May 12, 2004

In Nothing We Trust

“Free us from oversight,” said the Bush Administration on September 12, 2001, “because you can trust in our professionalism and our ethical constraint. We’re the good guys. We won’t do anything bad”.

President Bush more or less repeats this mantra today in response to the escalating scandal of American prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo, that it was just a few bad apples, that we’re a democracy and and this shows how great democracy is that it can expose a few isolated misdeeds. Trust us. The world’s collective jaw drops. Does he really believe that? If so, he’s even more isolated and naïve than anyone has suspected. If not, then he and his inner circle are just as calculatingly grotesque as the most spectacular conspiracy theorists have portrayed them as being.

Look at what those photographs show. What anybody with an ounce of common sense knows is that the scenes being staged in them were not dreamed up by a bunch of reservists. It’s got the stench of military intelligence all over it. I’m sure we’ll hear in court-martials to come that no direct orders were given to have any of this happen, or that it was only private contractors. How stupid do they think we are? You can see it easily: an intelligence chief says to the grunts, “Hey, we need some information out of these guys. See if you can figure out a way.” A few minutes later he says, “Hey, I heard from a buddy that Muslim men really freak out about nudity.” No orders were given, sure. John McCain's fury at Rumsfeld during the hearings was clearly about this issue. We all know how it works, and we all know that what happened in the prisons goes right to the top. Not in the abstract, "I take responsibility" sense (though what does that mean? In what respect is Rumsfeld or Bush doing anything when they say that?) but in the quite concrete sense that permission to torture and humiliate Iraqis was sanctioned by the highest reaches of the hierarchy.

A few months back, Mark Bowden published a spectacularly foolish article on interrogation and torture in the Atlantic Monthly in which he mistook a kind of abstract ethical bullshit session thinking about torture for the actual institutional practice of it. I agree that there is a kind of thought experiment on torture and coercion that we have to undertake in an open-minded manner. If you knew with 100% certainty that a suspect in your custody knew where a nuclear weapon was hidden in a major American city, and that if you didn’t find out its location within 24 hours, it would be detonated, I think most of us would say, “Whatever it takes to find out, do it.”

That is a fiction, a thought experiment. Bowden’s defense of torture, in response to many angry letters observing that it is very rare for interrogators to actually know who is guilty or who possesses information that justifies coercion, was basically, “Well, I’m only justifying this in the case of the real professionals, who know what they’re doing, and won’t ever misuse coercion or torture for anything less than a vitally necessary end”.

Welcome to yet another fiction or abstraction, and a remarkably stupid one at that. When is this ever the case? What real people in the world have the necessary professionalism and the necessary factual knowledge of the specific information held by a prisoner? In practical terms, none. As Adam Ashforth has argued in his work on commissions of inquiry in South Africa, states use coercion or torture largely to demonstrate that they can. It’s a performance of power--and that's mainly what US soldiers have been doing in prisons, torturing and humiliating captives just to demonstrate that they can do so. Bowden says, “Trust them”. The whole point is that you can’t and you mustn’t, regardless of how clear-headed or fair-minded the aspirant torturer might be.

The domestic and international terrain on these issues intertwines. Many critics of the Bush Administration charge it with an assault on the U.S. Constitution. Sometimes these charges get hung up on the details of particular cases, or on antipathy towards particular individuals like John Ashcroft. The charge is accurate, but what we have seen in the last month is that it’s not just or primarily about a set of specific attacks on civil liberties. The Bush Administration is attacking the core philosophy of the Constitution, at every moment and in every way that they say, “Trust us”.

Amid the wreckage of American legitimacy, nothing stands out more than Theodore Olson and other lawyers from the US Solicitor General’s office standing before the Supreme Court of the United States arguing that in war, the federal government can do anything that it judges to be a prudential necessity for winning that war, that no constraints apply and that no explicit powers, Constitutional or statutory, need be granted to the federal government to do that which it sees as needful. That the executive branch and the military need no oversight or review by any other branch of the government.

To hear the official legal voice of the United States government making that argument is the most shameful thing I have heard in my life. The pictures from Iraq are nothing next to it. Olson’s argument was the equivalent of watching him drop trousers and take a crap on the Constitution. The central genius of the Constitution is that it constrains the government, that it says that government has no powers save those granted to it by the Constitution. It thoroughly rejects the claim that government must be free to expand its powers expediently.

That is the living, beating heart of the United States: that as a people and a nation, we are suspicious of power. That we recognize that we must never just trust in power, whether it is interrogators or the President. This has nothing to do with whether the people who hold power are good or bad people. Good people, people you like and trust, can misuse power. In fact, thinking probabilistically, it is a certainty that they will. I can trust an individual as an individual, but that is very different from writing individuals in my government a blank check.

Abu Gharib is about more than the Iraq War, and more than Donald Rumsfeld. It is the purest revelation of the consequences of the Administration’s contempt for the core values of American democracy, a contempt that they are spreading insidiously throughout the government of the United States. We have a precious few months to remove that cancer, to uproot that tree root and branch. If we fail in November—and make no mistake, it will be we, it will be the majority of Americans who make the wrong choice, who fail—then I think historians are likely to write that this was the beginning of the end of the American democratic experiment, the moment where the mob handed the reins to Augustus and so guaranteed that one day they would burn, too, under the serenade of Nero’s violin.