- Campaign Posturing, Military Decision Making, and Administrative Amnesias
Freedom from torture is an inalienable human right. . . . Beating, burning, rape, and electric shock are some of the grisly tools such [rogue] regimes use to terrorize their own citizens.George W. Bush, June 26, 20031
When leaders have to deal with public anxieties over military decision making during times of war, their political quivers are filled with strategic arrows. Interestingly enough, part of their strategic arsenal includes rhetorical weaponry that tells us what we need to remember and what we need to forget. One such moment involved the Bush administration's handling of the political and military controversies that surfaced during the last election, when critics complained that U.S. officials condoned "torture" in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Cuba. Eyal Press of The Nation reported that in May 2004, the International Red Cross was publicizing the systematic abuse of Iraqi detainees by U.S. troops at Abu Ghraib prison. Members of the news media mentioned how captives were "'softened up'"—"thrown against walls, hooded, deprived of sleep, bombarded with light and bound in painful positions." Eyal Press, after juxtaposing this litany of activities against President Bush's cataloguing of prohibited torture methods, concluded that the "United States is willing to dehumanize its enemies in much the way that it complains Islamic terrorists dehumanize theirs."2 Administrators were accused of wrongfully framing this violence as a necessary "last resort," of leaving behind the sacred tenets of the UN Convention Against Torture, and of redefining the Western world's absolute ban on torture.
In this essay we focus our attention on what we believe to be one key thread in the selective tapestry of political arguments that appeared during the 2004 presidential election: the amnesias associated with prior presidential positions on torture. We contend that the Republican and the Democratic candidates faced political constraints that affected their strategic choices when commenting on the Bush doctrine and other U.S. practices concerning the use of torture. Indeed, at various times during the campaign, some journalists treated certain "torture" memos as politically explosive fragments that could influence [End Page 694] the election. Memos regarding the propriety of "torture" drafted by White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and Jay S. Bybee were seen as meaningful, possibly dramatic campaign issues. The role of cultural memory and political amnesia regarding these memos and "torture" in general is the focus of our comment.
In the decades before 9/11 many international texts outlined what constituted torture and coercive interrogation. The primary international law applied to prisoner-of-war status is the Geneva Convention of 1949, and the Geneva Convention III dictates, "Prisoners of war must at all times be humanely treated." This international standard also suggests that "physical and mental coercion" is strictly forbidden and prisoners may not "be threatened, insulted, or exposed to unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment" at any time.3
Since the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the international community sought to expand the definition of torture with Protocol I of 1977 to the Geneva Conventions and the 1984 Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In compliance with international law, the U.S. government broadened its conceptualization of torture with the federal anti-torture statute of 1994 and the War Crimes Act of 1996.
In addition to the international laws prohibiting the use of torture and other interrogation techniques, the U.S. Army field manual ironically adheres to a more capacious definition of what constitutes torture by providing an exhaustive account of specific actions outlawed. In accordance with the Geneva Conventions and all other U.S. law, the manual "expressly prohibits acts of violence or intimidation, including physical and mental torture, threats, insults, or exposure to inhumane treatment as a means of or aid to interrogation."4 Since U.S. policy subsumes international law, any form of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of POWs is not permissible or condoned by the U.S. government. It would seem then that all international and U.S. policies regarding torture assume that lesser forms of interrogation methods like the ones used at Abu Ghraib are also covered as illegal.