November 7th, 2007

Newspeak on waterboarding.

The reason you haven't heard or seen anything from me recently is that i've been trying to get my danged dissertation finished. The thing is the largest document i've ever written, and even though large parts of it were written already, it's taking a lot of work to make everything flow into a smooth, coherent whole. I remember one of my advisors reassuring me that it would only take a few weeks to put together the papers i'd already written into a dissertation. It has been months. I don't blame him for the underestimate; if he underestimated anything, it's my desire to make it perfect. (You don't need to advise me to fight this; i've heard that advice already many times, and i'm fighting it as hard as i can.) I also blame my incredibly slow writing speed, the twin insanities that are TeX and LaTeX (i have more than once been tempted to rewrite either of these, and each time barely pulled myself back from the brink), my housemates, a recent conference, today's minor computer breakdown, Weboggle, and — just for good measure — the Bush administration.

You see, there are some prominent people who claim, variously, that (a) waterboarding isn't torture, (b) waterboarding is legal, (c) torture is justified, and (d) anything the President wants to do is legal if he says the magic words "War on Terror." (Try that the next time you're caught robbing a bank. Plugging your fingers in your ears and spinning around saying "War on Terror! War on Terror!" is not likely to stop you from getting arrested, although it may cause you to be diverted from prison to the loony bin.)

Consequently i have been spending too much time arguing over the Wikipedia article on waterboarding and helping a friend put up a site to educate the public on what waterboarding really is. There seems to be the widespread misconception that waterboarding is a "simulation" of drowning (in that the person being subjected to it is not physically harmed). Waterboarding is not a simulation; the subject is made to inhale real water and to actually nearly drown. This constitutes torture by every definition i know.

Those who have been defending Michael Mukasey and his evasive answers about executive power and torture are missing one important thing: he did not have to give those answers. It's not about whether you can conceive of a story that makes those answers sound sensible. Mukasey could easily have removed all doubt by stating straightforwardly, "Waterboarding, as I understand the procedure, is torture." He chose, instead, to feign ignorance.

Claims that he could not answer the question because of the need to protect classified information are specious, and border on willful misinterpretation. He was never asked to reveal classified information; he was asked to give an opinion on the treatment of prisoners. No secrets are revealed by stating that waterboarding is torture.

Mukasey's position on executive power is even more disturbing in the long run. His answer to whether the President had to obey the law was, "That would have to depend on whether what goes outside the statute nonetheless lies within the authority of the president to defend the country." Every attempt that the President makes to reject a law, either through a signing statement or other order or authorization, should trigger an immediate judicial review. Laws should stand until the courts decide they are unconstitutional; the President does not get to quietly decide so himself.