Imagine if it had been a naked marine on a leash held by an Iraqi woman.
Imagine if it had been American prisoners forced to perform simulated or real homosexual acts and photographed while doing so.
Imagine if it had been US soldiers huddled against the wall, naked, with snarling dogs snapping at their genitals.
Imagine if someone in your family, or a friend, or a neighbor was beaten to death by a gang who wanted information about something they didn’t know anything about.
On Sunday, March 23, 2003, captured US pilots were shown on Iraqi TV. They didn’t have hoods over the heads. They were completely dressed. None of them wore leashes. Neither then, nor afterward, were they threatened with sodomy.
American reaction was instantaneous.
Donald Rumsfeld got on CBS and said to the world, “The Geneva Convention indicates that it's not permitted to photograph and embarrass or humiliate prisoners of war. And if they do happen to be American or coalition ground forces that have been captured, the Geneva Convention indicates how they should be treated.”
President George. W Bush, in a press conference said, “I expect them to be treated, the POWs I expect to be treated humanely. And -- just like we're treating the prisoners that we have captured humanely. If not, the people who mistreat the prisoners will be treated as war criminals.”
From this, we at least know that the president and the secretary of defense know what the Geneva Conventions are. Indeed, Mr. Rumsfeld seems to have a very fine appreciation of the niceties and the details, an understanding that even embarrassment and humiliation are wrong, even in such a seemingly innocuous way as photographing them. Both the president and the secretary expected the rules to be observed. In the spirit and in the letter.
The president clearly understood that people who violate the Geneva Conventions could be tried for war crimes and was announcing his intention to do exactly that.
Although, at the moment that they made those statements, they were running a war in the country next door and they had decided that over there the Geneva Conventions did not apply.
Imagine, if you will, that you are an Iraqi. You have a captured American pilot. You know that American jets will be bombing your city later this afternoon. If you could only find out what their targets are you could move the women and children – maybe even the old and the sick – out of harm’s way. You might be able to save hundreds, perhaps thousands if you only knew where the bombs would strike. Your children are in the city. Your grandparents. Your cousins. The girl you loved when you were twelve years old, who married someone else and is now the mother of two lovely twins.
You could save them, if only you could get that American pilot to talk.
Five hundred pound bombs are weapons of mass destruction. They quake the earth. They darken the sky.
They’ve already killed so many of your people. There would be pain in your questioning, but it would stop short of that “accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” You would have taken “taken such steps as surveying professional literature, consulting with experts …” lots in Iraq, and, apparently, in the US too, “ … or reviewing past experience,” living up to the standards that were signed off on by Jay S. Bybee, then US assistant attorney general, afterward appointed to the federal appeals court. What’s some mere discomfort, to one pampered Westerner who murders with impunity from 5,000 feet in the air. You’re doing simply what needs to be done.
In August, 2002, the Justice Department issued a memo to the White House that said if a government employee tortured a suspected terrorist “in order to prevent further attacks … necessity and self-defense could provide justifications and would eliminate any criminal liability.” In addition to the Geneva Conventions, the US has signed an anti-torture treaty and has it’s own war crimes law. However, according to the Pentagon, “in order to respect the President’s inherent constitutional authority to manage a military campaign [the prohibition against torture] must be construed as inapplicable to interrogations undertaken pursuant to his Commander-in-Chief authority.”
Now envision an imaginary place. Beyond power politics and assumptions about who the good guys are and who the bad guys are.
There’s a judge there. Almost divine in his wisdom and authority. And all these people – imaginary and real, the torturers and the men who sent them to it – come before him.
Let us imagine what he would say.