Monday, October 08, 2007

Acting like Nazis

Last week, we saw yet another exercise in sophistry as President Bush reacted to the New York Times' revelation that his administration had specifically approved the use of techniques such as waterboarding, beating and freezing on "enemy combatants" by saying

This government does not torture people. We stick to US law and our international obligations.
Of course, given what the NYT had revealed - that administration lawyers had redefined "torture" specifically to exclude these techniques - that's not even a non-denial denial anymore. But just in case, Andrew Sullivan puts the final nail in the coffin today by pointing out that the Bush administration's interrogation methods, and the arguments used in support of them, almost exactly follow those used by the Nazis in World War II:
So is “enhanced interrogation” torture? One way to answer this question is to examine history. The phrase has a lineage. Verschärfte Verneh-mung, enhanced or intensified interrogation, was the exact term innovated by the Gestapo to describe what became known as the “third degree”. It left no marks. It included hypothermia, stress positions and long-time sleep deprivation.

The United States prosecuted it as a war crime in Norway in 1948. The victims were not in uniform – they were part of the Norwegian insurgency against the German occupation – and the Nazis argued, just as Cheney has done, that this put them outside base-line protections (subsequently formalised by the Geneva conventions).

The Nazis even argued that “the acts of torture in no case resulted in death. Most of the injuries inflicted were slight and did not result in permanent disablement”. This argument is almost verbatim that made by John Yoo, the Bush administration’s house lawyer, who now sits comfortably at the Washington think tank, the American Enterprise Institute.

(Sullivan blogged a fuller account of the similarities, including translated Nazi documents, back in May)

Back in 1948, the US-run court was quite clear: this was torture, and it was a war crime. They did not accept the semantic arguments of its perpetrators, or those who argued that the universal ban on torture somehow did not apply to captured resistance fighters. They stuck with the plain (and universally accepted) defintion of torture as the infliction of "serious physical and mental suffering". Those responsible were convicted and sentenced to death (interestingly, the Nuremberg Tribunal also held in one case that the lawyers responsible for such sophistries were also war criminals, and handed down sentences of life imprisonment to those enabling what it referred to as a "governmentally organized system of cruelty and injustice, in violation of the laws of war and of humanity". John Yoo and friends beware).

Meanwhile, Americans may want to consider where their country is going when it uses the same tactics, arguments, and even language as the Nazis. The sooner America recovers its moral compass, the better.