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Patriot Act
Tuesday, 22 January 2008 13:41
by Dennis Jett

Why is it that those who proclaim their patriotism the loudest often demonstrate the least understanding of what this country stands for? Or to put it more accurately, what this country should stand for.

Take the debate on torture. The disclosure that the CIA destroyed hundreds of hours of videotapes of two prisoners being subjected to "enhanced interrogation techniques" is only the latest reminder of what is being done in our name.

Pro-torture patriots who argue vigorously in favor of these techniques imply that their love of country is second to none because they are willing to use any means to defend it. They are not above questioning the patriotism of those who disagree. And they like to argue about the definition of torture, claiming that waterboarding and similar methods are not so bad.

Yet the United Nations Convention Against Torture, an agreement the United States signed and ratified, puts it in words hard to misunderstand: "The term 'torture' means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining ... information or a confession."

For a time, the friends of torture maintained that what was being done was no worse than fraternity hazing. Now they say waterboarding should be used because it is so effective.

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They point to the CIA interrogation of the former Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah, who according to an ex-CIA agent broke down after 35 seconds of waterboarding.

Though President Bush described Zubaydah as "one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction in the United States," there are questions about his importance. In his book "The One Percent Doctrine, " Ron Suskind quotes the FBI's top Al Qaeda analyst as saying that Zubaydah was insane. Other observers sugď gest that he was at best a lower-level logistics person.

After his waterboarding experience, Zubaydah warned of plots to attack shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings and the Brooklyn Bridge. Because none of these attacks ever happened, maybe he just sold his torturers the Brooklyn Bridge to get them to stop.

Some argue that the information obtained by such measures is the reason the United States has not been attacked again since 9/11.

A better explanation is that Al Qaeda simply never was that big a threat or as effective an organization as our cringing, cowering leaders claimed. Once its bases in Afghanistan were destroyed, it had little ability to mount operations beyond the attacks carried out in other parts of the world.

The fans of torture argue that preventing even one attack is reason enough to engage in acts illegal under U.S. and international law.

But is saving lives the only measure of whether a government should act? More than 17,000 Americans die every year in traffic accidents involving alcohol. Think of the hundreds, even thousands, of lives that could be saved if drunken drivers were locked up indefinitely and never given trials.

Many people who normally urge a limited role for government somehow expect from it absolute security in an uncertain world. They see no reason for government to protect others from hunger or ill health while conferring on it unlimited powers to protect them from any foreign threat, real or imagined. These patriots claim they support our troops, but they think there is no price too high for our soldiers to pay so that they may enjoy a greater sense of safety.

They also assume that the actions they propose will produce only the desired results and never have unintended consequences.

Even if torture did prevent some terrorist acts, does not the use of torture inspire and encourage other acts of terrorism? What better recruiting poster for potential terrorists than one that reads, "Uncle Sam wants to torture you"?

Ronald Reagan was such a popular president because he made Americans feel good about themselves without challenging them to examine why they thought this country great.

Did Reagan refer to America as a shining city on a hill just because all the lights are left on? Or is it because we hold ourselves to the highest standards and don't throw them overboard when faced with a threat?

We must ask ourselves: If we are not unequivocally against torture, then what do we stand for?

The State Department each year does a human-rights report card on every other nation in the world. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice often asserts with a straight face that the Bush administration lives up to its commitments and bases its foreign policy on our values. She also has explained why: "When we respect our international legal obligations and support an international system based on the rule of law, we do the work of making the world a better place, but also a safer and more secure place for America."

That, in the end, is the best way to protect America: to live up to our rhetoric and our values.
Dennis Jett is a former ambassador to Peru and Mozambique who served on the National Security Council. His second book, "Why American Foreign Policy Fails," will be published in May.
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