Off With Their Heads!

That is what the playing card Queen of Hearts in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, (and in all previous versions) shouts, a flippant order to decapitate everyone and anyone who dares show her any insolence, no matter how trivial the offense.  The movie is a reminder of the excesses and abuses of authority.  It exposes the often illogical and dangerous decisions that emerge from unaccountable rulers.  There are many signs that Alice would encounter these same dangers in America today.  Two congressional events from last week come immediately to mind.  One was the passage of a bill to prevent the torturing of American school kids and the other was the introduction of a new bill that would require government authorities to treat anyone arrested as if they were already guilty.

On March 3, 2010, the House passed HR 4247, Preventing Harmful Restraint and Seclusion in Schools Act.  The bill is designed to prevent the occurrence of torture in schools, including forceful restraints, seclusion, and beatings.  Hundreds of U.S. children have suffered from such physical and mental abuse, resulting in countless injuries and death in many states, according to the General Accounting Office.  What is most interesting about this new law is that so few Republicans voted for it.  The final vote tally was 238 Democrats and 24 Republicans voting for the bill.  The overwhelming majority of Republicans, 145, voted against.  The reasons Republicans gave for voting against the bill were that not enough information was available about the prevalence of such school torture, the need to protect state’s rights, and their reluctance to impose federal guidelines on private schools.   These are all legitimate concerns.  I wonder, however, why such concerns trump something as insidious, shocking and unconstitutional as the use of torture on children in our schools?  Why are we so casual about burying our children alive, as Charles Dickens once described solitary confinement?

Another curiosity from last week appears to spring from the same odd rabbit hole that Alice fell into.  Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman introduced legislation that would deny Miranda rights to suspected terrorists and create indefinite detentions.  This new bill, the Enemy Belligerent, Interrogation, Detention, and Prosecution Act of 2010, came out of a barrage of Republican false accusations that the so-called Christmas Day Underwear bomber was treated with too much deference by being read his rights upon capture.  Farouk Abdulmutallab was, thus, rendered useless for potential intelligence information, they argued.  This bill would, however, apply to anyone, including U.S. citizens, who the president suspects of posing a “potential threat,” having “potential intelligence,” or for any reason that the “President considers appropriate.”

This bill would, thus, make anyone, including U.S. citizens, subject to indefinite detention without trial merely for posing a potential threat, not even for any actual crimes.  The bill gets many facts and recent experiences wrong.  The actual facts are that Abdulmutallab was not read his rights right away and that he actually provided considerable intelligence before and after he was read his rights.  More important is that no federal bill can, of course, take away constitutional rights.  The McCain and Lieberman bill seeks to prevent the exclusion of any testimony gathered under such an unconstitutional law by trying any such future detainees under the Military Commission system.

McCain has a history of wavering on issues like terrorism and torture even though he was himself tortured while a prisoner of the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War.  After McCain returned from captivity in 1974, he wrote, however, that the enemy could have accrued tremendous political benefits had they seriously complied with the laws on humane treatment.

Many ex-POWS have stated that due to the length and divisiveness of the Vietnam conflict, if the policy of the North Vietnamese towards the captured Americans had been of strict adherence to the Geneva Convention the North Vietnamese might have returned a group of men who would have been grateful and sympathetic to their problems in that part of the world.

It is tempting to label such moral flip-flops by McCain as mere politics, a pursuit of votes driven by whatever scores high in public polls.  However, it may be more accurate to see his actions and that of many other Americans as a journey into an upside down world that began seriously in the Bush administration. Thin, capricious rulers dominate this new Wonderland and gleefully preempt any pretense of fact, rationality, and logic.  The citizens of this now upside-down land can merely accommodate themselves to an increasingly maddening and anxious world wherein the rule of law is subverted by the rule of fear. So, we want to torture our suspected terrorists and torture our children because we are so afraid that the terrorists will hurt our children?  Like Alice, we find ourselves swimming through a sea of our own tears.

March 7, 2010

  1. […] reason for this myopic and missionary turn to torture is a product of power.  Those with power, as I’ve argued before, turn to torture because any other method for extracting cooperation and information places them on […]

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