Thursday, September 28, 2006

An Editorial Worth Reading

About the proposed bill on the treatment of detainees in the war against terror (an emotion, by the way) is in the New York Times. I particularly liked the list of problems the bill has:

These are some of the bill's biggest flaws:

Enemy Combatants: A dangerously broad definition of "illegal enemy combatant" in the bill could subject legal residents of the United States, as well as foreign citizens living in their own countries, to summary arrest and indefinite detention with no hope of appeal. The president could give the power to apply this label to anyone he wanted.

The Geneva Conventions: The bill would repudiate a half-century of international precedent by allowing Mr. Bush to decide on his own what abusive interrogation methods he considered permissible. And his decision could stay secret — there's no requirement that this list be published.

Habeas Corpus: Detainees in U.S. military prisons would lose the basic right to challenge their imprisonment. These cases do not clog the courts, nor coddle terrorists. They simply give wrongly imprisoned people a chance to prove their innocence.

Judicial Review: The courts would have no power to review any aspect of this new system, except verdicts by military tribunals. The bill would limit appeals and bar legal actions based on the Geneva Conventions, directly or indirectly. All Mr. Bush would have to do to lock anyone up forever is to declare him an illegal combatant and not have a trial.

Coerced Evidence: Coerced evidence would be permissible if a judge considered it reliable — already a contradiction in terms — and relevant. Coercion is defined in a way that exempts anything done before the passage of the 2005 Detainee Treatment Act, and anything else Mr. Bush chooses.

Secret Evidence: American standards of justice prohibit evidence and testimony that is kept secret from the defendant, whether the accused is a corporate executive or a mass murderer. But the bill as redrafted by Mr. Cheney seems to weaken protections against such evidence.

Offenses: The definition of torture is unacceptably narrow, a virtual reprise of the deeply cynical memos the administration produced after 9/11. Rape and sexual assault are defined in a retrograde way that covers only forced or coerced activity, and not other forms of nonconsensual sex. The bill would effectively eliminate the idea of rape as torture.

These are serious problems. If applied in an extreme form this bill would make us all completely helpless against the government. A neighbor could disappear and nothing could be done to even find out where he went. Do we really want to live in a world like that? Is that what we are willing to pay to be safe? And what if we still will not be safe? Terrorists are willing to die to kill others, and I very much doubt that they'd be stopped by the fear of torture in American prisons.

Clearly, the concept of being regarded innocent until proven guilty cannot apply in a system which doesn't allow the accused to defend himself or herself properly or to seek a judicial hearing in a civil court. But what replaces this judgement? Who decides on the guilt or innocence of a person? Who safeguards the rights of the innocent? Or do the innocent no longer have any rights at all? Are we really so afraid that we are willing to apprehend and possibly torture innocent people and to deprive them of any real opportunity of proving their innocence? I find this ghastlier than words can convey.

Then the whole concept of torturing people, not to mention the new definitions of rape and sexual assault. The common counterargument is that torturing an evil terrorist may reveal a plot which will save thousands of lives. Whether it would in fact do this is not so clear, given that those tortured might say almost anything to stop the pain. But think about how many innocent people you would be willing to torture to save thousands of lives. Thousands of them, too?

Surely bin Laden is winning. The values of Western civilization are being tossed off like so much unnecessary weight on a mad ride to a war, and what do we get in their place? Values which bin Laden would approve of: kill and torture as you will, stomp on human rights and the centuries-long tradition of habeas corpus.

I have finally understood what Conservatives mean with that insistent repetition of "9/11 changed everything". What they mean is a total willingness to dispense with the good values of the Western tradition, to embrace the darkest side of our selves and to sell out almost everything we value for the vain promise of safety.