a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

The rotten tree

Posted by Thomas Nephew on June 30th, 2008

In the years and decades and centuries ahead, John Yoo’s and David Addington’s testimony before the House Judiciary Committee last week will become a simple, memorable marker about just how low this country fell in the early years of the 21st century. A former Department of Justice counsel and a current chief of staff to the Vice President of the United States proved unwilling to say that the president could not legally order torturing children or burying people alive.

Since last week’s events are well known enough, I’ll make just two points, and ask a question.

First, torture and cruel, inhumane, or degrading abuse of children by United States military, intelligence personnel, and/or U.S.-hired contractor thugs is not a hypothetical situation. I’ll list just two cases, but more have been reported, and no doubt yet more remain unreported. Abu Ghraib sergeant Samuel Provance told a German news team about “interrogation specialists” pouring water on a boy, driving him around in the cold night, smearing him with mud — and then displaying the result to his father, who (Provance was told) broke and promised to tell all he knew. In an even grimmer story, Tara McKelvey reported (in her 2006 book “Monstering) about at least one alleged rape of an underage detainees — photographed by a fellow soldier. The investigation was desultory at best. In cases like these, the cruelties and/or the whitewashes can be traced to policies made in America.

Second, the way in which Addington and Yoo answered — that is, failed to answer — Congressional questioning should itself set off emergency sirens for our democracy. These two are, in a very real sense, enemies of our state. They are our enemies. Whether delivered with Addington’s coolly contemptuous attitude or Yoo’s baby-faced pseudo-naivete, we simply can not afford to have legitimate questions to the executive branch by the legislative one “answered” this way. To pretend to fail to understand the distinction between “would” and “could” is the kind of ‘trick’ a 3rd grader wouldn’t get away with. Contempt of this sort by the Bush administration should be … that is, should have been… met by Congress with contempt of its own — direct, immediate, Congressional sergeant at arms, off to jail you go contempt.

Meanwhile, at least the future narrative is clear. We were attacked. We panicked. Our elected leaders in the White House threw away our country’s honor and our alleged principles, and set about subverting our own political system in order to do so and to get away with it. Meanwhile, our elected representatives in Congress did next to nothing to prevent it.

People have often tried to lay the abuses in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere at the feet of so-called “bad apples.” The future will know those “bad apples” didn’t fall far from a corrupt and rotten tree, and can roll the tape above to prove it. The question for us is how far and deep that rot extends — to the White House only? To its alleged “check” and “balance” on Capitol Hill in the “opposition” party — capable of belated video theatrics, but not of real oversight?

Or does it extend deeper yet? A recent study (by suggests that the United States is more akin to brutalized societies like Egypt, Azerbaijan, or Russia than those like Europe’s when it comes to accepting torture under some or even any circumstances. To agree that the state may completely own an individual, make this one say something … anything, turn that one into a screaming thing — that, to me, seems a kind of original sin. As we approach our Independence Day with the usual fanfare, self-congratulation, parades, and hot dogs, I may wish that this country were not so easily tempted to that sin. But wishing doesn’t make it so. Maybe 9/11 really did change everything. Maybe the terrorists have really won.

3 Responses to “The rotten tree”

  1. Laura Says:

    I listened to what I could of this hearing. Not sure if I had no time to listen or simply turned away because I couldn’t take it. I remember what we all hoped Conyers might be able to do back in ’06, but I have nothing but “contempt” for these sideshows anymore. Nothing will be done.

  2. More Yoo « mirabile dictu Says:

    […] David Addington and John Yoo before the House Judiciary Committee.  Check out this great post by Thomas Nephew at newsrackblog.  Here are a few bits: First, torture and cruel, inhumane, or degrading abuse of children by […]

  3. hysperia Says:

    Hi Tom. Thanks for dropping links to your post at my pad. Good reads … though I can barely keep myself calm enough to read carefully, so I’ll be sure to read again.

    I wonder if you know of Lawrence Velvel, the Dean of the Massachusetts School of Law? He wrote a great post on June 23 on the whole Yoo/war crimes issue and has called a conference at his school in September called “Planning For The Prosecution Of High Level American War Criminals”. It’s for experts and the public and will consider, among other things, whether there should be a Special Prosecutors office a la Nuremburg. Here’s a brief bit of what he says about the conference:

    “Although discussions of ideas and facts showing violations of law will take place, library stacks and the internet are, as said, already bulging with materials showing violations (although in the last analysis decisions on violations will be made by judges if leaders are brought to justice). The Conference, rather, is intended to also be a planning conference, one at which plans will be laid, and necessary organizational structures will be set up, to pursue the guilty as long as necessary and to the ends of the earth in order to bring them before the bar of justice. The underlying law and facts will be discussed in the context of laying plans to pursue the guilty in courtrooms so that in future there may be no more Viet Nams, no more Iraqs.”

    I love that “to the ends of the earth” part.

    Check out Velvel’s post here:

    If you already know about this, forgive me for dumping so much stuff here. Let’s keep in touch on this one. I couldn’t bear it if nothing happened to these creeps. Even if they only spend the rest of their lives feeling afraid, that’s better than nothing.

    BTW, the Nuremburg judges were sentenced to life in jail, but they were all free within several years of the judgment. Arrrrrghhhhh. Think of it. Some people in the US are executed for the killing of one human being. How many deaths were these guys responsible for, who just walked away?

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