It was a dubious distinction for Indiana. Last month, the day after news that International Red Cross inspectors reported that detainees at the U.S. Naval base in Guantanamo were subjected to torture, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke at a news conference before a scheduled speech to the Economic Club of Indianapolis. Myers denied the U.S. has engaged in torture. The general said, "Let's not forget the kind of people we have down there (in Guantanamo). These are the people that don't know any moral values."
Moral values? There was more than a little irony in the nation's top military official invoking moral superiority. President Bush's team has little concern about either adherence to the rule of law or the avoidance of hypocrisy. As has been too often the case in its prosecution of the war on terror, the Bush administration hurls stones at enemies while taking shelter in a glass house created by its own dubious morality and credibility.
The Red Cross findings, which include reference to prisoner beatings, come on the heels of a series of disturbing events, including:
- Revelation of a letter by a senior Justice Department official suggesting the Pentagon ignored FBI complaints as far back as 2002 about physical and psychological harm caused to prisoners interrogated at Guantanamo, including a prisoner being gagged with duct tape and another intimidated with a dog;
- Bush officials transferring prisoners to countries who used brutal torture methods to obtain intelligence sought by the U.S.; and
- Justice Department memos advising the president on how to ignore international agreements and federal law prohibiting torture. Those memos include one authored by the president's attorney general nominee Alberto Gonzales referring to the Geneva Conventions as "quaint" and "obsolete."
The lawyers for the president have made the surreal and self-serving claim, contradicted by decades of explicit law, that inflicting extreme but impermanent pain does not amount to torture. Under the standard proposed by Bush's lawyers, holding a prisoner's head in a bucket of water to the brink of drowning, mock executions and food deprivation don't meet the definition of torture.
Through the Geneva Conventions, federal anti-torture law and our own proud domestic legacy of conducting investigations and detentions with due process of law, the United States has committed to humane treatment for all captured soldiers or criminals, no matter what their alleged moral failings.
And the accuracy of General Myers' blanket condemnation of the detainees is far from a given. Most of the Guantanamo detainees have still never been provided an opportunity to defend themselves from any charges.
Beyond the interests of mere due process and standards of decent behavior, mistreatment of prisoners is against the U.S. self-interest. Former American POWs have argued passionately that the conventions against torture are our own captured soldiers' best protection against abuse.
Especially since President Bush has explicitly cited Iraq's torture chambers as justification for our invasion of that country, U.S. credibility is undercut whenever our leaders ignore the standards we insist our global neighbors adhere to.
Americans need to demand that the Bush administration hold itself to our own standards of justice and decency, and not hide behind excuses that the "moral values' of the victims may somehow justify war crimes committed against them.
Fran Quigley is the executive director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union.