WASHINGTON, Jan. 10 (UPI) -- Consider the following scenario:
Your college-age junior comes to you with plans to spend mid-winter break in Florida rather than come home. Against your better judgment but recognizing that all children eventually grow up and leave the nest, you assent and, grudgingly, even help out with some spending money.
With a kiss on the forehead, you see them off at the airport, but not before extracting a promise of a phone call as soon as the plane lands in south Florida. Traffic being what it is, the drive back from the airport take several hours. Drained, you can do little more than flop down in front of the television -- just in time to see a breaking news bulletin explaining that your child's plane was blown out of the sky over the Gulf of Mexico by what witnesses said looked to be a surface-to-air missile fired from a ship.
There are no survivors.
The subsequent investigation reveals terror-war detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, planned the attack. Had effective methods of interrogation been available to U.S. personnel, it could have been uncovered and prevented.
Now, do complaints that Attorney General-designate Alberto Gonzales might have placed the safety and security of U.S. citizens over the interests of captured detainees still bother you? Or are you grateful that he did?
Whether Gonzales encouraged the use of torture to obtain information from al-Qaida prisoners and suspected terrorists is clouded by the ease with which the word is tossed about. To most people, torture means "The Rack," body parts connected to jumper cables, or rape rooms like those used by Saddam Hussein's henchmen to keep the Iraqi people enslaved.
For domestic consumption, the term has been defined up. As columnist Jonah Goldberg recently explained, "Most of the things being called torture are a bit shy of torture." Among the methods now being lumped together under the term include prisoners forced to sit for extended periods of time in cramped areas, being draped with an Israeli flag or having a wet blanket wrapped around the head to simulate the sensation of drowning. These tactics would not be condoned if a parent used them against a child -- but then again, the average American 8-year-old isn't trying to bring down a skyscraper with an airplane.
The U.S. government found it necessary to consider whether the rules that apply to armed and uniformed combatants fighting on behalf of a nation-state also apply to the guerillas and terrorists who make up the bulk of the current enemy. The suggestion that they don't, that the human values reflected in the Geneva Convention do not apply to terrorists, has been used as an excuse to brand Gonzales and the Bush administration as advocates of torture.
To be clear, this issue is separate and distinct from the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, the perpetrators of which have been identified and are in the process of being punished. The Gonzales memo did not create an environment, as some have charged, in which the Abu Ghraib abuses were more likely to occur.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan reiterated during Monday's press briefing that U.S. policy "is to adhere to our laws and our treaty obligations. There are very clear laws in the United States regarding torture, and there are clear laws at the international level regarding torture and our policy is to adhere to (them)."
To have a discussion at the highest levels of government about whether the Geneva Convention and other international prohibitions on torturing prisoners apply in the current terror-war environment is healthy and proper. Concluding that they do not is not the same as approving it. The inquiry is further indication the United States remains a nation of laws, not of men -- whose passions would likely rise in a blood lust if given the opportunity where terrorists are concerned.
The other problem is that the public discussion, as it has developed around Gonzales' elevation to a Cabinet post, has embraced the idea of defining torture up as a way to inflict political damage on the Bush administration.
As one example, the Washington Post's Richard Cohen recently penned a column in which he equated exposing Guantanamo detainees to the music of Eminem and Rage Against the Machine to what the Oceanian government did to Winston Smith in George Orwell's 1984 -- imprison him in a cage-like mask full of hungry rats and threaten to let them feast on his face.
Whether prisoners not uniformed combatants taken in Iraq and Afghanistan were subjected to abuse, as some investigators have suggested, is not the same as concluding they were tortured by the U.S. government. The Sept. 11, 2001, terror attack rewrote the rules of warfare. Some of those changes, uncomfortable though they may be, are necessary. To suggest otherwise is to deny reality and to leave the nation at risk.
(The Peter Principles explores issues in national and local politics, the American culture and the media. It is written by Peter Roff, UPI political analyst and 20-year veteran of the Washington scene.)
(Please send comments to [email protected])