The Grandest Inquisitors

Key members of the Bush  Administration ponder their rightful place in history.
And so, the question of when the paper-trail of modern American war crimes would finally go to the top has been answered: the President disclosed that he knew about– and approved– the highest-level meetings of officials in the White House itself on the subject of the specific degree and details of “enahanced interrogations” on suspects in the War on Terror(TM). Yoo You know: torture. (Jokes aside, Uber-torture-facilitator John Yoo was himself a frequent briefer of this group, which included Cheney (and Addington), Rumsfeld (and DOD general counsel Haynes), Condi, Tenet, Ashcroft, and Powell.)
It was horrifying enough to find out that the only even apparent objector was Ashcroft (apparently, belief in the integrity of Colin Powell is always ill-advised)… but now, the last piece of what should be at a minimum a bill of impeachment and by rights should be the war crimes tribunal pictured above is in place: the fish is rotten right from its very head on down.
The fact is, the laws of war have been hard fought… as it were. Some have suggested that they are one of the most important components of the advancement of civilization: that wars could be far more horrible than they already were if the combatants didn’t (at least in principle) adhere to certain rules… that some conduct, even in the midst of an enterprise in which by intention a great number of people will be killed and/or maimed, is still so egregious that we could classify by the especially horrible moniker: “war crime”. The intentional torture of persons captured in those conflicts is and has always been, as far as the laws of the United States are concerned, just that, war crime.
Don’t get me started on “September 11th changed everything.” Having been in an office building across the street that day and walked out, unscathed, while grieving some, and breathing crap for God knows how long from a mile or two downwind and losing my job…don’t get me started. Because it changed jack-s***. Let me analogize to another kind of activity we frown on in this society: that of the vigilante. Another of the most important components of the advancement of civilization is that we do not take the law into our own hands. Yes, to be sure, in immediate self-defense, or defense of another, we may resort to extreme measures. But once that immediate danger has passed, we are not permitted to mete out justice on our own, whether it be hunting down and assassinating they that robbed, raped, or worse. Those societies in which those sorts of things still happen have a name: backward. Quite literally uncivilized. And by and large, the development and advancement of a society, on our own terms, depends quite literally on the degree to which the members of that society are willing to forego their personal vengenance and surrender it to the monopoly of the law. And even the highest officials of our government must never forget that they too are constrained by the law.
Which takes us back to where we started. This sequence from Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons” sums it up:

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

And that’s just it: the irony is that burning through the forest of laws to try to get “the bad apples,” be they bin Laden, Saddam, Zarqawi, or tomorrow’s bogey-man has made us no safer strategically: al Qaeda, for example, is now better ensconced in Pakistan than it was before, and now firmly implanted in Iraq, where it never was before. In the meantime, our leadership has debased our very souls in the name of “protecting us.” But in the end… who will protect us from this kind of protector? Yes, I’d give the Devil the benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake. (Cross-posted at American Street.)