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“The Program”
Tortured Semantics

Well, Bush has his blank check.

On a rare morning when I can buy a hard copy of the New York Times and enjoy the smell of fresh newsprint rather than clicking through story after story, I read all about the “compromise” Bush reached with his morally challenged rebel Republicans—all while leaving the Democrats completely on the sidelines.

How far we’ve fallen.

Digby has a typically brilliant post complete with some brilliant excerpts describing what should be obvious to all, namely why torture is wrong. So I can’t add anything about that to what Digby and many others have said. Torture debases us all. What amazes me in all of this discussion and in the Times articles this morning is what is unspoken. The Times has a graphic describing (in some incomprehensible flow chart) the definitions of various terms such as severe mental pain or suffering.

But in reading over it, I can’t help but wonder why a man who says that the Geneva Conventions article banning “outrages on human dignity” is “vague” would feel constrained by a law “severe physical pain or suffering.” Remember that these are people who once defined those kinds of terms as the pain caused by “organ failure.” So in the sadistic hands of Abu Gonzalez, would the administration still feel that it has the legal authority to, say, rip the fingernails off of a detainee who was less than cooperative? Maybe, in the parlors of the Marquis de Gonzales, that is not considered “severe physical pain.” Who’s to say? Perhaps chez White House such techniques fall under the realm of exquisite agony.

Throughout the Times articles—the president’s statements and the entire public discussion of the torture issue—the unspoken boundaries of the discussion don’t allow for the specifics that Bush claims to beg for when he complains the Geneva Conventions are vague. Repeated use of the term “the program” has created a weird Kafkaesque quality to the whole debate. When are the reporters, the three wise men named McCain, Graham, and Warner, and the public at large going to demand, “What’s the program?”

I mean, sure we have a general idea from the reporting of Sy Hersch who described the screaming of little boys in front of their parents to get the parents to speak, we have various books on the American gulag, we have the story of Maher Arar, but there is no official account of what is being done in our name.

So while Bush demands specificity of others, why not demand the same of him? Tell us, Mr. President, what you are doing in our name and then we can discuss whether it is or should be legal. Let’s have a list of the specific “techniques” you plan to use, and then let’s discuss them one by one.

Sleep deprivation? Anal rape? Smearing of menstrual blood? Desecration of the Koran? Beatings? Forced feedings (as described horrifyingly in the Digby post mentioned above)? Threats against one’s family and children, such as the threats made against Khalid Sheik Muhammed as described in Ron Suskind’s “The One Percent Doctrine”?

What is also not discussed in this debate, another huge gaping hole the size of Hurricane Katrina in the middle of this debate, is this: why should we believe that the President will follow this law anyway? We already know from various credible reporting and investigations by the European Union that the US has rendered suspects to various torture havens in clear violation of the law. Is this part of the “program”, and is this now legal?

The thousands of hostages held by the US around the world... what of them? We don’t know, because the new legislation doesn’t consider them except to the extent that it denies them the opportunity to ever seek their freedom. As the Times reports, the worst suspects will receive trials, while the rest are denied habeas corpus.

Finally, it may all be a moot point. From Adam Liptak’s article in the Times: “Martin S. Lederman, who teaches constitutional law at Georgetown, said the bill continued to allow the harsh treatment of detainees by the Central Intelligence Agency. ‘They appear to have negotiated a statutory definition of cruel treatment that doesn’t cover the C.I.A. techniques,’ Professor Lederman said. ‘And they purport to foreclose the ability of the courts to determine whether they satisfy the Geneva obligations.’”

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