The Nazi Comparison


Eli and Reihan argue that my opposition to the Bush-approved torture of prisoners is not a serious argument but a sincere expression of emotion. But the two, of course, are not mutually exclusive categories. It is possible to make a very serious argument about the ineffectiveness and danger of the executive branch's use of torture - and also express emotion about what that has done to the integrity of the war on terror, the moral standing of the West, and the suffering and death imposed on human beings in custody. If I ever stop feeling anything about naked prisoners beaten and left for long periods of time in frozen cells, or slammed against walls, or turned into mental cases, then I will cease to be the human I am. And Eli and Reihan must surely also understand that I believed in this war and wanted it to succeed because it would defang evil, not perpetuate it, and advance human rights, not violate them in the worst way imaginable. You can no more torture your way to the rule of law than you can destroy a village in order to save it.

It is, moreover, unfair to say I have compared the Bush administration with the Nazis. I haven't.

I have shown how the exact techniques deployed by the Gestapo were used by Cheney and called by the exact same name - verschaerfte Vernehmung; and how the exact techniques used by the Khmer Rouge were authorized by Bush. These are simply facts that people have to face. This does not mean that the American system of government is the same as that under Hitler in Germany, or that Bush was Hitler. It does mean that human acts are human acts. The act of torture is the same whoever perpetrates it. There is no moral way to torture someone. America is not by virtue of being America somehow immune from the same evil that has occurred throughout human history; and the human beings running the American government are no more and no less human than those who controlled ghastly regimes in the past.

In fact, the American constitution makes no sense unless you see this. The founders assumed that Americans are as bad and as good as anyone else; and that therefore the rule of law and constitutional checks and balances are our only guarantee against tyranny. When the Cheney wing of the GOP asserts that the executive has the capacity to do anything to anyone outside the constitution and the law, and that it is also empowered to use torture to acquire "intelligence", then the entire ballgame is over. You have given a few people the power to destroy others without due process and to create reality to buttress their power. If Democrats had done this, rule of law conservatives would have exhibited no less outrage than I have.

Reihan knows and likes these people. They are not strangers to me either. But war crimes are war crimes. And the act of torture is no less evil because the people who do it are elected to office and charming at dinner parties.

(Photo: David Addington, legal architect of the torture program, by Melissa Golden/Getty.)