The 1992 movie, A Few Good Men, revolves around the death of a U.S. marine based at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The movie is readily available and the catch phrase, “You can’t handle the truth!” entered into the popular lexicon a long time ago.
The climactic scene in the movie has our hero, a Navy lawyer played by Tom Cruise, grilling the base commander, Col. Nathan Jessup, on the death of the Marine. It turns out that the Marine was inadvertently killed by his fellow Marines in a “Code Red”, a punishment administered by the Marine’s comrades for various lapses in stamina and discipline and ordered by the Base Commander, Col. Jessup. Col. Jessup then proceeds to cover up the true cause of death, with the assistance of the base physician and other personnel under his command. Tom Cruise eventually gets the Colonel to admit his role in the Marine’s death and justice is done, but not before we get the following screed from Col. Jessup testifying on the stand:
“I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it.”
A Few Good Men is just a movie - Hollywood fiction. Still, Col. Jessup’s justification for his actions is, I believe, fully on display for all the world to see from members and defenders of the Bush administration today. I was spurred to write this after seeing former Vice President Dick Cheney’s recent interviews, reading numerous op-ed pieces in various publications, and hearing President Obama’s recent remarks after the release of the Office of Legal Counsel’s “torture memos”.
So let’s take a look at some real, incontrovertible facts:
- Prisoners captured on the battlefield include both those captured by American forces and those turned over to American forces by various militias and other armed groups. A bounty was paid to these militias for at least some of these prisoners.
- At one time or another, 759 prisoners had spent time at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The prisoners were held as “Enemy Combatants” and the U.S. administration held the position that the prisoners were not Prisoners of War and therefore not entitled to protections under the Geneva Convention, nor were they criminal defendants entitled to any legal protections under U.S. Laws.
- Prisoners were held at “Black Sites” by the CIA in various undisclosed foreign locations, while also passing through military bases and airports on foreign soil.
- Some prisoners held at Guantanamo and “Black Sites” were subjected to what have been called “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques”. These techniques include: stress positions, slapping, simulated drowning (waterboarding), sleep deprivation, extreme cold and being slammed repeatedly into a wall.
- Canadian citizen Maher Arar was detained at JFK airport in New York by U.S. officials, held for approximately 10 days, then secretly flown to Syria where he was held for ten months. Arar claims that he was beaten and tortured. The Canadian government has apologized to Arar for his treatment and pronounced him completely innocent of any wrongdoing.
- Prisoners have been released from Guantanamo Bay by the U.S. government after being held for extended periods of time with no charges being filed. Some of these prisoners have claimed to have been subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques”. Most released prisoners have not been charged with any crime, but all have been deprived of their liberty by virtue of being incarcerated.
This is just a quick summary that I hope any fair minded, literate and reasonable person would readily acknowledge. There is a laundry list of other assertions that could be debated, but these are in the public record, and are well established from multiple sources. Now comes the sticky part.
I’ve heard Dick Cheney and his ilk acknowledge these events, but excuse their implications with the idea that they were necessary to keep America safe. I’ve heard various pundits describe these events as not amounting to torture because there was not lasting physical or psychological harm. I’ve even heard the idea floated that torturing prisoners is necessary to help them accomplish their religious vision of holding out for as long as possible before they give up the information that we are looking for. The arguments that I hear seem to fall into some combination of these categories:
- Efficacy: Torture works and the information gained is necessary to save innocent lives. We serve the greater good in using torture to get information that we need to protect America.
- “Enhanced Interrogation” does not equal torture: Because the health of the prisoner and the effect of these techniques were closely monitored and these techniques were used in our own military training where no long lasting psychological or physical damage has been documented, they are not really torture.
- The ticking time bomb: Standard interrogation techniques used on terrorist suspects or prisoners of war would not yield the information we need in a timely manner to avoid further attacks. Innocents will die unless we torture right now!
- These prisoners are neither soldiers nor criminals: Because these prisoners are in legal limbo, the U.S. is not required to follow standard POW procedures or criminal statutes. Neither Geneva Convention protocols nor criminal statutes apply.
- The President is Commander-in-Chief: As the leader of U.S. armed forces, the decisions of the Commander in Chief are not subject to Congressional oversight or Judicial review. The President is not accountable to any other branch of government or to the American people, other than through the electoral process.
I could go through each of these arguments in detail and try to refute them point by point, although I am not a law enforcement professional, lawyer or constitutional scholar. Let me just ask this basic question: How many innocent people is it acceptable to subject to these procedures before it becomes morally wrong?
My answer is zero. I guess that’s easy, since I have framed the question as innocent people.
So, how many "non-innocent" people is it morally acceptable to subject to these procedures? I believe the answer is the same: zero.
I will not rely on the arguments about efficacy, or try to split legal hairs on what separates “torture” from “tough interrogation”, or attempt to put human beings into categories so we can decide what level of humanity is appropriate. I believe that it is morally wrong to subject people to torture. Period. I think the U.S. should serve as a beacon to the world and should embody our best ideals, not search for legal fig leaves to hide our worst impulses behind fictitious legalese as a short cut to trampling on universal human rights.
I believe the CIA and military personnel who carried out their missions and acted in good faith under the legal guidance of their superiors deserve our sympathy, as they have been asked to perform immoral duties in pursuit of a noble cause.
I believe that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Addington, Bybee, Yoo and any other members of the Bush administration that directed and abetted this rape of human rights should be investigated and tried according to a strict application of our Constitution. I want to see them confronted with their crimes and forced to defend themselves, not for vengeance, but for justice.
This is the truth, as I see it. Can we handle the truth?
I don't think this piece really captures the depth of my anger at the actions that our government has taken in our name. I have tried to maintain a sense of decorum.
I think that even those who may disagree with my conclusions will at least have to assent to the validity of the argument. Still, one never knows. Maybe you, the reader, will give some guidance.