Apparently Torture Is Okay When A Democrat Is President

No torture. Ever.

That’s an issue that the Democrats had been pushing the White House on for a long time before the election, after Abu Ghraib came to light and accusations of torture in the Guantánamo Bay terrorist prison began to circualte (accusations which I have yet to see substantiated anywhere, by the way).

Understatement: this did not play to political advantage, either at home or abroad. The better response from the White House would have been, “You’re right! Torturing prisoners is bad, and we aren’t doing it, we haven’t done it, we’re not going to do it, and if anyone goes off the reservation and does it, they’re acting contrary to orders and they will be punished.”

The better response was not the response that was made, however. Yeah, sure, half a dozen enlisted guardsmen got to spend some time in Leavenworth because they were stupid enough to take pictures of what they were up to and publish them on the freaking internet. But no officer or anyone else of any consequence was ever publicly held responsible.

Instead, Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez debased the dignity of his office by issuing legal memoranda torturing the law to justify torturing terrorists. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld personally authorized “enahnced interrogation techniques.” And when this all came to light, almost reflexively, the Bush White House and its chorus of kool-aid drinkers (red flavor) responded with a nearly-harmonious chant of “Don’t you Democrats and Europeans and mealy-mouthed civil libertarians tell us what to do! If we don’t torture, innocent people will DIE!” And suddenly, a bunch of people who cannot distinguish a TV series starring Keifer Sutherland from reality wanted the Republican Party to become the Party of Torture.

Gratefully, eventually John McCain became the party’s standard-bearer. Senator McCain has been tortured. His feeling about the issue was strong and he spoke from an unimpeachable position of authority. It resonated well politically with the great masses of the people even if some within his own party became irritated by it. His policy position, articulated in the primaries and then the general election, was quite simple:

No torture. Ever.

After hammering — righteously — for several years on this issue, prominent Senate Democrats moving into positions of power over the military, intelligence, and diplomacy are suddenly finding that a little “flexibility” on the issue of whether “enhanced interrogatotion techniques” are okay. As Glenn Greenwald writes in today’s Salon, piggybacking on some excellent archival journalism done at Time Magaine by Michael Scherer, my own Senator, Dianne Feinstein, and Ron Wyden of Oregon, whose biography suggests he really, really ought to know better, have tried to quietly modify their position that the only interrogations that the C.I.A. should conduct are those that are described in the Army Field Manual, which prohibits torture (using what is functionally the UN definition of the term).

Now, Senator Feinsten thinks that “…an imminent terrorist threat might require special measures.” Senator Wyden would “approve interrogation techniques that went beyond the Army Field Manual as long as they were ‘legal, humane and noncoercive.'” Greenwald’s follow-up with the offices of both Senators pretty much confirmed in his mind that despite their loud protestations to the contrary, their former stances demanding absolute no-torture laws have, indeed, softened.

I thought this issue was resolved with passage of the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, and I thought it made Republicans (other than McCain) look pretty scummy during the primary when they indicated that they should renege on the promise made in that law that we would not torture our prisoners, ever, under any circumstances, regardless of who was doing the capturing, incarcerating, and questioning.

It’s more than a little bit shocking that Senators Feinstein and Wyden are backtracking on the issue. If it was wrong for a military under Commander-in-Chief Bush to do it, it will be wrong for a military under Commander-in-Chief Obama to do it. If it was wrong for a CIA under the direction of President Bush to do it, it will be wrong from a CIA under the direction of President Obama to do it. We should not torture our prisoners, ever, under any circumstances, regardless of the prisoner, regardless who is doing the capturing, incarcerating, and questioning, regardless of which party controls the White House. More simply put:

No torture. Ever.

That needs to be the rule even if it’s my wife handcuffed to the hidden ticking time bomb as a hostage. (Sorry, babe; hopefully it never comes to anything like that.) If that bomb goes off, it won’t be the fault of the interrogators for failing to get the information. The murder will be the responsibility of the terrorists who did the killing.

It is not a question of time-sensitive opportunities to gather information. It is not a question of intentionally weaking our defenses or rendering ourselves vulnerable to the bad guys. It is a question of not becoming bad guys ourselves.

It is not a question of “well, they would do it to us.” Of course they would. It would be awful. But I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about us.

We are supposed to be morally superior to them. That obligates us to act like we are morally superior. Their standards of behavior and morality are irrelevant. Our own moral standards, however, are not. No one else — not the U.N., not a bunch of Europeans or other foreigners, only we the citizens of the United States of America — can tell us what those standards are. And that standard is, and should be, very simple and absolute on this question.

No safe harbor here. Senators Feisntein and Wyden, you are abandoning a position of righteousness for one that condones evil. That you have decided to assume this wrong position when your party’s leader suddenly moves into a position where he can authorize that sort of thing is morally reprehensible and exposes you as hypocrites of the worst order. No one can be trusted with the discretion to authorize torture, not even President Barack Obama. It simply has to never happen.

It’s a simple rule. There is no compromise possible, no acceptable nuance. It should not even be an issue at all. Senator McCain was and is right. And Senators Feinstein and Wyden are wrong.

No torture. Ever.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.