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The Humpty Dumpty gang

My piece from today’s Crikey has been reprinted at Webdiary, which means, I guess, that it’s probably OK to republish here.

Yesterday, the Washington Post gave Bob Woodward the front page for a story in which Susan J Crawford, the convening authority for Bush’s military commissions acknowledged the use of torture at Guantanamo Bay.

“We tortured [Mohammed al-]Qahtani,” she said.

She was referring to the treatment of a Saudi man who was kept nude in sustained isolation, deprived of sleep and exposed to cold, until his condition became “life threatening”.

As scoops go, this is hardly Watergate. The blogger Digby points out that Al-Qahtani’s interrogation logs were published in Time three years ago, while Dick Cheney, CIA Director Michael Hayden and George W. Bush himself have all acknowledged the use of waterboarding, a favoured torture technique of the Khmer Rouge.

No, the significance of Woodward’s article lies almost solely in Crawford’s use of the T word.

Throughout the Bush years, politicians and the media, both in Australia and abroad, have been prepared to play brazen Alice in Wonderland games with definitions. You’ll recall that Humpty Dumpty, a fellow who looks and sounds very much like Dick Cheney, scornfully explained to Alice: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”

That’s been the modus operandi of the Bush gang. You can admit to the use of stress positions, sleep deprivation, s-xual humiliation and the rest of it — brutalities long familiar from the dungeons of the most sinister regimes in the world — so long as you barefacedly announce, as Bush did in 2006: “The United States does not torture. It’s against our laws, and it’s against our values.”

Similarly, despite the Downing Street memo, Bush and Blair and Howard can, by defining “truth” in the narrowest possible fashion, insist that they never actually lied their way into Iraq. The world’s legal experts can state, in the clearest possible terms, that the invasion violated international law, yet because the good and the great rely on their own definition of legality, we see the war’s architects not in a dock but in grotesque ceremonies where they pin medals of freedom on each other.

Still, the Woodward story represents just one of many signs that a change is now afoot. For instance, if the T word constituted one of the great taboos of the Bush era, the I word was another. The rule for politicians and journalists was strict: one could not, despite all the evidence to the contrary, acknowledge that President Bush was a dribbling idiot. No, despite the gaffes, the bizarre press conferences and the weird facial contortions, the pundits all had to pretend that the man leading the free world was not a farting frat boy but rather a great reader, a historian and a thinker.

These days, though, everyone seems to be shouting that the Emperor has no brain. A few days ago, the Telegraph ran a column documenting the best-known Bushisms, a piece significant because it was authored not by Michael Moore or John Pilger but by Boris Johnson, London’s ferociously right-wing Mayor.

Of course, the real question is whether this new willingness to call things by their right names will translate into action. Take torture, for instance. A week ago, Charles “Chuckie” Taylor Jr, the son of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, received a sentence of 97 years gaol for torturing his opponents.

“It is hard to conceive of any more serious offenses against the dignity and the lives of human beings,” U.S. District Judge Cecilia M. Altonaga Altonaga said.

“The international community condemns torture.”

Matthew Friedrich from the the U.S. Justice Department’s criminal division released an equally stern statement. “Our message to human rights violators, no matter where they are, remains the same,’ he said.

“We will use the full reach of U.S. law … to hold you accountable for your crimes.”

One couldn’t agree more. So now that we have an admission that what took place in Guantanamo constituted torture, when do the prosecutions begin? The truth has long been available to anyone who wanted to see it. It’s well past time for the Humpty Dumpty gang to take their great fall.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Jeff Sparrow is the former editor of Overland. He is the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the author of Communism: a love story, Killing: Misadventures in violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn.  On Twitter, he's @Jeff_Sparrow.

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  1. There’s a good article on what the ramifications of Crawford’s remarks might be at Slate:
    “Whatever her reasons for speaking now—the fact that she chose to do so with a journalist whose name resonates around the globe and is indelibly associated with presidential criminality—itself changes the terms of the debate. Whether torture occurred and who was responsible will no longer be issues behind which senior members of the administration and their lawyers and policymakers can hide. The only real issue now is: What happens next?

    The answer to that question takes you to a very different place when the act is torture, as Crawford says it is. Under the 1984 Torture Convention, its 146 state parties (including the United States) are under an obligation to “ensure that all acts of torture are offences under its criminal law.” These states must take any person alleged to have committed torture (or been complicit or participated in an act of torture) who is present in their territories into custody. The convention allows no exceptions, as Sen. Pinochet discovered in 1998. The state party to the Torture Convention must then submit the case to its competent authorities for prosecution or extradition for prosecution in another country.

    The former chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces and general counsel for the Department of the Army has spoken. Her clear words have been picked up around the world. And that takes the prospects of accountability and criminal investigation onto another level. For the Obama administration, the door to the do-nothing option is now closed. That is why today may come to be seen as the turning point.”

  2. Thought this was an excellent article Jeff, and the piece in Slate raises interesting questions too. There was a piece in the SMH today as well by Cynthia Banham which starts off like this:
    “As the inauguration of Barack Obama draws closer, a debate rages in the United States: will he or won’t he act to bring to account the senior Bush Administration officials who authorised and promoted the use of torture?”
    http://www.smh.com.au/news/opinion/obama-faces-a-torturous-dilemma/2009/01/15/1231608880936.html
    It also raises the question of Australia’s role. Even with very little political will to pursue this I can see how someone like Rumsfeld might get got, but what about Ruddock, Downer and Howard? How would a legal case (with a reasonable chance of sucess) against them be made?

  3. Hi Chris,
    Glenn Greenwald’s been writing a lot about this in Salon. One of the points he makes is that there’s no pressure from the media for accountability partly because so many of the media stars are so heavily implicated in the Bush gang’s activities. The big name pundits promoted, supported and defended most of Bush and Cheney’s abuses and that’s one reason they’re all so keen to say that the debate must move on.
    As for Australia, I’d say the chances are approximately zero. Chomsky says somewhere that, if the Nuremberg laws were fairly applied, almost every US president would be in the dock. That’s a can of worms that no-one wnts to open.

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