High crimes and misdemeanours

The New York Times advocates prosecution for U.S. government officials who permitted or ordered torture of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. The editorial itself is demure about who that entails:

A prosecutor should be appointed to consider criminal charges against top officials at the Pentagon and others involved in planning the abuse.

But if such a prosecutor were appointed, I don’t know how he could stop below the Vice President’s office in searching for the “others involved.” And maybe I’m being demure when I stop at Cheney.

Why? This excerpt from the editorial makes part of the case:

Alberto Mora, the former Navy general counsel who protested the abuses, told the Senate committee that “there are serving U.S. flag-rank officers who maintain that the first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq — as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat — are, respectively, the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo.”

We are dubiously blessed here, at the Maclean’s blogs, with readers who will write all of this off as proof of the moral failing of the New York Times, as if it were the New York Times that had hooked prisoners up to car batteries, made them believe they were drowning, or forced them at gunpoint to behave like dogs. I take some comfort from some conservative writers in the United States, who understand that morality is not about team jerseys but about adherence to simple standards of right and wrong. Here, in a long and nuanced piece worth reading in its entirety, is Ross Douthat:

Yet of course the waterboarding of al Qaeda’s high command, despite the controversy it’s generated, is not in fact the biggest moral problem posed by the Bush Administration’s approach to torture and interrogation. The biggest problem is the sheer scope of the physical abuse that was endorsed from on high – the way it was routinized, extended to an ever-larger pool of detainees, and delegated ever-further down the chain of command. Here I’m more comfortable saying straightforwardly that this should never have been allowed – that it should be considered impermissible as well as immoral, and that it should involve disgrace for those responsible, the Cheneys and Rumsfelds as well as the people who actually implemented the techniques that the Vice President’s office promoted and the Secretary of Defense signed off on.

Sometimes I think the scale of what’s been happening in these past seven years is so huge that Canadian politics ignores it because it cannot begin to take its measure. In fact that’s what I think most days. But it happens whether we discuss it or not. The Times holds out little hope that Barack Obama will treat this behaviour by his predecessor as sternly as it deserves to be treated.  That  amounts to suggesting that, as ambitious as the new president might be in other ways, he might lack moral ambition. Does bipartisanship matter that much?

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