It is terribly distressing to realize that language in our time is used more often to obfuscate than to illuminate – – a condition that isn’t just about the president’s bumbling through speeches but the result of a concerted effort to shape words around an agenda and to prevent ordinary people from developing any real sense of what its government is doing.
Patriotism has become a word used to describe those administration advocates willing to countenance “extreme interrogation methods” and increased surveillance techniques. Without a flag pin in your lapel and the proper talking points on your lips can you really be a true patriot? And without that unquestioning acceptance of methodology and visible symbol of loyalty can you possibly understand the nature of the terrorist threat the nation faces? Such is the thrust of Republican dogma although it is unclear what if any battles have ever been won through the simple act of flag waving.
In an interview with former Justice Department official in the Reagan administration, David Rivkin parsed the meaning of torture as applied to the subject of waterboarding and praised the decision of Democrats Diane Feinstein and Chuck Schumer to support Judge Mukasy’s appointment as Attorney General. One can agree or not with their contention that the nomination should not rise or fall simply because the nominee danced around the issue of whether or not waterboarding constituted torture and focus on the other qualifications of the nominee which are apparently impressive.
It was a disappointing waffle, however, since reasonable observers and analysts believe the procedure satisfies most standard definitions of torture as do hooded stress positions that break chest bones causing suffocation and death. Of course even this White House stipulates that practices leading to organ failure or death can be defined as torture. The rest of us would tend to classify such procedures as cruel, unusual and murderous. But the president has said “we do not torture” because the administration is unwilling, as is its Justice Department, to be straight with the American people. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, so deny it, call it something else or nothing at all, torture is clearly torture; it has a bad smell and demeans us as a culture.
Torture has after all been clearly defined for a very long time, and members of foreign armies and members of our own military have been prosecuted for waterboarding in the past. It is simply not an ambiguous issue except for leaders with a secret dictionary somewhere that they haul out whenever it suits their purposes. Mr. Rivkin maintains that were Mukasy to be specific about what constitutes torture he would put the CIA and others at risk for acting in ways thought to be acceptable according to the guiding principles offered up by Alberto Gonzales. But no-one suggests that retroactive prosecutions would be undertaken. That legal device was used in Nazi Germany, and roundly condemned by all decent governments.
That has never been the issue. What concerns most legal experts and many private citizens is that we have stepped off the moral high ground and that our values seem to have become fungible. A favorite Republican talking point is that investigators have been hampered by too much oversight and too many regulations. As Mr. Rivkin put it, some critics of, dare we call it torture, would “take the toughness” out of interrogation procedures. And the issue is often presented as something resembling an episode of the TV drama “24” – – an unlikely scenario where some wild-eyed terrorist knows the location of a nuclear device set to explode in an hour. But you know what, if that were a real-time situation instead of an imaginary one I’d say, “Okay, give waterboarding a shot”.
But what exactly do we stand for as a nation? As the 2008 election approaches the importance of so-called “values voters” is a hot topic once again, this puzzling group with a misnomer for a title. Why should abortion, for example, form the basis for someone’s vote about another person’s private behavior when our very foundations have been rocked by a disastrous pre-emptive war, the imposition of restrictions on basic rights under the guise homeland security and the despicable practice of “extraordinary rendition”? Is an opinion about abortion or the gay lifestyle more important than actions taken by our government that shame us as a people? Should anyone take pride in voting for someone who is unqualified and dangerously under-informed in every area except that he or she may be pro-life and anti-gay? What kind of values are those?
At a time when polls indicate an overwhelming desire on the part of most Americans for change, Republican frontrunners seem to promise more of the same and talk about the global war on terrorism as if current policy should be replicated by the next administration. Democrats don’t get it they charge. Look at the progress now occurring in Iraq they say. Unfortunately that ‘progress’ has displaced millions of Iraqis and violence in neighborhoods is down because of successful ethnic cleansing – – sectarian enemies are dead or gone.
The reality of our position in the world demands more of us than moving words around to accommodate policy. The lack of consistent standards and the hypocrisy inherent in our condemnation of some tyrants and not others makes us a target of terrorists and reformers alike. Most people in other countries don’t trust us anymore as a moral arbiter. And by the way Mr. President, of course we torture and everybody here and abroad knows it.

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