The Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer for October 15, 2006 has a front-page article on the ability of Family Services in Philadelphia and in Pennsylvania to bury their mistakes. “Their mistakes,” as in battered and abused children who had already been reported to authorities, but had not been taken out of the homes in which adults abused them. I ached to read the stories, about children at the tender age of my loved and protected grandchild, who had died horrible and painful deaths, tortured before they died, deliberately maltreated by a person with a great deal more power and authority over them.
The stories are wrenching. The children were not always innocent; sometimes they interrupted an adult’s television show, or sleep, or other valuable activity.
They didn’t have valuable information to impart or to fabricate.
It is in the wisdom of a President, on the advice of her or his advisors, to determine whether extraordinary measures of extracting information should be used, upon citizens and/or enemy combatants. That determination, about using methods of” alternative interrogation,” apparently rests on direct access by the President to the people doing the interrogation, as in the riveting television show “24.” Actually, accounts from books such as Inside the Wire: A Military Intelligence Soldier’s Eyewitness Account of Life at Guantanamo, by Erik Saar and Viveca Novak (Penguin, 2005), indicate that the interrogator is very far removed from the oval office. As the Taguba Report (about Abu Ghraib) indicated, few of the poorly trained National Guard officers and soldiers knew anything at all about how to manage a prison, how to provide further training to undertrained recruits, and how to prevent violations of the Geneva Conventions. Throw in an officer whose approval stemmed from his apparent toughness on the prisoners rounded up for Guantanamo (so-called al Qaeda “enemy combatants”), put him in the pipeline to a President whose military understanding is not the best, whose prejudices would not entertain contrary information from psychologists, or from John McCain, and the pipeline confirms the President in the use of torture, torture light, abusive interrogation techniques, and generalized indignities applied to people who can’t identify themselves easily.
Given the general lack of cultural sensitivity and Arabic or Pashto language skills possessed by the military, attested in Inside the Wire (above), the person in U.S. custody as an “enemy combatant” is as helpless as a two-year-old child, unable to make her or his case to an abuser, unable to oppose abuse with words.
Therefore I have great difficulty understanding the passage by both Houses of Congress, in September 2006, of a law that would exempt the President and other members of the Executive Branch from War Crimes culpability under the Geneva Conventions. The law passed both Houses before an Amnesty International campaign to oppose it could get underway; thus members of Congress may never have heard from constituents who would have opposed the law.
Where was the press? Does the press now rely on lobbyists of every stripe to get out the information we need? In the case of the Philadelphia Inquirer in October 2006 we have the information we need to hold government accountable for abuses and deaths from the torture of children; we did not have the information we needed to counter the provisions of this law that excuses a President of war crimes when she or he condones torture.
Like Philadelphia Family Services, the President can bury his or her mistakes, but with impunity.