Posted on Wed, Dec. 12, 2007
A strong U.S. president rejects torture
By TALBOT D’ALEMBERTE
The cable reads:
THE PRESIDENT DESIRES TO KNOW IN THE FULLEST AND MOST CIRCUMSTANTIAL MANNER ALL THE FACTS . . . FOR THE VERY REASON THAT THE PRESIDENT INTENDS TO BACK UP THE ARMY IN THE HEARTIEST FASHION IN EVERY LAWFUL AND LEGITIMATE METHOD OF DOING ITS WORK. HE ALSO INTENDS TO SEE THAT THE MOST VIGOROUS CARE IS EXERCISED TO DETECT AND PREVENT ANY CRUELTY OR BRUTALITY AND THAT MEN WHO ARE GUILTY THEREOF ARE PUNISHED. GREAT AS THE PROVOCATION HAS BEEN . . . NOTHING CAN JUSTIFY . . . THE USE OF TORTURE OR INHUMAN CONDUCT OF ANY KIND ON THE PART OF THE AMERICAN ARMY.
This message from the president of the United States was sent not to members of the American military dealing with insurgents in Iraq but to an earlier Army dealing with insurgents in the Philippines approximately a century ago. Even without the characteristic capitalization of cablegrams sent during President Theodore Roosevelt’s time, the strong statement of outrage over torture and high regard for American values comes through. Today there is no similar message, either from the president or from the new attorney general. This is sad.
Teddy Roosevelt had to deal with the mistreatment of civilians by U.S. troops who were fighting an insurgency. American soldiers, who occupied the Philippines following the Spanish-American War, learned a technique of punishment and interrogation from the Spanish that they called ”the water cure.” Along with other violence toward civilians, the U.S. soldiers used the technique liberally. Edmund Morris’ biography Theodore Rex quotes the official report’s description of that “cure”:
“A man is thrown down on his back and three or four men sit on his arms and legs and hold him down, and either a gun barrel or a rife barrel or a carbine barrel or a stick as big as a belaying pin . . . is simply thrust into his jaws . . . and then water is poured onto his face, down his throat and nose . . . until the man gives some sign of giving in or becomes unconscious. . . . His suffering must be that of a man who is drowning, but who cannot drown.”
This may be the first use by American soldiers of what we now
surfaced in so many different places and come under so much scrutiny. It has been widely reported that some U.S. troops and ”other government agencies” have used this technique, as well as other inhumane and degrading practices that run counter to international law principles prohibiting inhumane treatment of detainees. Even in the face of evidence of such abuse, the Bush administration has given us repeated assurances that U.S. personnel do not torture. We are also told they do not rape and kill innocent people, and yet rapes and killings have taken place without a condemnation that matches the force of Roosevelt’s.
At Roosevelt’s insistence, military men implicated in torture and abuse, including even those of high rank, were prosecuted and sanctioned.
The dispatch of a strong presidential message and the follow-through with appropriate investigation and sanctions would do much to restore our place in world opinion and integrity in our dealings with detainees in Iraq and elsewhere. Instead of providing leadership, the administration has tried to block real investigation, preferring to construe out of existence congressional measures that would restrict the use of ”torture or inhuman conduct.” This has been done with the complicity of the Department of Justice, which is now under new leadership.
Perhaps new U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey can provide leadership and the will to fully investigate. Given the position he took in his confirmation hearings, he is under at least a moral obligation to look into this issue. During the hearings, he indicated that he needed more information to decide whether waterboarding and other brutal practices were torture. Now in office, he will have the security clearance to learn what most of us can find out by reading the material available from human rights organizations and international tribunals.
We need leadership of the type demonstrated by Teddy Roosevelt and a sense of outrage. Someone should turn this issue around, and it ought not be necessary to have an election before that happens.
After all, as Lord Goldsmith, then the attorney general of England and Wales, told the American Bar Association in August 2006, the United States’ positions on human rights issues seem curious because they are so “un-American.”
Talbot D’Alemberte is president emeritus of Florida State University and a past president of the American Bar Association.
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