Former attorney general Michael Mukasey defends torture in the Wall Street Journal:
This article by Bret Stephens might be even sillier:
Why do I choose the word silly to describe current defenses of torture, written by serious people who have given the matter some thought? Silly means: having or showing a lack of common sense or judgment; absurd and foolish. Read Mukasey’s article. The thought that a man of his character and prideful thoughtlessness could have been responsible for our nation’s Department of Justice for almost almost three years can make you want to give up. This carefully snide, self-assured former official, always pleased with his own learning, makes a point of putting Dianne Feinstein down. He shows a little more respect for Senator John McCain, victim of torture in North Vietnam, but his defense of torture puts McCain in his place, too. That is, Mukasey’s defense of torture puts critics of these practices in their place only if Mukasey is right. He is not.
I thought I would write this post without reading past Mukasey’s introduction, because I knew the whole article would make me mad. I read it anyway. Now I feel I don’t have that much to say. People like Mukasey, Cheney, or Stephens will not change their minds on this matter. People like Feinstein, McCain, and me will not change their minds, either. You find yourself asking, when you’re especially angry or dismayed, whether more argument is worth the effort.
People in the future, who did not live through 9/11, will make up their minds about what our leaders did to protect this country. The same kind of thing occurred after December 7, 1941, when we rounded up Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and put them in prison camps in the name of national security. We put our own citizens in prison camps because we were afraid. Latter generations have reached an accurate judgment about that episode: the government’s policy was wrong. Nothing like that should ever happen again.
Our grandchildren will reach the same judgment about torture. In 2070 you will not find anyone to defend our treatment of prisoners after 9/11, any more than you can find people now who will defend our treatment of Japanese Americans in the early 1940s. National security does not justify breaking the law. Whatever Michael Mukasey might say, our treatment of prisoners after 9/11 broke the law. Adolf Eichmann, the high-level bureaucrat who kept the trains running to Bergen-Belsen, did not think his actions violated any laws, either. When you act within a large organization, the environment blinds you, and you can convice yourself that your actions are correct.
To see a detailed, legalistic defense of the behavior detailed in Feinstein’s report – authored by a former attorny general, who was responsible for upholding the law – dismays and frightens. We have criminals in our government, and have had for some time, who believe with their whole hearts that they are innocent and right. The perpetrators try to hide their acts, as criminals always do. They deny what they have done, as criminals almost always do. The higher you go in a criminal organization’s chain of command, the more likely you will see a candid defense from the people who give orders. The higher-ups have a sense of invulnerability, that their rank – or former rank – protects them. They speak more freely than the lower-downs.
When the CIA was caught out, its bosses went on the attack, to justify their criminal behavior. Some, like John Brennan, try to evade responsibility. Others, like Richard Cheney, say, “I would do it again in a minute.” These are the thoughts and behaviors of tyrants. These are the thoughts and behaviors of people who do not recognize any limits to what they can do.
Here’s a simple case in point. Mukasey says that the the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment applies only to people lawfully convicted of a crime. Let’s grant that: the interpretation consists with the idea that officials administer punishment as retribution, or a penalty, for a violation already committed. That means government simply holds you in prison, without a conviction, for as long as it likes, so it can coerce you in any way that it likes. That is exactly what it did with Bradley Manning, when it kept him in solitary confinement for three years without charging him with any crime. Again and again, Mukasey’s response to Feinstein’s report points to one conclusion: the government need observe no limits on what it can do. More significantly, every unqualified defense of the behavior described in the Senate report must reach that conclusion: people in power can do what they like.
Mukasey claims that every action described in Feinstein’s report was legal. Ask yourself a simple, hypothetical question: if every action listed in Feinstein’s report were legal, what would not be permissible? What would be out of bounds, and therefore not legal? Mukasey would say the rack is illegal, sticking pins underneath people’s fingernails is illegal, and holding prisoners’ feet over a fire is illegal. After World War II, governments found more sophisticated, less primitive ways to cause pain and exert control. Methods of cruelty changed with the times. To say that the updated methods of torture are legal because they are updated, is to be a fool. No one who thinks clearly about right and wrong would ever say such a thing. Mukasey’s mind is so packed with superiority and legalistic rubbish, that you know the product of his thought could never get to the heart of the matter.
Let’s say that Mukasey is correct, that the law permits waterboarding and every other act listed in Feinstein’s report. If that were the case, why did John Yoo write his torture memo? Why did the CIA go to amazing lengths to conduct its interrogations in secret? Why did we punish the senior commander of the prison at Abu Ghraib? Did the CIA act in secret because public torture is just bad public relations? Why do we not conduct enhanced interrogations now, when virtually everyone says the threats we currently face exceed those we faced right after 9/11? I guess if we would “do it again in a minute,” we have to be ready for renewal of torture at any time it pleases the interrogators. Get ready.
If you want to know what tyranny looks like in the United States, in the twenty-first century, read Mukasey’s article. Tyranny in this country, in this time, wears the face of legalism and self-righteousness. It does not acknowledge wrong doing, mistakes, or any kind of misbehavior at all. It constantly justifies itself. It acts in secret whenever it can. When its crimes become public, it attacks with ridicule and puffed up arguments designed to make opponents back down. It has no moral sense whatever, nor any sense at all of how legal rules depend on moral rules. It serves itself only, and whenever you see unlimited, secret power that serves only itself, you see what we have always called tyranny.
One more point: if you think the way our government treats prisoners – and the methods it uses to gather information – do not affect you personally, watch Laura Poitras’ film, Citizenfour. If you think the way our government treats prisoners does not affect you personally, witness the way it treats black people in our country. We have to stop this behavior now. If a former attorney general is willing to defend torture in the Wall Street Journal, you know we have descended a long way down this staircase.
Staircases are not slippery slopes. You can turn around on a staircase. You can stop going down. You can begin the climb back out. You do not have to follow your leaders into the dark pit, where only corruption and turpitude exist. We have to redeem ourselves.