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I've been puzzling for some time over the question of why Bush is so intent on torturing people in the face of widespread knowledge that torture does not produce reliable intelligence. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to realize that a person being tortured will tell his torturers anything that will get them to stop torturing him. And real evidence from real torture chambers confirms this common sense notion.

So I read Paul Krugman's recent column, "King of Pain," with great interest (article behind the Times Select paywall). His take is not one I had considered.

But first (all blockquotes are from Krugman's column):

Let's be clear what we're talking about here. According to an ABC News report from last fall, procedures used by C.I.A. interrogators have included forcing prisoners to "stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours"; the "cold cell," in which prisoners are forced "to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees," while being doused with cold water; and, of course, water boarding, in which "the prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet," then "cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner's face and water is poured over him," inducing "a terrifying fear of drowning."

And bear in mind that the "few bad apples" excuse doesn't apply; these were officially approved tactics — and Mr. Bush wants at least some of these tactics to remain in use.

This is so clearly beyond the legal, ethical, and constitutional bounds of acceptable treatment for even those fairly convicted of terrorism that one might take some satisfaction in seeing Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, and Gonzalez likewise shackled, chilled, and boarded, in order to teach them why it's unacceptable. Do you think they could be made to name all the other participants in their little plan to overthrow the Constitution? And do you think the secret evidence that those so named were involved in the plan could be used to round them up for some "alternative" interrogation to produce yet more names. This is what Bush has been doing, contrary to U.S. and international law as embedded in the Constitution and international treaties, and what he now wants Congress to give him the legal authority to do. Krugman again:

I'm ashamed that my government does this sort of thing. I'd be ashamed even if I were sure that only genuine terrorists were being tortured — and I'm not. Remember that the Bush administration has imprisoned a number of innocent men at Guantánamo, and in some cases continues to imprison them even though it knows they are innocent.

Is torture a necessary evil in a post-9/11 world? No. People with actual knowledge of intelligence work tell us that reality isn't like TV dramas, in which the good guys have to torture the bad guy to find out where he planted the ticking time bomb.

What torture produces in practice is misinformation, as its victims, desperate to end the pain, tell interrogators whatever they want to hear. Thus Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi — who ABC News says was subjected to both the cold cell and water boarding — told his questioners that Saddam Hussein's regime had trained members of Al Qaeda in the use of biochemical weapons. This "confession" became a key part of the Bush administration's case for invading Iraq — but it was pure invention.

The Bush regime knows all this. They know about Dilawar, the Kabul taxi driver innocent of any terrorist connection, who was tortured to death in American custody at Bagram. They know about Maher Arar, the Canadian engineer rendered to Jordan and Syria, who was tortured for ten months before being released and declared innocent by the Canadian government.

Is it just the regime's desire to appear tough on terrorists and their known tendency to deny reality (including the reality that torture does not produce reliable information) that drives it to want this power? Krugman thinks not:

So why is the Bush administration so determined to torture people?

To show that it can.

The central drive of the Bush administration — more fundamental than any particular policy — has been the effort to eliminate all limits on the president's power. Torture, I believe, appeals to the president and the vice president precisely because it's a violation of both law and tradition. By making an illegal and immoral practice a key element of U.S. policy, they're asserting their right to do whatever they claim is necessary.

They're torturing people because it's one of the most evil things they can think of, in order to assert their right to do anything they want — without limit. It's as if they are saying, "We're so big and we're so bad that we can even torture people and no one can do anything about it. So you'd better fear us and do what we want you to or we'll come and torture you, too." And the Bush regime is doing this in all of our names, not just in the names of the 30% that still supports Bush.

And when you compare Bush's actual choices to the unparalleled opportunity to do good things that he had after 9/11, when the entire world was hurting for America and looking to help, it shows the small-mindedness and incompetence of his regime.

The fact is that for all his talk of being a "war president," Mr. Bush has been conspicuously unwilling to ask Americans to make sacrifices on behalf of the cause — even when, in the days after 9/11, the nation longed to be called to a higher purpose. His admirers looked at him and thought they saw Winston Churchill. But instead of offering us blood, toil, tears and sweat, he told us to go shopping and promised tax cuts.

Only now, five years after 9/11, has Mr. Bush finally found some things he wants us to sacrifice. And those things turn out to be our principles and our self-respect.

And our rights. Constitutional protections have come under serious attack by the government on a number of occasions during our history. And each time, a Constitutional balance was re-established after the threat passed or was defeated. But in none of those cases did we have a regime that was intent on permanently destroying the principles of individual rights and limited government enshrined in our Constitution.

On several occasions Bush has declared that his job is to protect the American people from terrorists. But on this, too, he is wrong. That's not his job. His job is to "preserve, protect, and defend" the U.S. Constitution. He swore an oath to God to do so. Constitutional checks and balances, protections, and mechanisms are what will protect us from terrorists and tyrants alike, if they are allowed to function as intended. We don't need a strong fuehrer-father to protect us as if we were servant-children. The Constitution presumes we are adults able to determine what is best for ourselves and gives us the power and mechanisms to protect ourselves from tyrants (and now terrorists, too).

Many Americans have willingly given their lives in the past to protect the Constitution from enemies, both foreign and domestic. More may have to do so in the future. Democracy comes at an ongoing price: eternal vigilance against both tyrants and terrorists. Terrorists, even those with nuclear weapons, cannot destroy the Constitution or our democracy, although they could destroy many of our lives. The only way terrorists could destroy our democracy is with the aid and complicity of the U.S. Government. And that is apparently what the terrorists have been getting since 9/11 from the Bush regime's neo-con would-be tyrants. Nothing so dramatically shows the tyrannical purpose of this regime than its desire for the power to imprison people indefinitely without trial and to torture them.

Our Constitution provides for what we most need now — free and fair elections and a free press. If they were not slipping away, this creaking and listing old democracy would probably right itself yet again, as it has before. I fear we may have lost both and that the tilting will soon become the toppling of our democracy.

If the Founders were here today and asked to choose the greater threat to our democracy — terrorists or tyrants — to a man they would point to the tyrants. Domestic tyrants are just as much the enemy of patriots as are foreign terrorists. Maybe more so. Tyrants can take our freedom, terrorists can only take our lives.

Originally posted to schuylkill on Sun Sep 24, 2006 at 09:05 AM PDT.

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