Monday, November 07, 2005

The Big Deal

Mark Bowden, the author of "Black Hawk Down," writes a surpassingly odd piece about torture in this morning's Journal. He begins with some grumbling about Geena Davis' new television show. A recent episode of the show apparently reconceived the by-now hoary "ticking bomb" scenario as an argument against torture rather than for it. In Bowden's telling, the repurposed scenario sounds just as contrived as the originals from which it derives, but the whole issue is anyway just a throat-clearing exercise for the real business of the article, which is to offer an extraordinarily obtuse take on the issue of torturing prisoners.

Bowden starts by supporting the McCain Amendment recently passed in the Senate to ban torture and affecting not to understand the fuss about it. After all, "the provision offers nothing new or even controversial. Cruel treatment of prisoners is already banned. It is prohibited by military law and by America's international agreements." Moreover, "one thing it will not do, sadly, is stop the abuse of prisoners." So what's the big deal? Perhaps we can explain it to Bowden.

After asking why anyone would oppose the McCain Amendment, Bowden spends several paragraphs explaining that war is hell, and mistreatment of prisoners under such conditions is unavoidable. As we journey through this vale of tears, it turns out, cruelty, man's inhumanity to man, and insufficiently rigorous oversight in the military chain of command are inevitable.

Well, yes. Any war will inevitably have some Lieutenant Calleys and some Henry Wirzes, people who take the opportunity of wartime to indulge their taste for deliberate cruelty. But that misconduct by individual bad actors is precisely what is not controversial about the issue of torture. Obviously if American soldiers act on their own to mistreat prisoners they should be held accountable, and several of the enlisted men and women at Abu Ghraib already have been.

The driving force behind the McCain Amendment is not anger at Lynddie England, Charles Graner, and other young soldiers caught up in the hell of war. No one questions that they will be brought to heel. But the torture that has taken place in Afghanistan, in Cuba, in Iraq, and apparently in a network of secret prisons in eastern Europe and elsewhere was not undertaken by accident or on the initiative of low-ranking soldiers. It was administration policy, justified by legal "arguments" from the White House Counsel and ordered by the Vice President's office. That explains why the Bush Administration and its willing agents in the Republican House are so intent on killing the McCain Amendment, or any step to uncovering the full story of executive branch involvement in and direction of the mistreatment of prisoners. It isn't, as Bowden would have it, a perversely excessive concern with the remote possibility that soldiers would face a "ticking bomb" scenario and be hamstrung by an amendment to an appropriations bill. It is rather the fear that this provision will be the beginning of an investigation into the complicity of high-ranking military and civilian officials in the widespread torture, by deliberate design, of prisoners under the control of American forces.


This may be a continuing series, depending on what sort of slapstick buffoonery the Journal offers on future Mondays. But today's article by Norm Coleman, the Minnesota Republican Party's answer to Ted Baxter, is too rich an opportunity to pass up. Senator Coleman, who has apparently decided to make a name for himself as the Congress' most eager and least intelligent critic of the United Nations, warns today of a "Digital Munich." The UN, it seems, is plotting to steal the internet, or rather the root servers that are currently controlled by the US. Anyone familiar with the history of the Elgin Marbles will be unalarmed at the prospect that the resolutions of international bodies will force America to give up anything it doesn't want to give up. But for those who quake with fear that a mighty UN army is coming to steal our internet, rest easy! "Responding to the present danger," says Senator Coleman, "I have initiated a Sense of the Senate Resolution." And with that, a clownish man and his trivial weapons have truly met a fittingly insignificant challenge. Fight on, Senator Coleman, and leave no WSIS Internet Governance Subcommittee activities untouched by your fearsome Sense of the Senate Resolutions. We here at Lucky Duckies can think of no public policy issue to which your talents are better suited.


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