Tag Archives: Geneva Conventions

The Ends do not Justify the Means

Scales of Justice

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr.

I am thoroughly disgusted with conservative (and even some not-so-conservative) pundits in the media who this past week have been trying to absolve those in the U.S. Government who attempted to legalize the torture of suspected terrorists at various detention centers after 9-11. For example, on MSNBC Joe Scarborough regarding torture said “Let’s not be self-righteous” because on 9-12 he believed “we need to do whatever we have to do” and “I’ll be damned if 300 million Americans didn’t say the same thing.”

In view of the fact that nowhere near “300 million Americans” said the same thing (I certainly did not), Joe’s argument goes like this: At that time (post 9-11), torture was necessary to prevent further loss of American lives even though torture is illegal (Title 18 of the U.S. Code makes it a crime for an American to commit torture “outside the United States” and authorizes fines and prison terms of up to 20 years — if deaths result, those convicted may be jailed for life or executed) and a violation of the U.S. Constitution and the Geneva Conventions, which the U.S. had ratified (the treaties that the United States enters into become part of the law of the United States, and the Supreme Court has recently reaffirmed that status for the Geneva Conventions); therefore, according to Joe, everyone should be excused and no one should be prosecuted for allowing torture to be used on detainees.

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First, leaving aside the issue of whether torture ever yields useful information, the idea that the circumstances at the time justified breaking the law is reprehensible when advocated by officials whose sworn duty was to enforce the law and uphold the Constitution. President Bush himself bears primary responsibility for torture for his February 7, 2002, memo arbitrarily suspending the Geneva Conventions that protect prisoners of war:

I determine that common Article 3 of Geneva does not apply to either al Qaeda or Taliban detainees. … I determine that Taliban detainees … do not qualify as prisoners of war under Article 4 of Geneva … and that al Qaeda detainees also do not qualify as prisoners of war.

A key architect of the “new paradigm” torture policy was White House legal counsel Alberto Gonzales, subsequently Attorney General, who signed a torture memo dated January 25, 2002:

…the war against terrorism is a new kind of war. It is not the traditional clash between nations adhering to the laws of war that formed the backdrop for GPW [the Geneva Convention III on the Treatment of Prisoners of War]. The nature of the new war places a high premium on other factors, such as the ability to quickly obtain information from captured [suspected] terrorists and their sponsors in order to avoid further atrocities against American civilians, and the need to try terrorists for war crimes [but if you say they aren’t prisoners of war, how can they be guilty of war crimes?] for wantonly killing civilians. In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions…

On December 2, 2002, according to author Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld formally approved coercive treatments such as “hooding,” “stress positions,” “exploitation of phobias,” “deprivation of light and auditory stimuli” and other tactics long forbidden by the U.S. Army Field Manual.

Regardless of the public animosity toward suspected terrorists in custody at that time, they had and still have human rights. Is anyone aware that the reason the United States supported and agreed to the Geneva Conventions after World War II in the first place was to ensure that AMERICAN SOLDIERS would never be tortured by the other side in future conflicts? As Secretary of State John Foster Dulles stated at the time, America’s participation in the conventions was needed “to enable us to invoke them for the protection of our nationals.”  Similarly, Senator Mike Mansfield stated that “it is to the interest of the United States that the principles of these conventions be accepted universally by all nations.”  He explained that American

standards are already high.  The conventions point the way to other governments.  Without any real cost to us, acceptance of the standards provided for prisoners of war, civilians, and wounded and sick will insure improvement of the condition of our own people as compared with what had been their previous treatment.

Senator Alexander Smith concurred:

I cannot emphasize too strongly that the one nation which stands to benefit the most from these four conventions is our own United States…To the extent that we can obtain a worldwide acceptance of the high standards in the conventions, to that extent we will have assured our own people of greater protection and more civilized treatment.

When North Vietnam insisted that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to American POWs because they were “pirates,” President Nixon demanded — and had the moral authority to demand — that Hanoi apply them. On the 50th anniversary of the Conventions, Senator John McCain stated that he and his fellow POWs would have fared “a lot worse” without the Geneva Conventions’ protections against “the cruel excesses of war.”

The same argument made by Joe Scarborough could have been made about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.  In 1949, Joe could have said “Let’s not be self-righteous” because on 12-7 he believed “we need to do whatever we have to do” and “I’ll be damned if 134 million Americans didn’t say the same thing.”

Leaving aside the fact that none of these Japanese-Americans were a threat to the security of the United States, Joe would argue that confining them in concentration camps was necessary to prevent further loss of American lives even though their internment was a violation of the U.S. Constitution (specifically, the rights to due process and habeas corpus); therefore, Joe would say, everyone should be excused and no legal prosecution or remedy should be sought or permitted.

Horse stalls at Tanforan that were transformed into living quarters for Japanese-American internees.

Of course, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II was an outrageous violation of human rights the day it happened — it is still unfathomable to me that it ever happened in this country. But wartime hysteria prevailed.  An editorial in the Los Angeles Times from the period fumed: “A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched — so a Japanese-American, born of Japanese parents — grows up to be Japanese, not an American.”  Journalist Westbrook Pegler wrote, “The Japanese in California should be under armed guard to the last man and woman right now and to hell with habeas corpus until the danger is over.”  Key government leaders agreed with this view. They decided to imprison people without evidence or trials, denying their constitutional rights because of their ancestry. This policy was carried out on the West Coast of the United States, but not in Hawaii.

The ethical principle here is elementary though incomprehensible to self-righteous conservatives: The ends do NOT justify the means.

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