Wednesday, February 01, 2006


"No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever. Prisoners of war who refuse to answer may not be threatened, insulted, or exposed to any unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind." Article 17, 1949 Geneva Convention. Http://

As I understand it, it is the policy of our administration to follow the Geneva Convention in cases of prisoners of war. We have defined the captives at Guantanamo and some at Abu Ghraib, as other than prisoners of war (and of course, as other than accused criminals, who would be entitled to even more rights than prisoners of war). The name is not important (unlawful combatants; terrorists; insurgents; detainees) ("A soft word turneth away wrath.").

Let us assume that they are international terrorist criminals. The administration says that they will be treated "consistent" with the Geneva Convention. What does that mean? Does it mean that they will be treated as though the Geneva Convention applied to them? Sounds that way, but we know that is not the case.

The bottom line question is this. Are there accused persons who are captives of United States troops whom we are willing to torture? If so, under what circumstances, by whom, and with what safeguards, if any? And are we going to be allowed to vote on this policy?

Another issue is who is to do the technique. If it indeed is torture as defined by the International Red Cross, or some other international body, such as the United Nations, then do we want our military personnel to do the job? I think not. They are hired to be soldiers and we owe it to them to keep them from having to do that kind of job. Secretary Rumsfeld apparently draws a distinction between torture by our people directly, and torture by some underworld country at our request. Is that right?

The time for joking about the "hazing" is over. I admire Al Gore for asking the question, "How dare they?"; but to adopt his view assumes the question. The question is, is our policy one that we want to maintain? What is our policy?

We could begin without the list of our techniques. We could simply take up various interrogation methods and see if we want to use them. Take the matter of water-boarding. The South Vietnamese in 1964 were treating suspected Viet Cong prisoners to a near-drowning technique: hose down throat, funnel in hose, water poured in funnel until captive thinks he is going to drown; revive, question, then repeat. American "advisors" stood by, supposedly not participating. As I understand it, we now take the captives and dunk them, either on a board or by hand, dunk them repeatedly, causing the captive to think he is about to drown. Question; then repeat. Is this "faux drowning" technique permissible, or is a version of it permissible?

You do not have to decide whether it is torture, just decide whether you want to permit it (or in the case of soldiers, order the soldiers to execute the procedure). Then make that decision publicly, allowing us to vote on it in an open society; then the world will know and we will know what kind of people we are, and what we will do collectively in the name of national security.

It is not enough to say that one or more of us privately, to protect our family, would use torture or worse if the circumstances were right. We are speaking of a national policy, one which we would surely recommend for all other nations of the world.

Is not this issue more important and pressing, than the question of terrorist wiretapping? Should the President dragnet our communications system to find evidence of terrorism, and if so should he submit to Court oversight of the process? Those are important questions, quite apart from whether the President has the power under our constitution to do it the way he has chosen. But are such questions as important as whether we want to order, approve, or condone water-boarding (and other interrogation techniques), and if so under what circumstances, by whom, with what oversight and with what accountability, if any?