that the Obama administration has failed to adopt from its predecessors. Its copious use of the state secrets doctrine to block court scrutiny of torture, for example, is paving the way for torture to be resurrected as US policy if and when the GOP retakes the White House. The Republican assault on the president is a transparently political one, and it has gone for the most part unanswered - which makes a return to torture all the more likely.
Al-Qaida will never defeat the US militarily. There will be no Islamic Caliphate in the US. They can only hope to warp our society by forcing us to abandon our values and democratic institutions through fear. As Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, what the GOP is counselling isn't toughness. It's surrender.