Friday, February 18, 2005


Columnist John Dendahl, in the Albuquerque Journal, today criticized Senator Jeff Bingaman for Bingaman’s vote against Alberto Gonzales for Attorney General, and another vote. Apparently Senator Bingaman felt that Gonzales was evasive about his part in the Geneva Convention, torture controversy. Would you hire an Attorney General who advocated torture? That question was avoided, because Gonzales said that he is against torture, and has not advocated torture. He is shocked, shocked, by the conduct of renegade soldiers (fortunately only a few) disobeying orders and mistreating prisoners in Iraq. Case closed. Or is it.

What did Alberto Gonzales have to do with the 20-technique interrogation plan approved by Secretary Donald Rumsfeld? What are the 20 approved techniques? Has anyone seen them on the internet? Do they include techniques that some of us might see as torture even though Alberto Gonzales would see them as permissible techniques to be used against suspected terrorists? Do they include techniques that Gonzales and Rumsfeld would approve, but Dendahl would not?

Take water boarding, for example. Repeated near-drowning, to induce panic (a perfectly natural reaction). Is water boarding torture? Does Rumsfeld approve? Does Gonzales approve? Does Dendahl approve? Is it justified (that is, not so bad) by the fact that it is inflicted on some of our people in training to prepare them for such treatment by enemies? If it is torture, has anyone been prosecuted for it, and if not, why not? Ask the same questions about electric shocks to the appendages: is it torture? does Rumsfeld approve? does Gonzales approve? does Dendahl approve? Ask the same question about chaining naked suspect to concrete floor in fetal position in waste for 48 hours: which one approves?

In his column, Mr. Dendahl suggests that in his next reelection race, Senator Bingaman will have to answer for his anti-Gonzales vote. No problem there. New Mexico voters will care about how the United States is viewed by the civilized world, and these New Mexico voters will be embarrassed by the quibble over the definition of torture. They will want to know what are the 20-techniques, and will want to decide for themselves whether they are civilized practices. You can also be sure that the Senator’s opponent will be asked whether he or she has ever seen the 20-technique list, and whether such candidate would authorize the techniques in question. Meanwhile, Mr. Dendahl could do a great public service by seeking to have the 20-technique list made public.

It is conceivable (though not to me as yet) that torture can be justified in some cases, under safeguards, authorized by a general, say, in writing, under guidelines approved by the Secretary of Defense. Some technique may be morally acceptable under certain circumstances and safeguards, and yet be counter-productive. Yet we are now debating morals, not effectiveness. Is there conduct that we find so morally wrong that we forbid our representatives to use it (and forbid our representatives from ordering our soldiers to do it)? Of course. But where do we draw the line?

It is not right to secretly direct our soldiers to use the practice, torture, and then publicly say we do not use torture. Do not ask Attorney General Gonzales whether the Department of Justice, under his administration, allows torture. Ask him whether the Department allows water-boarding; electric shock to appendages; chained naked in fetal position with waste; as means to soften up suspected terrorists for interrogation.

The Geneva conventions forbid interrogation (!) of prisoners of war; but it seems to me we can justify treating terrorist suspects as other than prisoners of war, and other than accused criminals (who would be entitled to counsel, etc.); but we cannot justify treating those suspects as other than human beings. As Woody Allen says, with arms over head in defensive posture, "Human being here!" When we know whether the Department allows certain conduct, we can debate whether we will tolerate it, ratify it. Or do we have the right to know? With respect, Mr. Dendahl, we ask your opinion.

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