Will Congress codify his brutality into law?
American soldiers are stationed in the hundreds of thousands all over the globe: in the Balkans, the Middle East, Africa and East Asia. It isn’t a matter of if, but of when, soldiers will be held captive. When some are, imagine their captors, as part of their interrogation techniques, stripping them, drenching them in icy water, holding them in permanently lit or permanently dark and dank cells without bunks or blankets, constantly playing deafening music, “waterboarding” them (that is, holding them under water as if to drown them), depriving them of sleep or proper food and using many other similarly sadistic tactics that only brutes or fools would distinguish from torture.
Imagine those American soldiers held indefinitely under one pretense or another: Call them spies; call them terrorists; call them whatever else an enemy captor might decide to call them to give the captivity a sheen of legitimacy. The soldiers are then put on trial using “confessions” drawn from those torture sessions and hearsay drawn from who knows where. Imagine the soldiers having no chance to see the evidence against them or challenge it or even sit through their own trial if the judge decides to boot them out of the courtroom.
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All of it would be repugnant. All of it would be immoral. All of it would be illegal, in breach of the international Geneva Conventions, let alone American law. And all of it — all of it — would have been taken, sham for sham, brutality for brutality, out of the Bush administration manual used to imprison, interrogate and, if the administration has its way, try “enemy combatants” at Guantanamo and in secret CIA prisons abroad.
The wonder isn’t that four powerful Senate Republicans have finally joined some Democrats in opposing Bush administration proposals that would write those shams into law. The wonder is that so many senators still haven’t and that the administration continues to lobby Capitol Hill and Bush continues to plead with the American public for the authority to make American laws in the “war on terror” look indistinguishable from those of a banana republic. And that the American public is responding by giving Bush a modest bump in his dismal standing in the polls.
“The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism,” former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Bush’s first secretary of state, wrote in a letter to Sen. John McCain, one of the Republican senators aiming to block the White House’s maneuver. “To redefine Common Article 3,” Powell continued, referring to the Geneva Conventions article that prohibits “outrages upon personal dignity” regardless who the prisoner might be, “would add to those doubts. Furthermore, it would put our own troops at risk.”
Last June, the Supreme Court said as much in an opinion that declared illegal the administration’s plan to try the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay through military tribunals with a new set of rules. By pushing through Congress various laws that spell out permissible tribunal rules, the administration is hoping to get around the court’s prohibitions at least temporarily. It’s just as likely that even if Bush manages to get his version of laws through Congress, the court would ultimately reject them: They’re not substantially different from what the court rejected in June.
So, what’s the administration up to? With the midterm elections looming and the administration facing a serious possibility of major losses (the House of Representatives could shift to a Democratic majority, and the Senate isn’t far behind), Bush has donned the same mantle he donned ahead of the 2002 and 2004 elections: that of war leader. It worked both those times. The public isn’t buying it as convincingly this year, seeing through the political ploy. But enough senators — and a majority of House members — are still supporting the president’s proposals to give his shams the force of credibility.
Bush has described Iraq as ground zero in the battle for Western freedoms. Forget Iraq. Ground zero for America’s moral leadership, or what’s left of it, is Capitol Hill. It’s a basic choice. Bush’s proposals will end that claim to leadership for good. A few senators stand in his way. In this battle, theirs is the honorable stand, with a lot more than honor at stake.