Monday, December 05, 2005

Torture is Treason

The dismaying blow to the solar plexus in the news today is the rumored compromise between Sen John McCain and the White House over how, or whether, to ban US use of torture, including by the CIA. McCain’s language (passed by the Senate 90-7) says that no person in US custody should be subject to "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment."

This morning Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! interviewed Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights. Ratner reported that the White House will apparently drop its opposition to the McCain bill. However, in return the White House is demanding an amendment that refuses US legal recourse, especially habeas corpus, to any detainees. If it works out this way -- and Ratner asserts that McCain is said to have accepted the deal -- then detainees will have a right to humane treatment that they cannot, by explicit law, prevent the Administration from denying them.

This would go a bit beyond the position ascribed to President Andrew Jackson when Cherokee Nation v. Georgia was decided against him by the US Supreme Court in 1831. (That Jackson most likely never said, “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it,” is irrelevant since that was what he meant, and did, regardless of what he actually remarked.) Jackson flagrantly broke the law by forcing the Cherokee to abandon treaty-guaranteed lands and trek the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. Now we’re evidently going to claim we have rights for detainees but then give them no access to the courts with which to make the rights enforceable. Morally, this is not a great deal of improvement in 174 years.

Today’s Toronto Globe and Mail main headline is, “Rice Defends US Terrorism Policy.” By which she meant detainment in general. By which she meant detainee treatment that would, if applied to downed US airmen, be universally agreed to be torture. Her principal defense? The old "results" argument, much favored by the Inquisition and, indeed, all other failed regimes.

The continual blackening of America’s name abroad is a betrayal of the country in a manner specifically envisaged by the Founding Revolutionaries. In a direct slap at those who trumpet that America shall never, ever be guided by foreigners’ attitudes, the Founders explicitly wrote of “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind” as something that compelled them to action.

Traditionally, treason meant betraying your country to an enemy country. Moscow gold, German gold, British gold, French gold, Spanish gold, all were posited as the source of alleged treason in the US at one time or another. The right wing, in particular, made much fragrant hay in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s assaulting Democrats and other progressives with accusations of treasonous behavior, intentions, or ideas.

In modern times we have discovered it is possible to betray a country not only to another country, but to some reputedly higher purpose: anticommunism, corporatism, antiterrorism… In this connection, the words of the prophet Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness (1900) effortlessly come to mind:
What saves us [the British empire] is efficiency - the devotion to efficiency. But these chaps [the Roman imperialists] were not much account, really. They were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force -- nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind -- as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea -- something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to...

Once having erected the idol of antiterrorism it was inevitable that some of our high chieftains would begin to worship it. Yet, even if inevitable, this slapdash, sloppy and inept Administration's casual and callous disembowelment of the Constitution while in pursuit of terrorists demands that coldest form of retribution, which is the restoration of balance.

Ancient treason trials were concerned with severe damage to the state as a whole, without regard to any criminality of cause. In that respect treason differs from impeachment, in which a standard of criminality was de facto erected in the Nixon case, though wholly unmet in the Clinton case.

For legal reasons unknown to me, it may be that treason can only be tried in the House and Senate, like impeachment. But let’s find out, shall we? Incitement to riot is already a crime. Let us submit that, when committed at the highest levels, incitement to torture is treason. Certainly all members of Congress, particularly the Senate and House Judiciary Committees, ought to be written to in a demand for treason hearings.

How about every US Attorney in the country receiving letters demanding they institute a treason indictment for Vice-President Dick Cheney? The torture policy may not have originated with him, though it couild well have and he is its stoutest defender. But there is enough documentation already public to show he impelled it.

Try Cheney for Treason -- Impeachment is Too Good for Him would make a fine bumpersticker. And it has the merit of going straight to the heart of the BushCo conspiracy on an issue they cannot possibly win. If you had told the now-enfeebled, soon-to-be-jettisoned Karl Rove during the summer before the 2004 elections that, within a year of victory, the Republican talking points machine and its cable and journalistic cogs would be grinding out defenses of torture, he would surely have thought you meant "of Democrats. "

Lo, how the mighty are fallen. Let us therefore kick them because, as Lyndon Johnson is alleged to have remarked, if you kick someone while they are down they usually can't hurt you back.

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