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And if Elected, I Solemnly Promise to Commit War Crimes

Posted: 11/16/11 02:15 PM ET

Now that candidates can run respectably on a platform of torture, how long before we see a frontrunner advocating slavery? Surely everything's open for reconsideration. It's time to retire an inconvenient prejudice: that America's progress should be in a forward direction.

Of all the candidates at the Republican debates -- including that putative beacon of sanity, Mitt Romney -- only Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul had the base-level decency to renounce waterboarding: a practice that has been considered a particularly extreme form of torture since the Spanish Inquisition. The experts who administered this technique in the dungeons of Spain, by the way, were not hypocrites. They did not mince words. To these trained professionals, it was not "waterboarding." It was not "enhanced interrogation." It was "tortura del agua."

But these are ugly times, and this quaint (unreconstructed?) way of thinking about torture is no longer surreal. It is not even surprising. Entire nations have embraced moral blindness before, and we've already witnessed the spectacle -- unimaginable 20 years ago -- of both a vice-president and president proudly admitting to war crimes in their memoirs.

You do not have to study philosophy to fully grasp the moral implications here (although Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals will make quick work of any theoretical doubts you may have). A simple high school exercise will do. Rank the following activities, in terms of moral depravity, from trivial at the top to unconscionable at the bottom: theft, slavery, adultery, lying, assault, meanness, torture, gossip. Unless you're a monster, torture and slavery will end up vying with each other for the lowest rung. And, if you were not aware that it was now an acceptable American technique, torture probably would have ended up at the bottom.

In the complete spectrum of human behavior, you cannot get any lower than the deliberate, methodical infliction of excruciating pain on another person. We all know this, whether we wish to confront it or not. We have always known it. It is in fact a founding principle of the nation: George Washington, in his charge to the Northern Expeditionary Force (Sept. 14, 1775), proclaimed that even the death penalty was not too severe a punishment for Americans who tortured British prisoners:

Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any [prisoner]... I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require. Should it extend to death itself, it will not be disproportional to its guilt at such a time and in such a cause... for by such conduct they bring shame, disgrace and ruin to themselves and their country.

Japanese soldiers who waterboarded Americans in the Second World War were hanged as war criminals.

And now, proudly endorsing this war crime -- almost certainly the most depraved human activity -- has apparently become a prerequisite to the Republican nomination.

This does not leave Democrats blameless, however. By no means.

It would seem backwards to blame the Republican ardour for the thumbscrew on President Obama, but that's the nature of responsibility: he is the only one currently in a position to do something about this, and he has failed. He could have ended torture in America. It was a prominent campaign promise. Yes, under his administration the rack has been mothballed, but he did not do what the law (and history) required him to do: punish the men who disgraced the nation.

Furthermore, thanks to Wikileaks, we have solid evidence that he went out of his way to see that those men were not punished. Jonathan Turley writes:

A "confidential" April 17, 2009, cable sent from the US embassy in Madrid to the State Department discloses how the Administration discarded any respect for the independence of the judiciary in Spain and pressured the government to derail the prosecution of Bush officials....


Just as many conservatives abandoned their principles in following George Bush blindly, many liberals have chosen to ignore Obama's concerted efforts to protect individuals accused of war crimes. Under our treaty obligations, the United States has the primary responsibility to prosecute torture by U.S. citizens. That responsibility rests with the Executive Branch -- the prosecuting authority of the United States.

With torturers bragging about waterboarding in their memoirs rather than from prison, Obama has insured that the most unspeakable human activity is an American option. It's no different, categorically, from a tax proposal, or a new approach to education: every new administration will get to decide whether or not they crush testicles.

Hyperbole, surely? Waterboarding is not quite the same thing as crushing testicles. No, it's not: it's simply another technique in the same class of activity. Another option. An option that has been duly considered. I remind you that John Yoo -- still a free man, teaching law (of all things) at a vaunted university in a democratic nation -- was the man advising George Walker Bush in this matter. Here is John Yoo in a debate against Notre Dame professor Doug Cassel:

Cassel: If the president deems that he's got to torture somebody, including by crushing the testicles of the person's child, there is no law that can stop him?


Yoo: No treaty.

Cassel: Also no law by Congress -- that is what you wrote in the August 2002 memo...

Yoo: I think it depends on why the president thinks he needs to do that.

So let's ditch the the sophistry and address this honestly. It's not a "slippery slope" from waterboarding to crushing the testicles of children. It's not even a slope. It's a natural step in thinking: a step that has already been taken.

Waterboarding is not as painful as having your testicles crushed? Well, by all accounts it is, but let's play Satan's advocate and assume that it isn't. I think we can all agree that it is physically more painful -- more harmful -- than having your child's testicles crushed.

Now, examine that last paragraph and note precisely what it is that we have been reduced to discussing, as if this were a topic appropriate to a sober policy debate.

By all means, let's decide that an activity that was considered torture in the middle ages is no longer torture in 21st-century America. We're more sophisticated now. More nuanced. Following this logic, surely we've evolved since Lincoln? Surely all forms of slavery shouldn't be lumped together as impermissible? We've identified acceptable torture; let's talk about acceptable slavery. The only reason you balk is because you've been trained to find the word "slavery" revolting. Should I be honoured with the Republican nomination, I vow to reintroduce the honourable practice of enhanced servitude.

 
 
 

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