It may seem contradictory to many that President Bush thinks America’s moral standing in the world has not been harmed during his tenure. He believes this despite a widespread practice of torture and systemic civil rights violations of “enemy combatants” during his administration. But if you adopt the President’s definition of morality, the contradiction disappears. President Bush has a very specific notion of what he means by America’s moral standing.
One of the biggest obstacles America faces in confronting the ugly facts of the renditions to “black ops” sites and the practice of waterboarding is the high moral tone that the Bush administration has taken regarding the conduct of our nation’s foreign policy. As Bob Woodward documented in his book, Plan of Attack, President Bush’s particular kind of Christian faith has given him an extremely high degree of moral certainty that the actions he has undertaken to protect the United States from terror are by definition justified. We are fighting the “axis of evil” and so we must be the agents of the good.
President Bush’s rigid moral certainty has left him no room to see the contradictions between torture and goodness. This rigid moral certainty made it possible for this man, who claims to be a serious person of faith, to have as his legacy the sustained and deliberate policy to torture prisoners and to render them to “black ops” sites outside the United States for horrific maltreatment.
The world has a different definition of America’s moral standing. On May 4, 2004, the graphic pictures of prisoners being tortured at the now infamous Abu Ghraib prison raced around the world. What the world saw was the face of the United States, not as the symbol of freedom and democracy, but as a nation turned rogue state like Argentina under its military junta, South Africa under Apartheid, or Germany in the Nazi era.
What has subsequently been determined is that the administration, in the persons of its President, Vice President, and legal counsel, had decided that this country did not have to abide by the terms of the Geneva Conventions. Through a series of confidential legal memos, a spurious line of legal argument was developed to “prove” that the U.S. did not have to follow the Conventions in the case of “enemy combatants.”
Jane Mayer, who, as a journalist and writer for The New Yorker, doggedly pursued these memos and through extensive interviews with principals documented that the torture was, from the beginning, not the work of a ‘few bad apples,’ but administration policy at the highest levels.
Every major world religion and civilized nation condemns torture and forbids it. There were those individuals in this country who struggled against this wholesale gutting of the bedrock of American principles such as Joe Margulies, a lawyer who eventually succeeded in representing Mamdouh Habib. Habib was one of the many who were rendered and tortured without any hard evidence of guilt. Mayer quotes Marguilies in her book The Dark Side . He said, “I got the sense that America had lost its moral bearings.”
But now that the evidence of torture is out, the President and the Vice President are recruiting the practice of torture into their definition of morality. The argument goes like this: Yes, we tortured. There have been no more domestic terror attacks like 9/11. The practice of torture must have worked to keep America safe. Therefore torture is good because it has kept America safe. Of course, that’s a complete logical fallacy. Every student learns that in a basic Humanities course. Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc. In other words, just because we tortured and no domestic terror attacks followed, that doesn’t prove torture is the cause. Just because you put on your hat this morning and then it rained doesn’t mean putting on your hat caused the rain.
Many experienced military and clandestine services operators also don’t think torture works to get good information and thus keep the nation safer. In fact, some of the clearest condemnation of torture comes from those who have interrogated and who have seen what torture does, and not just to the tortured. Daniel Coleman, an ex-FBI agent who worked closely with the CIA, argued in vain for traditional methods of interrogation including gaining the subject’s trust and affording them due process. The latter was especially effective, argued Coleman. “The lawyer’s show these guys there’s a way out…It’s human nature. People don’t’ cooperate with you unless they have some reason to.” But after 9/11 Coleman saw that everything, including legality, had changed and that whatever they did, including extraordinary brutality, was not only legal, it was alright. Coleman knew differently. “Brutalization doesn’t work. We know that. Besides, you lose your soul.”
President Bush’s definition of what it means for the country to act morally needs to be thoroughly rejected along with the shameful practices of rendition and torture. Candidate Barack Obama promised the country change and the country agreed. One of the biggest things President Obama and the country need to change in the next four years is the definition of what it means for this country to act morally.