On Native Ground
ON TORTURE, IS USE ABOVE THE LAW?
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Now that the funeral of President Ronald Reagan is over, we can turn our attention to other matters, such as how many members of the Bush administration will be facing war crimes charges.
Hyperbole? Not when you look all the material that's come out over the past few weeks showing how the Bush administration actively looked for ways to circumvent international law when it came to the detention and treatment of prisoners in its "war on terror."
Thanks to a few well-placed leaks, we've learned that the Justice Department and the president's legal counsel looked for loopholes in the Geneva Conventions, and concluded that they did not apply to the "unlawful combatants" captured in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Not only did President George W. Bush's legal staff conclude that the Geneva Conventions against torture didn't need to be adhered to by the President, they also concluded that anyone working for the U.S. government who tortured prisoners at the President's direction were immune from prosecution by the Justice Department.
In other words, in the name of "national security," President Bush decided he could ignore U.S. and international laws which prohibit the use of torture - and get away with it. That's why the category of "unlawful combatant" was created - an extralegal classification that doesn't appear in the Geneva Conventions. That's why prisoners are being held in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba - so that U.S. laws will not apply to them. And that's why the U.S. has refused to ratify a treaty to accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court - because the Bush administration doesn't not want to be punished for disobeying international law.
The President is above the law, as are Attorney General Ashcroft and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. They are permitted to set up their own set of laws, the Constitution be damned.
This is how dictatorships are born.
This is a far bigger matter than the torture of prisoners. To subscribe to this line of thinking means that when it comes to the President, no laws, treaties, courts or international bodies matter. He is the law. The law is what he says it is.
If you're not frightened by this, you're not paying attention.
This is what our founders rebelled against when they broke away from the British Empire. This is what they feared would happen if power was concentrated into the hands of one person. That is why we have a government with checks and balances.
But the Bush administration seems to consider the Constitution to be as "quaint" as the Geneva Conventions (to use the description of the Conventions given by White House counsel Alberto Gonzales).
There is a slight problem, though. The U.S. signed and ratified an international treaty in 1996 - the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
Any international treaty ratified by the U.S. carries the full force of law. That particular treaty states: "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or threat of war, internal political instability or any public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture."
The Bush administration seems to believe that it is justified in its well-documented torture and treatment of prisoners because it said it was necessary for national security. Under this convention, it is not.
The people who carried out these orders can't cop out and say "we were only following orders." That defense was decisively discredited in the Nuremberg war crimes trials after World War II.
Anyone involved in these abuses is legally liable - both the people who give the orders as well as those who carry them out. According to the aforementioned convention, those convicted of torture are subject to up to 20 years in prison. If torture results in death, the torturer may be subject to either execution or life imprisonment.
This isn't legal hair-splitting. This is the law.
It's time to ask ourselves what sort of country we wish to live in. A country where a president has dictatorial powers to set aside any law he wishes? A country where torture and the abuse of prisoners is approved policy? A country whose leaders have endangered our national interests and disgraced our reputation in the conduct of an endless war against an amorphous enemy?
This isn't my idea of America. I doubt that it's yours, either. It's time to demand true accountability. Everyone who is associated with this odious policy must answer for these actions. Putting the blame on a handful of enlisted men and women isn't going to cut it.
Since impeachment is a political impossibility and a war crimes tribunal is just a dream, there's only one solution - using the ballot box to remove President George W. Bush and his administration from office in November.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.