Thursday, December 1, 2011

Torture, Indefinite Detention & The American Way

When the Senate took up the defense spending bill this week it included truly dreadful provisions allowing for indefinite military detention.  An amendment offered by Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) that would have removed these provisions was defeated.  The amendment garnered only 38 votes, with 17 Democrats voting to reject it.   

The New York Times explains what the bill now includes:
[It] would require the government to place into military custody any suspected member of Al Qaeda or one of its allies connected to a plot against the United States or its allies. The provision would exempt American citizens, but would otherwise extend to arrests on United States soil. The executive branch could issue a waiver and keep such a prisoner in the civilian system.
A related provision would create a federal statute saying the government has the legal authority to keep people suspected of terrorism in military custody, indefinitely and without trial. It contains no exception for American citizens.
The National Defense Authorization Act goes to a conference committee next week, and if the provisions are not stripped there, it will be up to President Obama to follow through with his veto threat.  He would be the first president in fifty years to veto a defense spending bill. 

Meanwhile, another amendment to the defense bill by Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) hoped to authorize "enhanced interrogations," i.e., torture.  Her proposal would "roll back the 2009 Obama executive order against torture by re-establishing a secret 'classified' set of interrogation techniques and then attaching them to the current 'Army Field Manual' on human intelligence collection."  Apparently, the amendment was not voted upon this time, but there is concern that Ayotte will find another opportunity to offer it.

And we know from the most recent GOP presidential debate, that most of the Republican candidates for president proudly claimed they would reinstate waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques.

It is in this context that Amy Davidson of The New Yorker writes about the chilling new United Nations report on Syria's use of torture and killing of children.  She points out that while Syria is not our ally, we have made use of Syria's prisons and its methods in our war on terror. As Davidson says, while we may not have committed torture ourselves of the prisoners we transferred to Syria via extraordinary rendition and we may not torture children, "we have used torture, and as we have learned in the Republican debates and on the floor of Congress, there is in no way a consensus that this is even a source of mild embarrassment. Some of our politicians seem proud of it."

The issuance of the UN's report, Davidson points out, unavoidably brings up the "the cost of torture generally, including, in this instance, to our own moral standing."  Indeed.  When "one would wish for a unified international chorus against the use of torture," and "when the world needs to let Syria know how unacceptable its behavior is," we are left with the Senate passing a provision allowing indefinite military detention, some Senators seeking to pass amendments to rescind the ban against using torture, and virtually all the Republicans seeking the presidency declaring to enthusiastic applause that they would authorize enhanced interrogation techniques and that waterbording isn't torture.

As Davidson remarks, "the idea that, as a nation, we ought to live in such a way as to always be able to make torturers feel ashamed is not such a radical thought."  At least it shouldn't be.


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