In the Arena

More on Torture

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A number of readers have taken me to task for not calling for the prosecution of George Bush et al for war crimes. Glenn Greenwald has now piled on. Let me say this: I would have no moral, legal or spiritual problem with the Obama Administration pursuing this course of action, if they so choose. I do have a practical problem with it…and so does Obama, which is why he won’t pursue this for a very good reason: there are much bigger things at stake. We are in the midst of an economic crisis. We have a multitude of problems overseas to be resolved. And there are enormous political opportunities available as well–like the enactment of universal health insurance. Anything that diverts attention from these priorities, or makes it more difficult to build the consensus necessary to get them accomplished, has to be set aside. The stakes are just too high. 

If you don’t believe me, try this simple test: count the number of television appearances I make this week to promote this sexy “war crimes” column. Compare them to the number of appearances I made two months ago when I wrote a column that first set out the scope and detail of Obama’s green energy stimulus program. (There were no appearances.) The vision of Cheney in manacles–which, I must admit, sends a thrill up my leg–is far more attractive to the people who run our media than the details of a rebuilt electric grid, which is far more crucial to the future of the planet but is not very leg-thrilling. That has been the case for as long as there have been mass media…but we don’t have the luxury of indulging in the lurid right now. That is why Obama gave his economic speech today. That is why he will try–to the utter frustration of the media–to keep the stimulus package front and center for the next few weeks, until it passes. That is why he is erring in the direction of  bipartisanship wherever possible. (I decided to write the war crimes column this week, because it was a quiet period–in terms of the substance Obama was offering–and I felt the need to say goodbye to Bush in proper fashion.)

As for Greenwald, he is monomaniacal on the subject of civil liberties. His would be a useful obsession, if he were intellectually honest about it. He is not. He says that I’ve completely changed my mind on the subject of torture, based on a piece I wrote for the Guardian in February 2002. That piece was not one of my better efforts and it proved quite wrong over time. But I was very clear about the proper limits of interrogation:

But there are more questions than answers here. Where does interrogation end and torture begin? I don’t know. Is shouting at a prisoner torture? I don’t think so, unless my mother-in-law is doing the shouting. Does the use of sodium pentathol or other, one would hope, more precise drugs constitute a form of torture? I’m not so sure that I mind the chemical infringement of the right to remain silent about plans to drive airplanes into skyscrapers or poison New York’s water supply, so long as the effect of the drug isn’t lasting or debilitating. If the prisoners don’t have such information, the infringement on their privacy is niggling – and they should be quickly accorded the status, and in some cases, the freedom, they deserve. If they do know something, lucky us.

Whether or not we call them PoWs in the end means little: the important thing is the absolute necessity to find out what they know, within the bounds of reason. Britain has never designated IRA bombers prisoners of war. That is fine with me. I’m not partial to seeing severed British limbs and shards of British skulls flying through crowded pubs on Friday nights. I do not believe the aggressive interrogation of sociopaths does any damage at all to our glorious legal system, or to our moral values as a society.

I should point out that this was written before George W. Bush renounced the third Geneva Accord and years before any evidence of torture became public. Indeed, the Red Cross had just visited Guantanamo and said the prisoners were being treated well. I supported Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan and still do. I had no idea how truly dreadful his Administration would become. I imagined Bush a conservative; I soon learned that he was a right-wing radical. Two years later, when the Abu Ghraib abuses were made public, I wrote this column, clearly denouncing his Administration. It is the sort of column that Greenwald never cites, never includes in what appears to be, but isn’t, the exhaustive research he stuffs into his briefs. He is a lawyer, making a case and feels no need to include information that might weaken his case, even if it would give his readers a better sense of the truth. Some of  his cases hold water. His case against me, however, should be tossed out of court.