Bonfire Night, aka Guy Fawkes Day, is a total non-event for me. Centuries ago, a Catholic plot against the British government was foiled ... I'm supposed to care why? I'd have been rooting against both sides in that fight, which is near the top of the reasons why all attempts by my Anglophilic friends to interest me in any kind of Bonfire Night observations have been met by bland indifference. But once I was reminded that the date was coming up by a friend's party planning, about a week or so ago, I had this vague urge to use it as an excuse to watch V for Vendetta again, as soon as Countdown with Keith Olbermann was done.
Well, it turns out that Guy Fawkes was on Keith Olbermann's mind, too. As some of you might have heard by now, Olbermann gave another of his notorious Special Comment speeches last night: "The presidency is now a criminal conspiracy." The special comment segment wasn't about Guy Fawkes, no. But during the part of the show where he makes sarcastic comments about major anniversaries, he managed to tie Guy Fawkes into his main rant, and in a way that made me wonder if the movie V for Vendetta was on his mind last night, too.
I wasn't expecting this to be the subject, even after the cryptic teaser for it that was in the show's blog, thenewshole. The minor news story that has set Olbermann off this time is this: Jan Crawford Greenburg and Ariane de Vogue, "White House Blocked Waterboarding Critic," ABC News, 11/2/07. We learned last week that in June of 2004, the Bush administration's own Department of Justice withdrew the now-infamous Gonzalez/Bybee "torture memo" that argued, based on incredibly specious logic, that despite centuries of law and precedent to the contrary it was legally permissible for the US to torture prisoners of war if the President declared them to be ineligible for Geneva Conventions protection. And as the White House began leaning on Congress to revise the law so that this would be legal, an acting US assistant attorney general named Daniel Levin was assigned to answer one particular question. There are, we know, at least five methods of "enhanced interrogation" that the US government, and allies of the US government operating under direct CIA observation, have used against captured al Qaeda members and suspects, that by all long-standing interpretations of the word as far back as 15th century Spain have been clearly labeled as torture: beatings, hypothermia, binding the subject's limbs into intentionally painful positions for long periods of time, intentional sexual humiliation, and simulated murder by drowning. Each of these was assigned to someone in the Justice Department to re-evaluate them and answer if, under US law, their particular assigned technique met the legal definition of torture. Levin drew the "waterboarding," that is to say simulated murder by drowning, assignment. Unable to make sense out of the conflicting arguments he was being given, Levin went to the school where the US Army trains its own people to survive being tortured and asked US counter-torture instructors to waterboard him. He came back, and answered in clear, simple, and unambiguous terms that there was no way at all that simulated homicide by drowning could be called anything less than torture, and was therefore clearly and unambiguously illegal under US law. For this opinion, he was fired by the Bush administration.
Keith Olbermann has seized upon this story for reasons that are entirely opaque to me. He has made it clear that he was lacking only this one piece of evidence before accusing President George W. Bush, Vice President Richard "Dick" Cheney, former senior White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez, and former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld of knowingly ordering the torture of captured enemy prisoners. What is completely unclear to me about Olbermann's reaction, what completely baffles me, is why this one more witness changes anything. Nobody, not even George W. Bush, can possibly have had any doubt in their minds that any of these techniques qualified as torture. Nor does it matter if they knew or not; nowhere in American law do we create a legal exemption for people who didn't know that what they were doing was illegal. Seriously, it does not matter at all whether Bush thought what he authorized to be done to those prisoners qualified as a war crime and a crime against humanity and a federal felony all in one, or if he didn't know that. Nor does it matter that his official attorney, long-time personal retainer Alberto Gonzalez, was telling him what the current nominee for Attorney General, Michael Mukasey appears also to believe, namely that once there is a declaration of war, the President of the US is above all law and can safely and legally issue any order even vaguely related to the war, even in direct contradiction of US law or even of the constitution itself.
To a House impeachment committee and to a subsequent federal court, all that should matter are the elements of the law. Do these five techniques meet the legal definition of torture? Yes. Can they be shown to have been ordered by George W. Bush? Yes. OK, we just met all elements of the law, everything necessary to not merely impeach George Bush but to send him to a federal prison for up to five years ... whether or not Daniel Levin told anybody it was illegal torture, and whether or not Bush ever saw that legal opinion, are both irrelevant, so I don't really understand why Keith Olbermann chose right now to make this point, chose this particular news story to hang his point upon. Seriously, is there anybody left in the whole world, including America, who doesn't know for a fact and beyond all shadow of a doubt that George W. Bush and at least 3 of his immediate subordinates gave the clearly illegal order to torture prisoners? Anybody? Well okay then, what are we still arguing about?
In one regard, Keith Olbermann then stops short of where I've been going with this exact same topic for coming up on two years now: Olbermann stops at saying that Bush should be impeached and tried in a federal court and sentenced for conspiracy to commit felony torture. That, to me, is total nonsense. Conspiracy to commit felony torture on captured enemy prisoners of war is only one element of the clearly larger crime: a completely illegally waged war against a country that had neither attacked us, nor posed any imminent threat to us. That in the conduct of that war, and in an attempt to find justifications to enlarge that war to other countries this unelected so-called President and his fellow coup d'etat leaders also ordered captured prisoners to be tortured for as long as it took to get them to make up further fictional terror plots and equally fictional ties to other so called sponsor countries in order to get the torture to briefly stop is only part of a larger pattern of what the US itself taught the world to call a crime against humanity. It was for just these crimes that the similarly ranked leaders of the German government of the early 1940s were sentenced, not to ordinary jail for ordinary crimes, but for life imprisonment in solitary confinement with no permitted contact between themselves and anybody else but carefully selected jailers in a special prison that the US persuaded the world to build just for them, Spandau Prison. Since the elements of the crime have all been met, since our leaders are guilty of exactly the same crimes, nothing less than that will do if actual justice is to be served.
Perhaps Keith Olbermann knows this, but chose not to say it, for the same reason that people ridicule me when I say it. Only once in the last hundred years has any leader of any government been put on trial for crimes against humanity unless he has lost a war. I cling to that one example to give me hope that I may live to see justice done. Spain is among the countries that claims "universal jurisdiction" when the crimes alleged reach the "crime against humanity" level, and on that basis spent the last eight years of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's life attempting to bring him to justice; they were thwarted in this by US and British interference, and eventually by Pinochet's natural death. Oh, and I suppose to be picky, one could count Cambodia's current attempt to bring the last surviving top official under its former dictator, Pol Pot, to trial on the same charges, but that's another case that's likely to go unresolved because justice was deferred so long that the guilty parties will all have died on their own before they could be sentenced. Not a legal history to inspire much optimism. Nor am I hoping that the UN will invade and liberate us from the Bush Administration and bring them to trial on crimes against humanity charges; no matter what I think of the Bush Administration, I would fight foreign invaders to the last drop of blood myself. So maybe that's why Olbermann isn't willing to go where I am; maybe unlike me, he lacks the necessary optimism to hope to see the Bush junta rotting in Spandau Prison for the rest of their natural lives.
But while Olbermann stopped short of where I want to go with this argument in one regard, in another direction he took it much farther than I can defend, and it was in this context that he invoked Guy Fawkes. Olbermann has been asking every single one of his guests on this subject for several weeks now, is it even possible that the Bush officials who ordered that suspected al Qaeda members be tortured didn't know what US military and civilian interrogators have all known since the 1940s, namely that torture doesn't actually work? He hasn't liked the answers he's gotten; so far literally everybody he has asked has told him, no, Keith, calm down. You don't have to keep grasping at straws to come up with some baroque conspiracy theory to explain why they would torture people knowing that torture doesn't work; these people really do think that torture works, all evidence to the contrary, because none of them are expert interrogators. But no matter how many people tell him this, Olbermann isn't willing to believe it. So last night he unveiled his ultimate conspiracy theory. Olbermann now speculates that Bush and his subordinates ordered al Qaeda suspects to be tortured, not because he thought they'd unveil real terror plots in progress, but in order to tap their imaginations for new plausible fictitious terror plots to scare the American public with.
Now I grant that this does answer one of my questions that I can't otherwise answer, namely given how long we've been holding him, is there any reason to think that any information we could get out Khalid Sheik Mohammed is still current? He hasn't had contact with his co-conspirators in 5 years, he can't possibly know what they're up to now, so what exactly are we still questioning him for? But still, it's a ridiculously over-wrought explanation. Remember the words of the all-time great conspiracy theory expert Robert Anton Wilson: paranoia is the delusion that your enemies are competent. Keith Olbermann thinks it's suspiciously convenient that a government that needs a constant stream of threats to scare the public with keeps getting them from expert terrorists that we're torturing; by analogy he also mentioned that, in hindsight, he thinks it's awfully suspiciously convenient that Guy Fawkes, when he was subjected to "enhanced interrogation," named as co-conspirators a lot of people that the then-current British government considered political enemies. Except that, frankly, even without the torture evidence there was plenty of evidence that Guy Fawkes' gunpowder plot was motivated by his anger, as a Catholic, over Britain's unconscionable persecution of Catholics; it's the height of paranoia to suggest that the only reason a Catholic named Catholic co-conspirators was because his British torturers kept at him until he did, disregarding any non-Catholic names he gave.
No, the real lesson of the Gunpowder Plot as it applies to this situation is that Guy Fawkes held out against torture for long enough for every single one of his co-conspirators to escape the country and reach freedom, and that no matter how much he was tortured, they couldn't get him to name even one co-conspirator who was within reach of British justice. And that, I gather, is what angered the British public so much that they still burn him in effigy every year now hundreds of years later; that despite torture (or perhaps because of it) he held out long enough to cheat them of justice. All the more example, that is, of why we shouldn't be surprised that every single supposed "torture plot" that has come out of CIA and US military torture cells everywhere from Iraq to north Africa to half of Europe to Guantanamo Bay has named only people we can't get to for the real plots, and only given us fictitious plots to waste our resources chasing; what Guy Fawkes could do, so can Khalid Sheik Mohammed and anybody else we're torturing. Which makes that particular element of the Bush administration's crimes against humanity all the more tragic, of course, because what they're doing is not merely monstrous, it's pointless. But again, this is all a distraction. We shouldn't be arguing about whether or not torture is pointless in any particular case; we should be bringing the torturers, and everybody in their chain of command, to justice. Not that I have much of any hope that I'll live to see that happen.