Torturing the Law


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“I recently saw the film “The Reader” whose centerpiece is the trial of a female SS guard who failed to free Jewish prisoners locked up in a burning church. She tells the judge, “We were guards. We couldn’t just let the prisoners go.” The courtroom gasps in collective moral repugnance. But later, one of the law students studying the trial chafes at the arbitrariness of trying these particular women when there were hundreds of camps, legions of senior SS officers in charge, and everybody knew what was going on.
It made me think of Private Lynndie England, whose infamous photo – holding a doubled-up, naked prisoner on a leash – made headlines in 2004. Labeled as one of “a few bad apples” behind the disturbing abuses at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, she was found guilty in 2005 of inflicting sexual, physical, and psychological abuse, bundled off to the brig at Miramar, and dishonorably discharged in 2008 after completing her sentence. Her name vanished almost immediately from the media and our collective consciousness….”

Author: Liz Fautsch, a member of Peace Alliance’s San Diego “branch” – AFDOP (Americans for Department of Peace)
Published in: Huntington News Network (home page: http://www.huntingtonnews.net/) in West Virginia
Date: March 27, 2009

For the full article:
Torturing the Law
(656 words)
by Liz Fautsch

I recently saw the film “The Reader” whose centerpiece is the trial of a female SS guard who failed to free Jewish prisoners locked up in a burning church. She tells the judge, “We were guards. We couldn’t just let the prisoners go.” The courtroom gasps in collective moral repugnance. But later, one of the law students studying the trial chafes at the arbitrariness of trying these particular women when there were hundreds of camps, legions of senior SS officers in charge, and everybody knew what was going on.

It made me think of Private Lynndie England, whose infamous photo – holding a doubled-up, naked prisoner on a leash – made headlines in 2004. Labeled as one of “a few bad apples” behind the disturbing abuses at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, she was found guilty in 2005 of inflicting sexual, physical, and psychological abuse, bundled off to the brig at Miramar, and dishonorably discharged in 2008 after completing her sentence. Her name vanished almost immediately from the media and our collective consciousness.

The ramifications of that photo, however, continue to bubble to the surface of our consciousness because, as recently released memos from the White House Office of Legal Counsel now make clear, even as prisoners were being tortured at Abu Ghraib, the law was being tortured in Washington, and too many of our senior officials looked the other way.

In the military, the chain of command is the basis for action. England acted within this hierarchy, and somewhere near the top of the chain it was felt that harsher interrogation methods were in order. Put aside for a moment the debate pitting the ticking time bomb against the unreliable information gained through torture. The U.S. ratified the Convention on Torture for two reasons: 1) Torture is simply not what we – a democratic nation, devoted to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – do; 2) To protect our troops. Simply put: Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.

But after 9/11 the insidious notion crept into the executive branch that our laws were hamstringing our efforts in the “War on Terror.” Somehow, lawyers in the Office of Legal Counsel were persuaded to produce legal arguments that both cleared the way for “enhanced interrogation techniques” and gave cover to those issuing the orders. If anyone near the bottom of the chain went over the line, those at the top – including the Secretary of Defense – could say, in all innocence, “I’m shocked, shocked to find torture going on here.”

It is interesting to observe how similar our reaction today is to that fictional courtroom in “The Reader” – righteous outrage at individual incidents of abuse, like Ms. England’s, combined with a wishy-washy disinclination to do anything about the real problem: the people who occupied the highest reaches of power, manipulated our laws on torture, and gave the commands that eventually trickled down to Ms. England and her co-defendants in a grotesque game of “telephone”.

If we truly believe in our constitution, our democracy and our nation’s ability to provide moral leadership in the world, we must hold the Bush administration and its lawyers to account. It won’t be quick, it won’t be pretty, but it’s the only way to reclaim the moral high ground for our country.

Liz Fautsch (efautsch@aol.com) is a member of the Peace Alliance’s San Diego “branch” – AFDOP (Americans for Department of Peace). She lives in Encinitas, CA.