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I (almost) believe in evil againPosted Wednesday, February 20, 2008, at 6:34 PM
I don't quite believe in evil -- which is not to say I don't believe evil things happen. I've been an avid reader of the news since I was about 12. I know that every minute of every day there are many people in many places doing unspeakably horrible things to many other people. It's just that I don't think some force called evil is *making* those things happen. What we call evil is more a complex set of personal, political, ideological, religious forces, factors and histories all coming to expression in the cruel and/or diabolical acts that make the front page or the evening newscast.
So of course I can see why people are tempted to believe in evil. It's much easier to say, for one thing. It's much easier to think about. It's a problem that's easier to oppose than to understand.
But now I'm tempted to give the concept of evil a second chance, at least in a very specific case: The Bush administration's use of torture and its attempts to justify the use of torture.
I haven't read Glenn Greenwald's new book, "A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency," but I suspect I might agree with its argument. Bush seems to adhere to an absolute, unbending belief in Good and Evil, which is an extreme version of the common sense of good and evil. Absolute belief in Good and Evil seems to lead to a disturbing phenomemon: Each side begins to resemble the other. Blindfolded, we might have trouble knowing which is which.
George Bush has been assuring us regularly and with great passion since September 11, 2001, that evil exists, that evil-doers are out to get us and that only by following his lead can we defeat evil and its doers. Implicit, so certain that it doesn't merit mention, is that Mr. Bush is good.
But in his moral certainty and sense of righteous mission, our president succumbed to the old trap that hubris always lays for its victims. Our government has resorted -- in the name of good, in the interest of protecting the American people -- to torturing our enemies. But torture, like the terrorism it's being used to combat, is an unredeemable technique.
Our president has become what he professes to abhor.
Critics of the administration have long suspected torture was used early on in Bush's war on terrorism; some claim its still routinely a feature of the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay; and of course the photos from Abu Ghraib confirmed it. But until this past week the administration adamantly denied that it condoned torture.
Then intelligence chief John Negroponte spilled the beans and the adminstration officials decided they better add some spin to the mix to see if they could yet again avoid taking responsibility for violating the moral standards of the nation, not to mention U.S. and international law.
Prior to Negroponte's confession, the administration line went like this: We don't torture. We can't discuss techniques because that would tip off the terrorists. We can't say whether waterboarding is torture because that would tip off the terrorists.
Now, White House spokesman Tony Fratto tweaks the official line thusly: "Fratto said waterboarding's use in the past was also approved by the attorney general, meaning it was legal and not torture. Officials fear calling waterboarding torture or illegal could expose government employees to criminal or civil charges or even international war crimes charges."
Note that it is not the fact that by universal consensus waterboard is considered repugnant and cruel -- even Attorney General Michael Mukasey admits that if he was subjected to waterboarding he would consider it torture -- that makes the administration relunctant to admit to it. It's the fact that it might result in criminal charges.
In essence, the administration is trying to invoke a kind of blanket Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination against everyone who authorized or participated in waterboarding and other torture techniques. It's sort of like a robber saying, "Well, I did transfer funds in an extraordinary manner, but my partner in crime assures me that it's legal under the circumstances to do so and therefore is not robbery."
Can you imagine a cop falling for that? Me, either. And I'm not falling for the Bush administration spin designed to convince us that when it allows torture it's legal because its legal counsel says so.
I read these things and I'm suddenly born back to my years growing up in a conservative Iowa household during the Cold War. As a teenager I read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, George Orwell's 1984 and Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. I learned from those books and from my deeply patriotic parents that only enemies of freedom, totalitarian dictators and their thugs, the most evident and immediate incarnations of evil, would resort to torture to satisfy sadistic cravings and inflict whole populations with a paralyzing fear that would allow them to be more easily controlled.
Now that suspicions about our administration have been confirmed by the administration itself -- now that it's clear our government has more in common with those ruthless old Commies than this naive Iowa boy would ever have imagined possible, I think its time to dust off the idea of evil and put it back into play.
And now that the head of our Justice Department has declined to initiate an investigation into the use of waterboarding, presumably because members of the staff might be implicated, I wonder if Congress will finally finally take some action.
Even the Republicans in Congress should be willing to hold this administration accountable, if not for reasons of morality and honor then for the practical polical expedient: The flagrant violations of law and the nation's principles perpetrated by the Bush administration are going to haunt the GOP at the polls for a generation if they don't do the right thing. And soon.
I know it a drastic step, and not one I relish the thought of, devisive as it will certainly be, but it seems to me the only acceptable, legal and moral recourse available, a step that even most of the administration's fiercest critics (self included) have been reluctant to advocate until now, is impeachment.
For both Bush and Cheney, partners in crime.
Seems like the least our legislators could do. I know it seems melodramatic, but the more I think about it the more I believe that the soul of the nation is at stake here -- not just how we're viewed by the rest of the world but how we're able to see ourselves.
The Constitutional standard for impeachment, the commission of "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors" seems to be adequately met by the admission that agents of the government have been authorized to torture prisoners. If torture of any kind and for any reason isn't enough to justify impeachment, I despair for our future. It's a very blatantly defiance of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, if nothing else. And violating the Constitution isn't enough, shouldn't blatant acts of evil do the trick?
Our leaders often demand accountability in others. We have not only the right but the obligation to demand that they be held accountable.
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Eric Crump is a former editor of The Marshall Democrat-News. He lives elsewhere now but still loves Marshall and Saline County. He's trying to catch up on all the stories he should have written while he was on staff.
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