Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Waterboarding? Time for a Reality Check

Who would have thought that that the principal moral legacy of the second baby boomer president would be a stout defence of the use of what most of us would think of as torture? In the 1970's and 1980's there was a lurking feeling that the upcoming generation, hippies and flower children all, were going to cause nothing but havoc as they came to power and brought their left-wing, environmental, soft-on-the-bad-guys values to the table. The debate was not on what these young pinkos would do (that was obvious) but on whether the advent of flower power in office would be good or bad. All of this goes to show that it is extremely hard to predict the future.

Let's take, for example, a left-wing villian, say, Ronald Reagan, and picture him or any leader in his generation making an argument for waterboarding (we all know what waterboarding is don't we -- you know, tying a person to a board and immersing their head in water until they almost drown -- then pulling them out and repeating as necessary). Ronald Regean would have condemned waterboarding, said it was something done by our enemies (the godless commies), someting not done by our friends (except possibly by a few rogue elements) and certainly not something ever done by the United States or any civilized, western country. Even if American allies or friends were waterboarding prisoners, at least Ronald Regean would have lied about it -- or at least ensured that he had plausible deniablility around the issue ("I'm shocked, truly shocked"). For those us of leaning to the left or the libertarian end of the spectrum what was shocking about that era was the mendacity of that era -- everyone knew Augusto Pinochet and his clowns were torturing people, his supporters just lied about it. The same can be said on the left, Uncle Joe was torturing thousands, but the hard left just pretended it was not happening.

George Bush though is a different species -- he does not deny waterboarding (well, he avoids admitting it). He just denies it (and a number of other nasty things) is torture at all. On this theory, put forward by lawyers like John Yee and Alberto Gonzales, almost drowning a person is not torture because they don't die and they have all their limbs afterwards. Indeed, for Mr. Bush, waterboarding in the name of freedom is a virtue -- the American people expect us to keep them free from terrorist attacks after all.

This can only be described as insane. The common law recognized torture as an unreliable method of obtaining a confession almost three hundred years ago -- that is why confessions extracted by force have been excluded from court: they are unreliable, not immoral. The political leaders of the first three quarters of the twentieth century also recognized the real strength of the west lay in setting an example by following the rule of law, creating an environment free from arbitrary state action and protecting human rights. While there were differences about method, there was a commonality of vision and that vision would have excluded approving of waterboarding in the name of freedom.

Perhaps though the real sense of why the baby boomers were viewed as having poor potential for leadership was right. I am sure that when the parents and grandparents of the 1960's and 1970's looked at the culture of youth their underlying thought was "have they no shame?" For many in looking at Bill Clinton I am also sure that this was their principal reaction to his messy personal life. What is sad is in watching George Bush and his merry band of torture justifiers is that it is this thought that comes to my mind -- waterboarding for freedom? Do you have no shame? The problem is this is Mr. Bush's policy not his private life and there are real people being tortured.

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