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Political Animal


By Brian Morton | Posted 5/19/2004

When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master--that's all."

--Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll, 1872

Perhaps it's not so much an Orwellian era we live in today, but one that's more Lewis Carroll-esque. The powers that be have stopped redefining words and ideas according to an overall concept (e.g., "We have always been at war with Eastasia"), and instead are redefining words and ideas to mean whatever is most convenient at any moment.

The Bush administration has decided that--in addition to being masters over Iraq and all the "unlawful enemy combatants" incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay--the president and his appointees are now lords and masters of the language. Words exist to be bent and contorted to their will.

It's been about three weeks since The New Yorker magazine and 60 Minutes II unveiled the torture and abuse of prisoners held at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and yet administration toadies and their sycophants are still trying to tell us that while the shocking, inhumane, and disgusting treatment may be "abuse," it doesn't reach the standard of "torture." Rush Limbaugh, in case you missed it, opined that the treatment the prisoners received was no worse than a college fraternity prank. From the very start, the administration has sought first to downplay the scandal, then to marginalize it as the work of "a few bad apples"--and, of course, play it off as "abuse," not "torture."

To top it off, simply debating Abu Ghraib without inserting the idea of "moral relativism"--e.g., Sept. 11, the burning contractors' bodies in Fallujah--brings forth the usual chilling accusations from administration hard-liners. When The Washington Post editorialized that Americans should be concerned about how high up the in the chain of command the torture policy might go, Pentagon spokesman Lawrence De Rita said such thinking "puts the Post in the same company as those involved in this despicable behavior."

This week, New Yorker reporter Seymour Hersh's investigation revealed that the torture policies were exported to Iraq from Guantanamo Bay. According to Hersh's report, the policy was approved at the top level of the Department of Defense--by Secretary Donald Rumsfeld himself.

In 2002 Rumsfeld scoffed at the relevance of the Geneva Conventions, and last week Newsweek published a January 2002 memo from White House counsel Alberto Gonzales (the man whose name has been floated as a Supreme Court nominee) that said: "the war against terrorism is a new kind of war. . . . In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions."

Who the hell do these people think they are?

The United States' moral standing in the world is due to its ideals. In the last 228 years, this nation has enslaved humans, exterminated its native population, interned Japanese Americans, infected poor black men with syphilis, and murdered women and children at My Lai during the Vietnam War--all actions inexcusable under the mores of any civilized culture. But the country persevered because, in time, we remembered the clear concepts set forth by the admittedly flawed men who created our nation.

The people in the jails of Abu Ghraib did not fly planes into the World Trade Center buildings or the Pentagon. Neither did those imprisoned at Guantanamo. Though many are being held on suspicion of being part and party to anti-American insurgencies, they have received nothing like due legal process. To excuse torture because four civilians were murdered in Fallujah or because some despicable beasts beheaded Nick Berg on video is to say that "they" are all alike, and "they" get what "they" deserve.

We have been better than this in the past--despite the horrific exception of Lt. William Calley at My Lai, it was never the policy of the United States to ignore the Geneva Conventions, no matter what American soldiers underwent in the POW camps of Hanoi. Perhaps Sen. John McCain could remind the administration of this.

But the moral relativists in the White House and at the Pentagon and at Fox News have made the calculated decision that whoever stands in their way is the enemy--be they British or Australian citizens Guantanamo or rounded-up Iraqis at Abu Ghraib. We went to Iraq ostensibly to bring the Iraqis freedom, the freedom we guarantee ourselves in the Constitution, but first we bring them endless incarceration, torture, despotism, and the absence of rule of law. And we are supposed to be admired by the world for this?

The Old Testament retribution cycle has already begun: indiscriminate bombing, Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, Nick Berg. An eye is already being taken for an eye. How long before we howl again because of some inhumanity perpetrated on the next American to be captured, military or civilian?

The ideas that we have redefined may be our subjects today, but tomorrow they may be our masters. And we only have our leaders to thank. For shame.

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