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The Truth, Mainly - 07/03/2006

Where Does the Torture Buck Stop?

Alan Dershowitz, lawyer and Harvard Law School prof, as talented and respected as he is, has not been one of my favorite sources on how we ought to be conducting our current war.

I suppose it's his sense of realpolitik that rubs raw the delicate sensibilities of fuzzy-minded English majors like me. Especially when we interpret him as being tolerant of torture, maybe even advocating its use.

I'm a serious claustrophobe so I still get the fantods when I remember the death of an Iraqi general last winter when he was forced by a U.S. warrant officer to get inside a sleeping bag with his head where his feet should have been. He died there in the sleeping bag of a heart attack that was probably brought on by his claustrophobia.

I wasn't my sunny-dispositioned self for more than a month. Any claustrophobe out there will know what I mean.

So I'm a hard sell when Dershowitz—or anyone else—tries to justify torture. Iíll say it again: Dershowitz has not been one of my favorite sources on how we ought to be conducting our war.

For example, shortly after 9/11 he had a piece in the LA Times called "Is There a Torturous Road to Justice?" in which he argues that we should consider using "torture warrants" against our enemies, assuming we could figure out who they were.

You can imagine how well a proposal to legitimize torture by issuing "torture warrants" went down with a whole lot of the American population, not all of them English majors either.

But then I listened to Dershowitz holding forth last week on NPR's "Morning Edition." His remarks boiled down to this: If President Bush wants to allow torture, he ought to be required to sign torture warrants—which would make it clear that, as the sign on Harry Truman's presidential desk stated so elegantly sixty years ago: "The buck stops here."

Here's what Dershowitz said last Tuesday:

"I think torture will be used—and has, in fact, been used—whenever it is felt that by torturing an obviously guilty terrorism suspect, the lives of multiple people could be saved. The problem is that today, torture is being used promiscuously, and we deny we're using it."

If we would admit we use torture and make rules on how to do it, he said, that would create "visibility and accountability. And that's what we lack today."

When asked what kind of torture should be permitted, he said "That's exactly what has to be debated. It's a very unpleasant debate."

The Truth, Mainly


Not the kind of problem that makes English majors comfortable.

And here's Dershowitz' argument for requiring the president to sign torture warrants: "If the president of the United States thinks torture's absolutely essential to defend the lives of thousands of people, he ought to be on the line. He ought to have to sign a torture warrant in which he says, 'I'm taking responsibility for breaking the law, for violating treaties, for doing an extraordinary act of necessity.' That's a responsibility only the president should be able to take, and only in the most extraordinary situation."

He goes on:

"Right now, we have the worst of all possible situations: We deny we're using torture, we're using it, everybody can deny they have any role in it. We can't trace it. So we punish a couple of people at Abu Ghraib….There were low-visibility, low-level people and we used methods that no democracy should ever use and everybody says, 'Well, it wasnít my fault, it was some low-level dog handler.'"

I still get sick to my English-major stomach at the notion of legalizing torture, but it now seems to me that Dershowitz's position is not that we should use torture, but that if we do we should make damned sure that the buck stops with the Commander-in-Chief.

And if we can't stomach the things that have gone on at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, if we're fed up with smothering POWs by putting them in sleeping bags with their heads where their feet should be, then is it time to go after a Commander-in-Chief who tolerates, maybe even orders, such activity?

We impeached our previous president for a tawdry affair which his wife apparent forgave him for. If the buck still stops at the President's desk, is it time to consider torture as serious a crime as a tawdry affair?


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is: leonsatterfield@earthlink.net.


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