By TIM RUTTEN
November 3, 2007
AMONG the news media's many failings, none may be more pernicious than
the persistent confusion between fairness and moral indifference.
Regular readers of Regarding Media may recall that the late Edward R.
Murrow delivered about the best possible judgment on this confusion's
impact, when he decried a faux notion of journalistic fairness that is
willing to concede "the word of Judas equal weight with that of Jesus."
It's the kind of he-said-she-said news coverage that would have reported
the Sermon on the Mount this way: "On a mountainside in Galilee today, a
popular young rabbi argued that 'the meek shall inherit the earth.'
Other religious authorities, however, pointed out that if God did not
want the rich to fleece the poor, he would not have allowed them to
behave like sheep."
This week, Americans were treated to their latest rehearsal of this
phony fairness in the coverage of U.S. Atty. Gen.-designate Michael B.
Mukasey's attempts to win Senate confirmation. President George W. Bush
hopes to replace the haplessly sycophantic Alberto Gonzales with the
former federal judge from New York, but the nomination is in trouble
because Mukasey refuses to tell members of the Senate's Judiciary
Committee whether he believes waterboarding is torture and, therefore,
President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are insistent that any
discussion of the issue is precluded by the exigencies of national
security and the war on terror. Cut to the core of their real argument,
however, and it boils down to the naked assertion that whatever the
president says is legal is legal -- including torture, which isn't
torture, if the president says it isn't.
As the Washington Post, which has done more than any other news outlet
to bring to light this administration's construction of a secret gulag
where torture is routine, reported this week: "Waterboarding generally
involves strapping a prisoner to a board, covering his face or mouth
with a cloth, and pouring water over his face to create the sensation of
drowning, human rights groups say. The practice dates at least to the
Spanish Inquisition and has been prosecuted as torture in U.S. military
courts since the Spanish-American War. The State Department has
condemned its use in other countries.
"Officials have said the Bush administration authorized the use of
waterboarding on at least three prisoners kept in secret detention by
the CIA after the Justice Department said it was legal, including
alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed."
The Post might have added that after World War II, the United States
prosecuted Japanese officers who had presided over waterboarding as war
So what we have here is a president and vice president who want to
install as the country's chief law enforcement official a man who
refuses to flatly say that the United States of America should not
torture people. Putting aside the surreal question of how our elected
officials ever equivocated themselves into a debate over whether to
torture, the descent of most of the press into comfortable euphemism
this week has been a stomach-turning experience.
The New York Times, for example, reported that Mukasey's confirmation is
"in doubt over his refusal to state a clear legal position on a
classified Central Intelligence Agency program to interrogate terrorism
suspects . . ." Yet nothing about this impasse has anything real to do
with classification or intelligence work; it has everything to do with
whether we now wish to place our nation among those that ignore basic
human rights and elemental moral decency as a matter of state policy.
Meanwhile, this newspaper and others repeatedly described waterboarding
as a "harsh technique" or as a "coercive measure." It is neither of
those things. It is torture, and the refusal to make that point each and
every time this repugnant practice comes up is a form of rhetorical
squeamishness indistinguishable from moral cowardice.
Strangely enough, this week's clearest statement of what the fight in
Washington is really all about didn't appear in any newspaper or
broadcast news outlet, but on an Internet site (
www.smallwarsjournal.com) popular with unconventional warfare and
intelligence professionals. The author is Malcolm W. Nance, a veteran
special operations consultant to various U.S. intelligence agencies and
a master instructor in the U.S. Navy's Survival, Evasion, Resistance and
Escape (SERE) program in San Diego. Nance also is an experienced
Arabic-speaking interrogator. He wrote that one of the things he did
when helping to develop the program that trains navy fliers and others
on how to stand up to torture was to visit Cambodia:
"Before arriving for my assignment at SERE, I traveled . . . to visit
the torture camps of the Khmer Rouge. . . . I wanted to know how real
torturers and terror camp guards would behave and learn how to resist
them from survivors of such horrors. . . . It was in the S-21 death camp
known as Tuol Sleng in downtown Phnom Penh, where I found a perfectly
intact inclined water board. Next to it was the painting on how it was
used. . . .
"On a Mekong River trip, I met a 60-year-old man, happy to be alive and
a cheerful travel companion, who survived the genocide and torture. He
spoke openly about it and gave me a valuable lesson. . . . In torture,
he confessed to being a hermaphrodite, a CIA spy, a Buddhist Monk, a
Catholic Bishop and the son of the king of Cambodia. He was actually
just a schoolteacher whose crime was that he once spoke French. He
remembered 'the Barrel' version of waterboarding quite well. Head first
until the water filled the lungs, then you talk."
Nance has no time for euphemisms and no doubt that waterboarding is
anything other than torture: "Unless you have been strapped down to the
board, have endured the agonizing feeling of the water overpowering your
gag reflex, and then feel your throat open and allow pint after pint of
water to involuntarily fill your lungs, you will not know the meaning of
the word. Waterboarding is a controlled drowning that, in the American
model, occurs under the watch of a doctor, a psychologist, an
interrogator and a trained strap-in/strap-out team. It does not simulate
drowning, as the lungs are actually filling with water. There is no way
to simulate that. The victim is drowning. How much the victim is to
drown depends on the desired result (in the form of answers to questions
shouted into the victim's face) and the obstinacy of the subject. A team
doctor watches the quantity of water that is ingested and for the
physiological signs which show when the drowning effect goes from
painful psychological experience, to horrific suffocating punishment to
the final death spiral.
"Waterboarding is slow motion suffocation with enough time to
contemplate the inevitability of black out and expiration -- usually the
person goes into hysterics on the board. For the uninitiated, it is
horrifying to watch and if it goes wrong, it can lead straight to
terminal hypoxia. When done right, it is controlled death. Its lack of
physical scarring allows the victim to recover and be threatened with
its use again and again."
That's what really is at issue in the Mukasey confirmation hearing. When
the media characterize it as a political struggle between the White
House and congressional Democrats or as a complex debate over national
security in a post Sept. 11 world -- two convenient dodges -- they
aren't being realistic or fair. What the media really are doing is
engaging in a sophisticated fan dance -- a convenient act of concealment.
What's really at stake is whether this country will continue to stand
with the framers of our Constitution and our authentic moral traditions
or whether we now will allow Bush and Cheney to put us shoulder to
shoulder with Pol Pot.
Monday, November 5, 2007
Posted by admin at 8:19 PM