Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Chris Floyd: The Torture Election

I'm still hampered by injury; while I'm recovering, blogging poses several difficult questions. One of the few answers I can find goes like this:

Many of my readers are reading Chris Floyd every day already. If you're not one of them, please take the hint!

Floyd's most recent piece is brilliant, as always ... but maybe a little bit more so this time. Here it is, in full and by kind permission, with a cold comment or two along the way.

The Torture Election
As the presidential horse race grows more frenzied and absurd -- Flag pins! Bowling! Obliteration! -- it is important to keep in mind what the election is really about: torture.

Specifically, the use of torture as an openly admitted, formally recognized instrument of national policy, approved at the highest level of government. The Bush Administration has now dropped all pretense that it is not engaging in interrogation techniques and incarceration practices long recognized by both international and U.S. law as blatantly criminal. What's more, the Administration boldly asserts that the president can simply ignore laws prohibiting torture if he feels that circumstances warrant the use of "interrogation methods that might otherwise be prohibited under international law," the New York Times reported over the weekend.

(The Washington Post had a similar story -- similarly buried deep inside the paper. A brazen declaration of presidential tyranny -- in the service of torture, no less -- was considered worth mentioning somewhere in the "papers of record," but obviously not worth making a big fuss about.)
The key words here are "openly admitted" and "formally recognized". Torture as an instrument of national policy runs deep in our history. So do death squads, for that matter, and subversion of democracy. Most of that history, of course, has been hidden from American eyes; but nothing is hidden from the "locals". The "recipients" of our "generosity" always know about the "collateral damage".
Torture is at the very heart of the Bush presidency, the most quintessential manifestation of its governing philosophy: a "Commander-in-Chief" state, where presidential directives can override any law in the name of "national security." The use of torture demonstrates that not even the most heinous crimes -- including techniques used by Nazi sadists and KGB brutes -- are beyond the pale of the "unitary executive's" arbitrary will. On the basis of this authoritarian power -- established through a series of presidential orders and "legal" opinions by appointed lackeys -- many other crimes can be "justified": aggressive war; kidnapping and rendition; indefinite detention; secret prisons; warrantless surveillance; even the "extrajudicial killing" of people the president designates as terrorists or terrorist "suspects."
In keeping with the simultaneous perversion of language and culture, it's misleading to refer to systematic torture as an "interrogation technique", "enhanced" or otherwise.

Unlike what you see on "24", or what you hear when our unelected representatives discuss the "merits" and "necessity" of "enhanced interrogation", torture is not typically used to extract information. This is the conclusion drawn by the legal team at Seton Hall which has been studying unclassified DoD records, based on the finding that most of the detainees in Guantanamo were "interrogated" once a month on a regular schedule.

If you had a detainee in your custody who you thought had information that could prevent an imminent terrorist attack, and you only interrogated him once a month, you'd be derelict in your duty. And it's very unlikely that you'd remain in your position. So let's be clear about the Bush administration's use of torture: it's an instrument of dominance and control, it's a tool of humiliation and degradation, it's a source of sadistic pleasure, and if openly proclaimed it has a chilling effect on domestic dissent. But it's not a source of actionable intelligence.

Indeed, under the Bush administration, no "intelligence" is "actionable" anyway, nor is it intended as such. Each bit of "intelligence" is simply a public relations item, fixed around a previously determined policy. And torture helps to produce even more public relations items. So they have all these reasons -- in their eyes -- to do it, and no reason -- again in their eyes -- not to do it.

The "logic" is simple: unencumbered by moral and ethical questions about deliberately and needlessly inflicting pain and fear on defenseless and possibly innocent people, the torturers just ask themselves: "Can anybody stop me?"
The highest officials of the Bush Administration have gone to enormous lengths to twist, pervert and destroy legal precepts that have been in force in Anglo-American law for centuries -- precisely because they know that their policies are criminal under any reasonable understanding of the law. Bush, and the likely prime mover of the torture regime, longtime authoritarian Dick Cheney, were told at the very beginning that the policies they were instigating would leave them and their minions open to criminal charges. That's why the Administration's legal hacks have devoted so much relentless attention on subverting the Geneva Conventions, which are incorporated into and have the full force of American law.
And this is why the Bush "legal" approach is at once so brilliant and so dangerous: if an act recognized worldwide as heinous can be excused based on the proclaimed intention of the perpetrator, then all rules are off, for selected perpetrators.
Bush and his minions know that if the rule of law is ever restored -- even partially and imperfectly -- they will be rightly be subject to prosecution, imprisonment and possibly even execution.
Execution seems most certain in my cold view; it also seems pitifully inadequate, even though the number of minions who would be endangered by such a restoration of law is almost impossible to overestimate.
And this is why torture is the core issue -- perhaps the only real issue -- in the presidential campaign. Iraq is not really an issue; whoever wins, the war will go on, in one form or another. Even under the so-called withdrawal plans of the "progressive" candidates, Americans will be killing and dying in Iraq for years to come. As for the economy, by their own admission none of the presidential aspirants will do anything more than tinker around the edges of the present rapacious system -- an unholy marriage of crony capitalism and corporate socialism that has devastated America's communities, left millions with harsher, diminished lives, corrupted civic society and degraded and homogenized American culture. For the elite factions that thrive on war profits and the brutal economic structure, none of the candidates represents a serious enough threat for any action -- beyond the usual lying, sabotage, vote-rigging and media manipulation to get their favorite into power, of course.

But torture is a different matter. Consider how many very powerful people -- and hundreds of their minions -- face very serious charges if the next president decides to apply the law. Will they really allow this to happen? Or even risk allowing this to happen?

Right now, the torturers control the military and the security apparatus, including many secret forces and units that we know little or nothing about. They have already used these assets to launch a war of aggression, to instigate a system of torture, to spy without restraint on the American people, and to imprison anyone in the world they claim is a terrorist. Why should we imagine that they will draw the line at using these assets to save themselves from prison -- or the poison needle?
Several wars of aggression, now that I think about it. It has seemed to some people -- and it still seems quite possible to me -- that they might even use these assets to stage "another 9/11" in order to prevent another "democratic" election.
It would seem then that the Bush Administration has only two choices: cut a deal with the candidates on torture -- or eliminate them from the race, one way or another.
A potential third choice then would be to eliminate the election itself. But this would be a drastic step which might engender resistance. It may be difficult to imagine whence or from whom such resistance might come, but surely a smoother path to absolute tyranny must seem safer and more secure to the tyrants. So it stands to reason that they would try to hold an "election" if at all possible, under carefully controlled conditions, of course.

If they lost control of the conditions, the balance might tip differently. But for now, at least, it seems we ought to pay attention to the candidates.
It goes without saying that John McCain will do nothing but revel in the authoritarian powers brought into the open by Bush; certainly it is inconceivable that he would ever prosecute the instigators of the Bush torture regime. Thus the focus here falls on the winner of the Democratic nomination.

It is Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton who will have to come to terms with the Bush team on torture. (If they have not already done so, that is. Given the intimate, growing personal ties between the Bushes and the Clintons, one could plausibly surmise that Clinton at least has already signalled her benevolent intentions on this point. But perhaps not. The true relations of our ruling families remain forever obscured from the rabble. Meanwhile, Obama is clearly leaning in the "right" direction, as noted here, although he retains a little wiggle room; perhaps he's not yet sealed the deal.)
It may still be possible to imagine Barack Obama as a "stealth candidate" -- something like George W. Bush in reverse. As you may remember, Bush promised to be "a uniter, not a divider" who would run a "humble foreign policy". We now know that his intention was just the opposite. And it may be true that Bush never would have been elected if the electorate understood what he really wanted. (He was never legitimately elected anyway, but who's counting?)

For a while four years ago I entertained fantasies of John Kerry as a stealth candidate. "It's all tactical," I told myself. "He's trying to outflank Bush on the side of more war because he thinks he can win that way. Then he'll stop the war." But it was always obvious that Kerry meant what he said. He didn't want to end the war. He didn't even want to win the election. Kerry as a "stealth candidate" had been a foolish if hopeful illusion.

This time around, Barack Obama doesn't seem particularly committed to restoring the rule of law or holding the Bush administration accountable for obvious crimes against the nation and against humanity. Why is this? Is it because he really doesn't care? Or is it because he's a "stealth candidate" who knows he can't speak freely about anything this serious and remain a viable and visible presidential candidate?

But what if he wins? Will he then reveal a different agenda? In other words, is Barack Obama secretly riding in on a white horse? Chris Floyd doesn't imagine him coming to the rescue of the republic anytime soon.
In the most benign scenario for these negotiations, perhaps some small fry will be offered up as a PR sop for the victor. Just as Scooter Libby took the fall for Karl Rove (in another obvious backroom deal), we might see John Yoo or that despised putz-for-all-seasons, Doug Feith, put on trial, while Bush, Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Condi Rice and the other "principals" go free.

But it is much more likely that any acknowledgement of criminality will be unacceptable to the torturers. It would establish a principle -- or rather, re-establish a principle -- that would forever leave them open to future prosecution.
And this is precisely the point. They have gone so far to defeat the rule of law -- and to discredit the notion that the rule of law is a good thing -- that they would earnestly wish to avoid seeing it take root again in any form -- on principle and as a matter of existential necessity.
So again, we come down to a stark choice for the Democratic candidate: either agree to "move on" from "bitter partisan rancor" over "enhanced interrogation techniques" -- or else. There are of course several ways to eliminate someone from public life; the tools have been refined somewhat since the days when "lone gunmen" stalked the land, removing inconvenient figures.
Is Obama thinking like this, too? Does he imagine he could become president by slipping under the radar with secret plans to make all the criminals accountable after his inauguration? And if so, what then? With such "treasonous" ideas, how long could he stay in the Oval Office? How long could he stay alive?

Those audacious enough to harbor some hope may be working overtime by now.
But given the proven nature of the Bush team -- and the dire consequences they face from any normal, rightful application of the law -- we should assume that they will do whatever it takes to escape those consequences.

And that's why torture is the decisive issue of this campaign. But this decision will not be in the hands of the voters; it will be made -- as most of the decisions that govern our lives are made -- in the inner sanctums of elite power.
And that means, unless I am much mistaken, that the key decisions are already made.

We would never have been led down this evil road if we were meant to turn back.

Oh no. The big decisions were made years ago. All the rest has been implementation.