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Change We Can Believe In, XIII

Change We Can Believe In: Mainstreaming brutality

In the last two posts of my Change We Can Believe In series (here and here), I wrote about the recent escalation in the mistreatment of PFC Bradley Manning at the Quantico brig, where he is held in solitary confinement and now forced to spend nights naked. Thursday, while speaking to a small audience at MIT, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley described Manning’s treatment as “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid.”

News of Crowley’s comments first appeared in a blog of Philippa Thomas, who was at the event, and who concluded her account with the note that:

A few minutes later, I had a chance to ask a question. “Are you on the record?” I would not be writing this if he’d said no. There was an uncomfortable pause. “Sure.” So there we are.

Crowley’s comments were widely covered yesterday, with Crowley confirming to Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin that they were indeed on the record, adding that “What I said was my personal opinion. It does not reflect an official USG policy position. I defer to the Department of Defense regarding the treatment of Bradley Manning.”

ABC’s Jake Tapper asked President Obama yesterday if he agreed with Crowley’s comments.

President Obama said Friday that he’d “asked the Pentagon whether or not the procedures that have been taken in terms of his confinement are appropriate and are meeting our basic standards.”

Pentagon officials, he said, “assure me that they are. I can’t go into details about some of their concerns, but some of this has to do with Private Manning’s safety as well.”

Asked if he therefore disagreed with P.J. Crowley, President Obama sidestepped the question, saying he’d responded “to the substantive issue.”

Manning’s safety! Yes, the Defense Department has said Manning may commit suicide, and if there’s even a kernel of truth to this, it’s because they have been systematically driving him crazy by using the same techniques used on prisoners in Guantánamo. But is he really going to kill himself with his underwear? As Manning’s lawyer, David Coombs, explained last week,

his client’s clothing was taken away at night after Manning commented that if he wanted to harm himself, he could do it with “the elastic waistband of his underwear or with his flip-flops.”

He now has to strip every night before bed and also stand outside his cell naked during an inspection every morning, after which his clothes will be returned. He will be allowed to have two blankets at night.

Military officials said the move was a “precautionary measure” to prevent Manning from injuring himself.

Obama’s response yesterday lends credence to Alex Knapp’s observation in a blog post at Outside the Beltway last Monday that Obama is mainstreaming brutality. Well, Knapp doesn’t lay the blame entirely on Obama. Rather, he lays out a familiar, decade-long process. Obama is just the endpoint.

What I find most troubling is that until Obama acquiesced in this process, one could imagine it was a short-term Bush-Cheney aberration. Indeed, many voted for Obama in the belief that he would ensure the short-term, aberrational character of the Bush-Cheney brutality. Instead, by sanctioning such brutality, Obama is ensuring instead that it will move into the mainstream. Knapp explains:

I’ve been trying for the past couple weeks to write about Bradley Manning, but I can’t. It makes me sick to my stomach. The whole trend of brutality and betrayal of American ideals over the past decade makes me sick to my stomach.

We have gone from being the first country that established the principle that prisoners of war should be treated respectfully to a country that operates black sites and sends prisoners to other countries to be tortured–when we don’t torture them ourselves.

In the American Revolution, the number one cause of death for American soldiers was maltreatment and disease in British POW camps. In the Civil War, Andersonville was a cause of national outrage. In the early 20th century, the United States emphatically supported the adoption of the Geneva Conventions. In World War II, German soldiers happily surrendered to Americans in the West, knowing they’d be well treated. But in the East, they fought the Russians to the last man because they knew they wouldn’t be.

Now, in the 21st century, we send robot planes to bomb civilians in a country that’s ostensibly an ally. We have prisons where people are routinely denied basic essentials, denied due process, are maltreated and tortured. We reverse decades of tradition and not only have legalized assassination, but have legalized assassination of United States citizens.

[snip]

Then in 2008, one major reason why I voted for Barack Obama was because he forcefully claimed to be opposed to such policies. And I was mad that that was actually a voting issue for me, because you’d think that not torturing people is a moral no-brainer.

But, as it turned out, Obama lied.

Now, as I look to vote in 2012, I realize that just like in 2000, no part of my consideration for any of the candidates will involve their positions on torture, war crimes, secret prisons, renditions, etc.
Because both candidates will be in favor. Without apology.

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Categories: Law, Politics, Torture
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