The torture party

Last Tuesday’s Republican presidential debate showed near-unity on one issue – the party’s embrace of torture.

Jason Stahl

How do we begin to undo the catastrophes of the George W. Bush era? This is the question the vast majority of Americans are beginning to ask as we gear up for next year’s presidential election. On few other matters is this question more important than on the issue of torture – which the Bush administration has embraced during its tenure. However, as was made clear in last Tuesday’s Republican presidential debate, most of the candidates want nothing more than a continuation – or enhancement – of the Bush administration’s policies.

Actually, it was clear that everyone in the room at the debate wanted “more torture” to be the continued policy of the United States. It all started with moderator Brit Hume’s question in which he described what he termed a “plausible scenario” for a terrorist attack: multiple shopping centers bombed with more to come unless a Guantanamo Bay prisoner is tortured for information about the impending attacks.

Hume undoubtedly knew that torture under a “ticking bomb” scenario – popularized by shows like “24” – is not the kind which has occurred under the Bush administration. Rather, indiscriminate torture having nothing to do with such scenarios has been the norm. Nevertheless, most of the candidates took the bait in an effort to show that they would be the best torturer-in-chief.

Rudy Giuliani – who, as mayor of New York, never met a civil liberty he didn’t like – reiterated three times that interrogators should use “every method they could think of” to get information. Likewise, ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney went out of his way to say how much he loved Guantanamo – the type of American-run gulag which has made torture possible. Romney said that he was “glad they’re at Guantanamo Ö where they don’t get the access to lawyers they get when they’re on our soil.” In fact, Romney said that as president he would “double Guantanamo” and allow “enhanced interrogation techniques” (the approved euphemism for “torture”).

The long shot candidates were even more explicit in an effort to break out of the pack. Rep. Duncan Hunter said he would simply tell the Secretary of Defense to “get the information.” Rep. Tom Tancredo upped Hume’s scenario a notch by suggesting it was nuclear devices that had gone off and then declared that he would be “looking for Jack Bauer” in such a scenario. However, he assured that Bauer-like torture was warranted given that “we are the last best hope of Western civilization.”

All of these comments garnered applause from the audience – arguably the loudest of the night – while the one dissenting candidate was met with silence. Attendees clearly did not want to hear from Sen. John McCain when he argued that Hume’s scenario was not “plausible,” but a “million-to-one” fiction. Moreover, he asserted that “if we agree to torture people, we will do ourselves great harm in the world” and that torture does not work because “the more physical pain you inflict on someone, the more they’re going to tell you what they think you want to know.” You could have heard a pin drop in the South Carolina theater.

McCain deserves credit for these clear stands even though he singed on to the Military Commissions Act in 2006 – a law which can easily be interpreted as allowing torture. Thus, it will probably be up to the Democratic presidential candidates to try and undo Bush’s policy of torture. However, I have yet to hear any of them make a speech articulating such an aim. Hopefully, for the sake of the nation and the world, such speeches will be forthcoming.

Jason Stahl welcomes comments at [email protected]