The God of Torture

Thursday, October 13th, 2005

Look! It’s the Energizer President! On and on he goes, never departing from script.

“We’re facing,” he said, about the same time that he was threatening to veto the Senate’s anti-torture amendment, “a radical ideology with unalterable objectives: to enslave whole nations and intimidate the world.”

In the closed circuit of George Bush’s innocence, he may well have no idea that the United States under his watch — military heavy, pre-emptive invader, keeper of Abu Ghraib — has become in the world’s eyes the embodiment of the very bogeyman he keeps warning us about. Even as his own party unravels, he continues to cudgel us with scare tactics. Guess he has no choice; without our collective fear intact, his ends-justify-the-means agenda is lost.

But torture?

Ninety senators, including 46 Republicans, couldn’t take it anymore. They got behind ex-POW John McCain’s amendment to the $440 billion military spending bill and voted to affirm a value almost everyone would have called, until a few years ago, unassailably American:

“No individual in the custody or under the physical control of the United States Government, regardless of nationality or physical location, shall be subject to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment,” the amendment reads in part.

That such language should be controversial rends the prevailing complacency. Look at how far and how quickly we’ve drifted from our national moorings. This is the power of fear. When a true believer gets ahold of it, nothing is sacred.

And born-again Bush, as the BBC alerted us last week, is possessed with the fire of the Lord. “I am driven with a mission from God,” he told Palestinian delegates to an Israeli-Palestinian summit conference in 2003. “God would tell me, ‘George, go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan.’ And I did. And then God would tell me, ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.’ And I did.”

As far as we know, in Bush World, torture is divinely sanctioned as well. As a private citizen, of course, he can believe whatever he wants. But he’s our president! How can this be? In his self-righteousness and disconnected zeal, he’s precisely the type of leader our country was designed to keep from power. What happened?

A year and a half after the Abu Ghraib scandal shocked the world, torture and arbitrary, indefinite detention are still SOP in occupied Iraq and Guantanamo Bay. The White House claims it needs the “flexibility” that water-boarding, sexual humiliation and similar interrogation techniques give it — as though three years of such flexibility have produced results.

The ignorance on display here is fundamental. The principled stand against cruel and degrading punishment is a strength, not a weakness. The Bush administration, in failing to understand this, is bleeding America of its moral vitality and reducing it to a state of abject, bullying weakness. Scott Galindez, writing for, asks, “So is that the noble cause our soldiers are dying for? The right to torture Iraqis?”

McCain, speaking about the amendment, discussed his own experience as a POW in Vietnam: “Many of my comrades were subjected to very cruel, very inhumane and degrading treatment — a few of them even unto death. But every one of us, every single one of us, knew and took great strength from the belief that we were different from our enemies, that we were better than them, that we, if the roles were reversed, would not disgrace ourselves by committing or countenancing such mistreatment of them.”

How dare the president deprive this nation of its moral strength? What will the long-term consequences be?

At Guantanamo Bay, between 200 and 500 detainees are well into the second month of a hunger strike to protest the ghastly limbo the Bush administration has consigned them to; 21 are being force-fed. They’re shackled to their beds with feeding tubes pushed up their noses and into their stomachs, according to Reuters.

The hunger strike is all the detainees have left: “Look, I’m dying a slow death in this place as it is,” said one of them, a Libyan national, as quoted by his lawyer to the New York Times. “I don’t have any hope of fair treatment, so what have I got to lose?”

This is happening in our name, against the will of the vast majority of the population. A year and a half after the lurid photos of our interrogational excesses shocked the world, little or nothing has changed. The president claims to listen to God. What will it take to make him listen to us?