Sunday, January 23, 2005

ARGUABLY THE BIGGEST ISSUE in the Gonzales and Rice confirmation hearings has been torture -- what it is, what it is not, when it can be used, on whom it can be used, and where it can be used. Sonni Efron of the Los Angeles Times talks about the Bush administration's "dilemma": Nominees for Cabinet posts, like Condoleezza Rice and Alberto Gonzales, want to be able to claim that the U.S. government does not condone torture and would never commit torture; they also do not want to be specific about which particular acts constitute torture -- so they can be free to authorize or allow such acts against Arab and Muslim individuals detained in the "war on terror."

In other words, the Bush administration wants to have its cake and eat it, too. They want to say the United States condemns torture and they want to be free to commit torture at the same time -- which is what defining specific techniques as merely "cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment" rather than "torture" is all about.

So we have the spectacle of John Yoo, an attorney who worked on "torture policies" for Pres. Bush in Bush's first term, saying, "What the administration is saying is we're not going to torture people. ... What the administration does not want to say, and I think for good reasons too, is what methods the United States might or might not use short of torture."

This insistence on saying "We don't do torture but we want to be flexible about how we define torture" reminds me of a concept in Judaism called "building a fence around the Law." The Jewish rabbis who studied Torah and put together the Talmud developed this concept, over many years, as a way of ensuring that Jews would not unknowingly violate the Law -- the 613 mitzvot, or commandments, given to the Jewish people in the Torah. The idea is that it's not enough to have the laws; you also have to know the boundary of the law -- where the law begins and ends. An example of this concept, from Judaism for Beginners, is the inclusion of chicken in the prohibition against eating meat with dairy products. Even though chicken is poultry, not meat, if an observant Jew interpreted that to mean she could have a glass of milk with her chicken dinner, then next that blurring of the commandment might influence her or tempt her to eat a cheeseburger.

It's not that different with torture. If forcing a Muslim prisoner to strip naked, masturbate in front of interrogators, and sit wrapped in an Israeli flag is merely "degrading" or "humiliating" treatment and not torture, then maybe the authorities who are degrading prisoners in this fashion will think it's all right to tie electrodes to a prisoner's genitals and subject him to electric shocks, or pull off his fingernails. Perhaps the Bush administration needs to build a fence around the law against torture, so that we all know what torture is; so that no American authority figure gets confused and unintentionally violates that law.

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