America, the land of compassionate torture
September 29, 2006
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Declaration of Independence, 1776
“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Animal Farm, by George Orwell, 1945
On the morning after Christmas, 1776, George Washington staged a battle that would be the turning point of the American Revolution. At that point, the success of this colonial rebellion was considered a long shot at best. Upon his victory at Trenton, New Jersey, General Washington’s army was left in possession of 221 enemy prisoners.
“Treat them with humanity,” he told his officers, “and let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren.”
With that, Washington set forth that this new nation’s ideas would exist not only on paper, but in our actions as well. He could have executed them as the British had done to his troops, or tortured them to find where the British forces would strike next.
But he didn’t. The idea that these revolutionaries were fighting for was the most potent weapon they had. And even though Washington was beaten militarily in most battles, he won the war, based on this idea that human beings should be above such brutality.
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That idea lived on for nearly 230 years, until this week. The U.S. Congress, at the behest of the president, declared that the torture and indefinite imprisonment without trial of anyone who we think might be the enemy was no longer against our principles.
Those who composed the rushed, muddled language of this new law in the back rooms of the Capitol will claim it means no such thing, just as the pigs in Orwell’s totalitarian classic claimed that all animals were equal.
From the same compassionate conservatives who are neither conservative nor compassionate, we now have a new brand of torture that is not torture. The legislation essentially gives the president power to define what constitutes torture, and keeps detainees from being able to challenge their detention. In practice, a suspect could be thrown in a secret prison without trial and abused just short of death for the rest of his or her life, with no oversight from anyone.
If there were a rule requiring truthful labeling of legislation, this would be called the KGB Act.
Those who would shed our principles on a whim say we must “take off the gloves” to defeat our enemy. The British probably said the same thing as they chased after General Washington’s army. A number of colonial voices urged Washington to do the same, that he couldn’t afford to be civil to his enemy. Washington stuck by principle, and principle won. In the end, principle always wins.
These principles Washington fought for are not outdated. If anything, they are more important today than when our first commander-in-chief had the courage to stand by them in the face of great adversity.
We are in a war against extremism, and we can’t win by becoming extremists. The world needs the lone superpower to lead by example, to wear the white hat and do what is right and fair and good.
Battles are won militarily, but wars must be won politically. There are only a few thousand Islamic terrorists against whom we fight our current battles, while the real war is for the hearts and minds of the 1 billion Muslims in the world, and the 5 billion non-Muslims. If we aren’t the ones wearing the white hats, then they will look elsewhere.
The ditching of our core values sends a message to the world that morality is relative. It’s this kind of moral relativism for which conservatives have long been criticized. Yet it seems many of them – and a few liberals, too – are now caught up in wanting to look tough for voters worried about the war we are seemingly not winning.
The methods we use to win this war will reflect greatly on the kind of world we end up with when the fighting stops. If we want to show the world that people can live together without killing and torturing each other, then we need to set that example. The world isn’t going to listen to us pleading to do what we say, not what we do.
• Kirk Caraway is Internet editor of the Nevada Appeal. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or comment online at nevadaappeal.com.