Of all the acts of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, none have bred such revulsion as theWhite House decision to blow off Geneva Conventions on humane treatment and approve torture of suspected terrorists as an acceptable American ethic.
Despite incoming President Barack Obama's inclination to "move on," tacit approval of torture as a war crime cannot be dismissed. Waiving off this horror and arguing against punishment would reduce U.S. moral standards to those of a barbaric Third World nation whose culture accepts government brutality as ho-hum practice.
It also would certify the delusional maxim of disgraced President Richard Nixon, who airily rationalized his crimes thus: "When the President does it, that means it is not illegal."
Since 9/11, journalists have documented U.S. mistreatment that emulated KGB Stalinist techniques—kidnapping, imprisonment in faraway jails, torture.
Now, a bipartisan U.S. Senate report pins torture squarely on the Bush-Cheney administration, saying torture "strengthened the hand of our enemies and compromised our moral authority."
The International Red Cross has declared that U.S. waterboarding is torture and could make Bush administration officials guilty of war crimes. The Red Cross said one U.S. prisoner was waterboarded as many as three times one day.
A former Army interrogator using the nom de plume of Matthew Alexander has written a book denouncing torture as useless and counterproductive.
In a TV interview in which he rejected torture accusations, Cheney avoided explaining how gross mistreatment became "legal": Justice Department official John Yoo wrote a February 2002 "opinion" that Geneva Conventions could be ignored.
He helpfully redefined torture to allow the ancient cruelty of waterboarding, whose effect on a victim was described in 1623: "The "body was swollen twice or thrice as before, his cheeks like great bladders and his eye staring and strutting out beyond his forehead."
Thus, Yoo freed interrogators to inflict hellish treatment, plus tried to immunize the administration from charges under the U.S. War Crimes Act of 1996.
Ample U.S. precedent exists for war crimes trials. In 1898, an Army major was court-martialed for waterboarding in the Philippines. In 1947, Japanese soldier Yukio Asano was tried for waterboarding an American civilian. In the Vietnam War, a U.S. soldier was court-martialed for waterboarding.
If the Obama administration ducks this obligation, America would join a roster of rogue nations, including the bloodthirsty Chilean dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet that waterboarded thousands of prisoners.