"We do not torture," President Bush said last week. But this pledge, delivered almost as if it were a bully's taunt rather than a leader's promise, is simply not true — and the president knows it.
The pictures from Abu Ghraib displayed to the world that the United States has trampled the international standards that this country had traditionally championed. Those horrors were blamed on a few rogue soldiers who were hauled into court.
Then we learned that what happened in Abu Ghraib came after the general in charge of the Guantánamo interrogations was sent to Iraq to toughen up the interrogation process. Then we learned that the military's own judicial corps had objected internally and externally to new rules issued by the White House and the Pentagon that violated the Army's guidelines on the treatment of prisoners.
Now we know that the CIA has kept prisoners in a range of black holes, off-the-record prisons in countries from Thailand to Eastern Europe. They've turned prisoners over to countries like Egypt known for torturing prisoners.
So two of the only Republican Senators with actual service in the military — John McCain and Lindsey Graham — drafted a law to reassert America's opposition to torture and its commitment to international law and the Geneva Conventions as detailed in the Army's code of conduct.
After the law passed the Senate with an overwhelming vote, Vice President Cheney weighed in from his undisclosed location demanding an exemption for the CIA and the prisoners it holds. President Bush threatened to use the first veto of his years in office to veto legislation that simply commits the U.S. to following this historic practice of not torturing prisoners.
We don't torture, says the president. But this administration has tortured prisoners in hellholes across the world, and this administration demands any law gives them the right to torture when they deem it necessary.
Torture, from the Cheney-Bush-Rumsfeld crowd, is simply part of the president's authority as commander-in-chief. Anything he orders is legitimate in the worldwide war on terror. Nothing is off limits. International laws do not apply. Traditional standards the military has been proud to uphold are to be ignored.
The strongest opposition to this arrogance comes not from the peace movement, but from the military themselves. The U.S. military is proud of the way it treats prisoners of war. It has championed humane treatment of prisoners across the wars and across the years. Partly this was to distinguish our military from the marauders of totalitarian countries and movements. Partly it was to build an international consensus on humane treatment that would support decent treatment for U.S. troops when they are held prisoners.
The terrorists of al-Qaeda, of course, follow no such civilized standards. They behead prisoners on videotape and torture them to terrorize others. But that utter disregard for human life is what makes them terrorists and outlaws. It is shameful for the administration to lower our own country into that gutter.
The outrages are suffered by more than prisoners suspected, often incorrectly, of complicity with the terrorists. Anger is inflamed among the 1 billion Muslims in the world. Bin Laden's claim that we are waging an immoral war on Islam gains credibility. Our claim that we represent law and humanity against the forces of terror is mocked by the administration's policies. U.S. credibility is shredded by the administration's lies and dodges. And our nation's own commitment to the young men and women it puts in harm's way is violated by making them take the rap for the lawlessness of the president and his men.
The Congress should proceed and pass the bill upholding basic standards. If the president vetoes it, he will show once more that his policies mock his promises. And across the country, those who count themselves among the civilized, those who consider themselves people of faith, must protest this outrage.
It is our country's reputation and security that this president is shredding with his contempt for the law.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. is founder and president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.