Technically Speaking



by John Tyler Connoley


January 13, 2005



The president does not condone torture. Alberto Gonzalez, Whitehouse legal council and future Attorney General, said so explicitly in testimony last week. Donald Rumsfeld, civilian commander of the military, has reiterated it many times. The president himself has said the words, "I do not condone torture." And I, for one, believe they're telling the truth, just as I still believe that Bill Clinton meant it when he said, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Monica Lewinsky."


In college, I had friends who claimed to be virgins simply because they had intact hymens. They would truthfully say they'd never had sex, even though they'd done many things that any reasonable person would call "sexual relations." Like Bill Clinton, they avoided telling outright lies by adopting narrow definitions.


This ability to lie by sticking strictly to the truth is something we all learn at an early age. When Mom asks, "Did you take a cookie from the cookie jar?" We respond, "No," and think, "I took three." Politicians, always under public scrutiny, find the impulse irresistible and infinitely useful when dealing with the press corps. It's also helpful to know how to lie truthfully in a court of law -- which is why, after spending millions in government dollars and thousands of staff-hours, Kenneth Starr never did find anything he could pin on Bill Clinton.


However, his kind of appeal to legalism offers no help when we're trying to figure out what's moral or ethical. Most people agree that what Bill Clinton did with Monica Lewinsky was wrong, even if it technically fell short of having sex with a subordinate. And, while President Bush would like to appeal to technicalities to give his people a stronger hand against terrorism, it's clear that his administration disavows torture while condoning, and even ordering, activities that any reasonable person would call torture.


According to the Justice Department's strict interpretation of the law, attacking prisoners with dogs is not torture. Binding detainees in excruciating positions for hours at a time, thereby forcing them to defecate and urinate on themselves is not torture. Keeping people awake with strobe lights and loud music for days on end is not torture. Holding people in roofed cages for years without charging them and without giving them any hope of ever being charged or ever seeing their families again is Kafka-esque, but it's not torture. Pretending to bury people alive or pretending to drown them might be torture, but then again it might not -- we can't say for sure at this time. Even stripping prisoners and forcing them at gunpoint to simulate sexual acts on each other while being photographed is bad behavior and deserves punishment (especially if the press finds out about it), but doesn't rise to the level of torture.


A lawyer friend once warned me against confusing what is legal with what is moral. "I always tell people there is no presumable correlation between what appears to be morally right or just and what is legal," she said. "As a lawyer, one swears allegiance to the cold logic of the law -- the rest of it is a nice idea." In other words, there's a gap where one can be completely within the law while still acting beyond the bounds of morality, and it's in this gap that Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have chosen to stand.


However, there is one major difference between the public statements and private actions of Clinton and Bush. While Bill Clinton's redefinition of sexual relations was essentially a personal matter, George W. Bush is redefining torture in the name of every American. While technically acting legally, Clinton dirtied his own record as president and sullied his family's reputation. While technically acting legally, Bush dirties our record as a nation and sullies our country's reputation. Clinton's actions had consequences for his presidency and for the ascendancy of the Democratic Party; Bush's actions have consequences for all of us. We could choose to look the other way with Bill Clinton, but we cannot look the other way with Bush, because he has already made us culpable to his actions.


My father once described rules as markers for the edge of a cliff, and he recommended that I stay far away from the edge, lest I take a misstep and fall over. The Bush administration would have us believe that a new world with a new kind of enemy requires that we walk as close as possible to the abyss, even lean over it for a better view. They ask us to adhere strictly to the law and ignore the moral and ethical implications of our actions. The fear of another 9/11 and the scattered nature of the terrorist threat may make the logic appealing, but does it make it right?


We have yet to hold a public debate on how far we're willing to bend the rules as a country. Up until now, we've allowed the Bush administration to blame abuses on a few bad apples, and we've accepted their technically accurate disavowals of torture with little question. The Alberto Gonzales confirmation hearings made some room for debate, but not enough. It's time that we begin telling the president what we as a nation will accept as moral and ethical treatment of prisoners. In a war that is almost five years old, there's no time like the present.




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Copyright 2005 by John Tyler Connoley

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