July 30, 2007
On Friday, July 20, President Bush issued an executive order that seems designed mainly to protect members of his administration from prosecution once he leaves office. At least, that’s the most charitable interpretation I can put on it. The order interprets Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions in such a way that torture by the CIA during interrogation of suspected terrorists is, by definition, not torture. Under the order, “willful and outrageous acts of personal abuse” are considered torture only if they are “done for the purpose of humiliating or degrading the individual in a manner so serious that any reasonable person, considering the circumstances, would deem the acts to be beyond the bounds of human decency.” If done for selfless reasons—say, obtaining intelligence on potential terrorist attacks or extricating information on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden—the same acts are no longer to be considered torture.
Bush’s action has largely escaped scrutiny, but two former Reagan appointees have had the courage to call a spade a spade. In the Washington Post on July 25, former Marine Corps commandant P.X. Kelley and Reagan White House lawyer Robert F. Turner, while offering their general support even for “many other controversial aspects of the war on terrorism” (such as “warrantless National Security Agency wiretaps”), declared that “we cannot in good conscience defend a decision that we believe has compromised our national honor and that may well promote the commission of war crimes by Americans and place at risk the welfare of captured American military forces for generations to come.”
This is what defenders of the Bush administration fail to comprehend: The Geneva Conventions of 1949 were designed to protect all of the signatories, who agreed to place limits on their own actions both because it is the right thing to do and because doing so offers protection to our own fighting men. When we gratuitously misinterpret the Conventions for our own purposes, our signature becomes of no value. To whom will we turn when others, acting in their own limited interests, choose to do the same?