Tuesday, February 21, 2006

JANE MAYER'S LATEST NEW YORKER PIECE, about the fruitless efforts of Alberto Mora, the U.S. Navy's former general counsel, to reverse the Bush administration's torture policy, is depressing as hell.

...Well before the exposure of prisoner abuse in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, in April, 2004, Mora warned his superiors at the Pentagon about the consequences of President Bush's decision, in February, 2002, to circumvent the Geneva conventions, which prohibit both torture and "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment." He argued that a refusal to outlaw cruelty toward U.S.-held terrorist suspects was an implicit invitation to abuse. Mora also challenged the legal framework that the Bush Administration has constructed to justify an expansion of executive power, in matters ranging from interrogations to wiretapping. He described as "unlawful," "dangerous," and "erroneous" novel legal theories granting the President the right to authorize abuse. Mora warned that these precepts could leave U.S. personnel open to criminal prosecution. [Emphasis added.]

Mayer describes the torture of Mohammed al-Qahtani, who according to the FBI was supposed to have been on the hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania.

Qahtani had been subjected to a hundred and sixty days of isolation in a pen perpetually flooded with artificial light. He was interrogated on forty-eight of fifty-four days, for eighteen to twenty hours at a stretch. He had been stripped naked; straddled by taunting female guards, in an exercise called "invasion of space by a female"; forced to wear women's underwear on his head, and to put on a bra; threatened by dogs; placed on a leash; and told that his mother was a whore. By December, Qahtani had been subjected to a phony kidnapping, deprived of heat, given large quantities of intravenous liquids without access to a toilet, and deprived of sleep for three days. Ten days before Brant and Mora met, Qahtani's heart rate had dropped so precipitately, to thirty-five beats a minute, that he required cardiac monitoring.

Later in the article, Mayer writes that Qahtani also was subjected to forced nudity; had his beard shaved off (a religious violation; the same as if someone forcibly shaved off an Orthodox Jewish man's beard and sidelocks); was told to bark like a dog; had to listen to painfully loud music; and was subjected to extremes of heat and cold.

And what information was gained from this treatment? None. He first confessed to terrorist plots; then recanted his confessions; and finally implored his captors to let him kill himself.

When I read things like this, I feel ashamed. I feel ashamed, as an American, that anyone could be treated with such cruelty with the approval of a man who is sworn to uphold the Constitution. It doesn't matter if you call it torture or "fear up harsh" or "enhanced interrogation techniques" or degrading and humiliating treatment, or "just" abuse. Everything that was done to Mohammed al-Qahtani and hundreds more like him was and is illegal and immoral; and all of it cheapens and degrades us as a nation of laws and noble ideals.

No one could put it better than this:

"To my mind, there's no moral or practical distinction," [Mora] told [Mayer]. "If cruelty is no longer declared unlawful, but instead is applied as a matter of policy, it alters the fundamental relationship of man to government. It destroys the whole notion of individual rights. The Constitution recognizes that man has an inherent right, not bestowed by the state or laws, to personal dignity, including the right to be free of cruelty. It applies to all human beings, not just in America -- even those designated as 'unlawful enemy combatants.' If you make this exception, the whole Constitution crumbles. It's a transformative issue."

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