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William Rivers Pitt: Minimum Standards

Minimum Standards

By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Wednesday 12 July 2006

BBC News reported it this way: "All US military detainees, including those at Guantanamo Bay, are to be treated in line with the minimum standards of the Geneva Conventions. The White House announced the shift in policy on Tuesday, almost two weeks after the US Supreme Court ruled that the conventions applied to detainees."

A small thing, one would think. We have been told time and again, after all, that we are engaged in a "War on Terror," and the rules of war should therefore apply. The fact that we are also fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan further simplifies the issue.

With the Bush administration, however, nothing is so straightforward. The administration argument, on the surface, has been that because "terrorists" are affiliated with no official government, they do not fall under the umbrella of Geneva protections.

The real reason for the denial of protections, though, was the Cheney-born insistence that the powers of the executive are plenary and not to be restricted in any way. Holding people indefinitely without trial while subjecting them to torture, therefore, was a marvelous way to establish the precedent of limitless power.

We caught a glimpse of the mind-set behind this whole process on Tuesday afternoon. The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the Hamden v. Rumsfeld Supreme Court ruling, the one that has ostensibly turned the Bush administration's war doctrine on its ear and has motivated them to grant minimum Geneva protections to prisoners.

Senator Patrick Leahy was grilling Steven Bradbury, acting head of Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel, on the legal and ethical basis for Guantanamo in general and the treatment of prisoners specifically. Pressed into a corner by Leahy's questioning as to whether Bush was right or wrong in his decisions on the matter, Bradbury finally stated, "The president is always right."

Mr. Bradbury, it appears, did not get the memo.

Tuesday's Washington Post laid out the myriad ways in which, all of a sudden, the president is being forced to admit that he has been, almost comprehensively, always wrong. "Accustomed to having its way on matters related to the nation's security," reported the Post, "the administration is being forced to respond to criticism that it once brushed aside. The high court ruling rejected the White House's assertion that the president has nearly unlimited executive powers during a time of war, and now executive branch lawyers are reviewing whether other rules adopted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon will have to be revised, especially those concerning the Geneva Conventions."

Much of this is, in the end, short-term analysis and observation. After picking through the detritus left behind in arguments over executive power, the inside baseball of political positioning, and the strange absolutism of Justice Department attorneys, we come around again to looking at long-term ramifications.

Granting minimum protection standards under Geneva to prisoners cannot and must not have anything to do with the exact circumstances of the detention of a prisoner, or the modern elastic definitions of war, or the desires of an administration to establish unlimited power. While the need to gather necessary intelligence and information on the disposition of terrorist elements is undeniable, the need for adherence to the rule of law on this issue goes far beyond constitutional platitudes.

The book Ghost Soldiers, by Hampton Sides, gives us all the reasons we need for stating, without equivocation, that adherence to Geneva protections is essential beyond any niceties of legal argument. Keeping to Geneva, simply, is a matter of national security and an absolute necessity whenever we have our own soldiers deployed in combat situations far from home.

"Ghost Soldiers" describes the horrifying ordeal endured by the American soldiers captured after the Japanese takeover of the Philippines in 1942. Tens of thousands of soldiers were trapped on the Bataan peninsula after the surrender of American forces, and the survivors were corralled into wretched prison camps after enduring the infamous "Bataan Death March."

During that march, and for years afterwards, these American prisoners were subjected to unspeakable acts of torture. They were starved, denied medicines for basic illnesses, beaten, shot, and eviscerated with bayonets. Many were killed because they were deemed to be less than human by their captors; the Bushido warrior code of Japan considered the surrender of any soldier to be beneath contempt, and any soldier who did so was unworthy of anything resembling humane treatment.

The Japanese Imperial Army, in the end, was playing a very dangerous game. By allowing its soldiers to consider captives less than human, by allowing the torture and murder of prisoners to take place on a large scale, Japan opened itself up to potentially terrifying reprisals. Any captured Japanese soldier faced the immediate threat of being the receptacle for outraged revenge at the hands of an American who knew what happened at Bataan.

So it is today. America has soldiers in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those soldiers run the risk of capture, and further run the risk of capture by individuals who know all about Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Thus, we enter into a tit-for-tat game where the stakes are paid out in blood and screams. You torture us, so we torture you.

The Bush administration, under duress, has finally decided that the minimum standards of the Geneva Conventions are worth paying attention to. They did not do this because it is right, because it is moral, or because they know that doing so affords a small margin of security to troops in the field. They did so because their hand was forced, and there is no guarantee that their words on the matter will be followed up by actual deeds.

We have all, it seems, come to accept minimum standards these days. There is no need for the rule of law, no need to adhere to the constitution or to Geneva, no need to think about the safety of our soldiers should they be captured, no need to consider the bloody wheel of history where torture and mistreatment have been involved. The president, after all, is always right.


William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence.

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