Thursday, September 28, 2006

On multiplication by zero

Calvin: Help me (hic) get (hic) rid of (hic) these darn (hic) hic (hic) hiccups!
Hobbes: How?
Calvin: (hic) Scare me.
Hobbes: Our oceans are filled with garbage, we've created a hole in the ozone layer that's frying the planet, nuclear waste is piling up without any safe way to get rid of it...
Calvin: (hic) I mean surprise me (hic).
Hobbes: That doesn't?! Boy, you're cynical...

Okay, so I don't like getting my knickers in a twist over nothing. They tend to be rather nice knickers, and twisting them up negates the entire purpose of handwashing them, so if I'm going to get them in a twist, it's got to be for a reason. So that's why I wasn't willing to start throwing a hissy fit without actually reading the text of the proposed military commission bill, the one that had Republican Congresscritters standing up on their hind legs in opposition to the president before they sat back down and agreed to a quote-compromise-unquote.

Said proposed bill, which passed the house yesterday 253-168, is here (pdf), 96 pages of legislation-ese and legal-ese. I'd love for some of our more legally knowledgeable readers to take a look at it from the standpoint of a J.D. (and y'all know who you are), but I took my own minimal knowledge of domestic law and foreign policy, gave it a good once-over, and...

... and, well, my knickers remained untwisted.

A first reading of the text actually reveals, to my eyes, at least, a pretty solid understanding of what a lot of Americans have been looking for all along: a working definition of torture according to the Geneva Conventions, so that we can know and our troops and intelligence professionals can know when they're really being violated. Relevant text on torture consists of largely unobjectionable, if occasionally weak-ish ("serious" pain? How severe is "severe"?) definitions.

If you have the time, do read the whole thing for specifics (it starts on page 86, line 6), but from what I can tell, it's all there: Physical or mental pain or suffering. Cruel or inhuman treatment. Mutilation or maiming. Intentionally causing serious bodily injury. Rape. Sexual assault or abuse. There's even an additional prohibition on cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, just in case you couldn't find a way to fit menstrual-blood-smearing or simulated-oral-sex-forcing into one of the above categories. A lot of effort (and I'm thinking some deeply icky and disturbing brainstorming sessions) has apparently gone into creating a comprehensive list of things that one person can do to another but shouldn't.

Now, don't get me wrong; there are still parts of this bill to which I strenuously object. For instance, the section on protection of classified information (page 38, line 10) dictates that evidence against the defendant can be withheld from him if said evidence is classified. Now, as much as I respect and appreciate the need for national security, and the need to keep classified information out of the hands of terrorists who could use it against us, people still have the right to a fair trial, and a defendant can't be prepared to adequately defend himself if he doens't know what he's defending against. Since defense counsel is required to be eligible for access to classified information anyway, and since other articles in the bill allow for classified information to be provided to defense counsel so that counsel can determine what information is pertinent and summarize if for the defendant in a way that keeps classified information classified, I don't know why this couldn't be done with evidence as well.

I similarly object to section 5 (page 82, line 1), which dictates that the Geneva Conventions can't be invoked in habeas corpus actions against the United States, because frankly, I still feel that indefinite detention without charges is a blatant and serious violation of basic human rights. Nor do I dig section 6, part 2 (page 83, line 21) where the president gets the right to interpret the Geneva Conventions; as clearly and thoroughly as the bill outlines specific violations of said Conventions, throwing around words like "grave breaches" and giving the president discretion over violations that aren't "grave breaches" serves to vague it up again quite nicely.

But one paragraph - one single paragraph in the entire 96 pages - bothers me more than any other part of the entire bill. One paragraph is not only disappointing to me, but also unsurprising, and angering, because the presence of the one paragraph makes me feel like my own government is trying to pull one over on me, and I hate that. Page 7, line 13:
(g) GENEVA CONVENTIONS NOT ESTABLISHING SOURCE OF RIGHTS.-- No alien unlawful enemy combatant subject to trial by military commission under this chapter may invoke the Geneva Conventions as a source of rights.


Bush's contempt for the American people and everyone in the entire world has never been so clearly expressed on paper. The bill spends 96 pages discussing specific requirements of the Geneva Conventions, addressing punishment for violators thereof, trying to create wiggle room for presidential interpration, when one single paragraph negates the entire thing. How? By laying down the law and then claiming that he doesn't have to follow it. By saying, "Yeah, sure, we'll abide by the Geneva Conventions. It's just that, well, these guys over here? They aren't subject to the Conventions. But seriously, I promise not to torture anybody I don't want to."

The status of "alien unlawful enemy combatant" is a completely arbitrary one created by the administration to act as a broad, meandering catchall for any detainee the government doesn't want to take the time to treat properly. The Geneva Conventions don't use that term at all; under Common Article Three, everyone has some kind of protected status, whether they're a civilian or a combatant or medical personnel or clergy or a detainee. There is no purpose to an international treaty outlining fair and reasonable treatment during wartime if it's accompanied by a footnote listing the people that you actually are allowed to torture. The Geneva Conventions don't have that footnote, so George W. Bush decided to write one himself. And a nice broad one it is, too - if a "competent tribunal established under the authority of the president" so determines, you could be an unlawful enemy combatant too!

Not that I would respect him for doing it or object to the bill any less enthusiastically than I do now, but Bush could at least have been honest about it. "I don't think I have to honor duly ratified international treaties," he could say. "I think that, as president of the United States, I have the right to authorize torture, in direct violation of a convention that we have pledged to honor. I have great big titanium-plated balls, and I will veto any bill that would make torture illegal, because I can, so suck on it." But he didn't. He agreed to "compromise," pretended to care about international convention, pretended that lawful and humane treatment of detainees - and the will of the people - was important to him. And now that he's "compromised" so benevolently on his self-declared right to torture people in the name of freedom, he's written himself an out, a little back door assuring him the right to do just that. And our elected representatives let him get away with it.

HATE. It's multiplication by zero. You can write the longest and most complex math problem in the world, pull in calculus and trigonometry and take up twelve feet of blackboard and figure things to a hundred and fifty significant digits, but if the entire thing ends in "times zero," guess what? Your answer is ZERO. And ZERO is exactly what we have here. ZERO rights for detainees. ZERO compromise. And ZERO respect for the American people by the administration in power.

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