Wednesday, December 14, 2005



By Georgie Anne GeyerTue Dec 13, 6:21 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- The core question that repeatedly came up on Condi's trip to Europe is the one that defines the "right-to-torture" discussion, which is vexing the United States of America: What if one man knew of a horrible terrorist attack about to be launched -- and only he could tell the world the details?

Neocon columnist Charles Krauthammer has become the grand inquisitor for the hard-line group in the administration. He argues, seemingly eternally, that not only is torture defensible in certain limited circumstances, but in fact it is "morally necessary" if it would save lives from an imminent attack. At the same time, he ridicules the "moral preening" of his critics, and forgets to tell us how we control sadistic kids who take his expositions seriously.

Well, there ARE other answers to that question. My friend Cherif Bassiouni, professor of international law at DePaul University in Chicago and one of the world's great jurists, has them. (Bassiouni was running a conference center on terrorism in Italy long before George W. gave up alcohol or Charles Krauthammer took up Spanish Inquisition training.)

"The fallacy of the 'ticking bomb syndrome' -- that we've got 10 minutes to defuse the bomb or the world blows up -- is that it simply cannot be used to apply to everything else," Bassiouni told me. "If this were happening and I were drafted to get information from this man, I would do what was necessary, and then the next day I would turn myself in and say that I did it. I would not justify myself -- that's the moral difference."

In short, supremely moral men such as Bassiouni -- and others who have had actual, not theoretical, experience in working with terrorism across the world -- recognize that there can be moments in history when anything goes. But these occur so seldom, and they are so theoretical, that to suggest that we base an entire system upon them and reconstitute the principled life of America leaves one breathless with the sheer stupidity of it.

We should know by now that those poor saps who were tortured in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere were largely picked up off the street by naive GIs who could not be expected to walk around with a "Who's Who of Iraq." And even those who support torture admit it doesn't work.

So the administration sent Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on a charm mission to relieve the relative torture of President Bush's recent visits to Europe and Latin America. But nothing has really been made clear. As part of the new policy to keep Americans quiescent about their own innocent, freshly scrubbed kids being sent to punch and sodomize black-hooded Iraqis into the next world, the president now repeats "victory" in every speech; his psychological advisers have told him Americans will sacrifice their kids if they're sure we're going to win.

Meanwhile, broody Vice President Dick Cheney, whose restless nights will not be quieted until he can write torture into law for the CIA to pursue in its hidden inquisitional eyries, is unusually subdued; he is letting the attractive but misleading Condi act as the administration's seductive Lotus Eater.

At the end of his disastrous trip through Latin America (he was mercilessly criticized everywhere), President Bush said, with a strange otherworldly look, in Panama, "The United States does not torture." Ex-cuse me!

Then Condi took off, looking like a million, as my beloved mother would have put it, to woo the Europeans and to "reassure" them at a special NATO foreign ministers' meeting. "At no time did the United States agree to inhumane acts or torture. Even if terrorists are not covered by the Geneva Conventions, they (their captors) have still applied the principles governing those Geneva Conventions."

The Europeans ended up saying, "Condi, si -- America, no!" But as the usually American-friendly German paper Die Welt editorialized: "It is not particularly reassuring if the West's biggest power has to affirm that it does not torture prisoners." In fact, it sounds rather too much like a man protesting that he does not beat his wife.

The truth of the matter is that, despite all the traveling around and posturing, neither the torture question nor its supposed rationale has been in the slightest resolved. The United States remains a ratifier of the "Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman and Degrading Treatment," signed in 1994 by none other than President Bill Clinton, with torture defined as any "cruel, inhuman and degrading" practice that would violate the Fifth, Eighth or 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. Not to speak of the Geneva Accords, or that old-fashioned idea that the United States is "different" and that agreeing to torture marks a profound departure from our past.

Yet, the administration's lawyers have privately concluded that "waterboarding" (an old trick of the Spanish Inquisition that makes the internee think he is drowning) and other CIA methods don't violate the Constitution. There has been no decision to abandon those practices; nor was "rendition," sending suspects to foreign countries, included in Condi's bright new message to the world.

Professor Bassiouni says: "She was handed an important mission. She has made separate statements without connecting the dots. The president says we don't torture, period. She says, we don't do anything illegal, and move on. Every statement on its own was all right; but by not connecting the dots she leaves each statement on its own. Ergo, the president says we don't do anything illegal.

"But in fact, the Pentagon itself has released the names of 200 people who died under torture under U.S. custody. I hate to put it this way because it sounds irreverent, but it all sounds a lot like the Mafia. When they're caught, it's not that they 'didn't do it' but that they weren't there, they were somewhere else, they ... It's all so transparent that the world is doubly aghast."

On the brink of the important Iraqi elections this week, one garners some of the inner sense of that America which would reform Iraq. Not surprising, is it, that the Iraqis might just think twice.

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