13 June 2004
LONDON - President Ronald Reagan was a gifted leader and great American who personified many of his nation's finest qualities. Though this column sometimes criticized his policies, particularly his missteps in the Mideast, it always admired and respected him.
Reagan's death reminds us that neither of his successors have proven worthy of the nation's highest office. Particularly so George W. Bush, who desperately keeps trying to wrap himself in Reagan's mantle.
This contrast became even starker last week, after US media revealed more shocking evidence linking senior officials of the Bush Administration to widespread abuse and torture of Muslim captives.
The scandal began by the leak of a 56-page legal memo commissioned by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that sought to justify torture of prisoners at the Guantanamo prison camp.
Further legal memos were revealed from the White House, Pentagon, Justice Department and CIA sanctioning torture and seeking ways to evade the 1996 US War Crimes Act, which carries the death penalty, and the Geneva Conventions banning mistreatment, degradation or torture of prisoners.
Administration lawyers claimed that because the nation's security was at risk, President Bush had authority as commander-in-chief to approve torture or `severe' interrogation,' and to order US and international laws be ignored. As it so often does, the Bush Administration was following the lead of Israel, whose high court has legalized torture of Arab suspects.
The US Justice Department, which is supposed to uphold the law, actually sent a memo worthy of the Nazi legal system contending the Geneva Conventions and US laws did not apply to `terrorism suspects.' Any American may apparently be arrested as a `terrorism suspect,' and tortured, according to Justice lawyers. Replace `terrorism suspect' by `enemy of the people' and you have Stalin's Soviet tyranny.
At first, the right to torture applied only to the Guantanamo gulag. Then, it was extended to Afghanistan. Then to Bush's so-called `war on terror' in Iraq. Torture and/or brutal mistreatment of Muslim captives suspected of `terrorism' is now common in US-run prisons abroad and, increasingly, at home. The full sickening story of the torture and rape of male and female prisoners in US-run Iraqi prisons still remains to be told.
History shows once a regime authorizes torture, it comes to be widely used against all sorts of suspects, criminal as well as political. Recall up to 90% of all those arrested by the US as `terrorism suspects' turned out to be completely innocent.
When legal and moral constraints are removed, or undermined, states run rampant over their people's rights. Both Nazi Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union embarked on their monstrous crimes after cooperative lawyers set the legal stage for their actions.
Lawyers who collaborate in subverting laws and human rights are as much criminals as those who commit torture and rights abuses. They should be disbarred and prosecuted. The New York Bar has rightly protested the disgraceful actions of administration lawyers.
As a former US Army soldier, I am outraged by the Bush Administration's grave violations of the Geneva Conventions, actions sure to encourage brutal mistreatment of captured US military personnel. Bush and Rumsfeld claim Taliban and al-Qaida fighters are not covered by the laws of war. But what about the 20,000 US mercenaries (`civilian contractors') now in Iraq, or non-uniformed US Special Forces and CIA teams?
This scandal is the direct result of Bush's visceral contempt for international law. No wonder he sneeringly rejected the newly created international war crimes tribunal. Human rights groups are now calling for war crimes charges to be brought against members of the Bush Administration.
Behind all this is an even more disturbing message being pushed by Bush's entourage: national security is expressed through the leader's will, trumping all other concerns, justifying all actions, no matter how illegal. We have heard this sinister argument before in fascist Italy and Germany.
I'm sickened seeing the nation I grew up to love, which I held to be the world's torchbearer of democracy and human rights, advocating legalized torture. I cannot imagine Ronald Reagan ever befouling his own or his nation's honor by advocating such crimes.
The dots have connected. They lead from grinning Pvt Lynndie England and her naked Iraqi prisoner on a leash at Abu Gharib Prison right up to the White House and Pentagon.