This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To listen to a podcast of the author discussing the new sense of empowerment among torture supporters in America, click here.
Just in case you thought that “political correctness” had been thoroughly discredited in the culture wars of the 1990s, it’s back— and this time it’s being treated as a stalking horse for terrorism and getting pummeled all over again.
You only had to listen to the recent hearings convened by New York Republican Congressman Peter King on radicalization and the Muslim religion to know that, if the ascending right in Washington (and elsewhere) has its way, the age of tolerance in America is over. In the name of putting political correctness in its grave, a surprisingly sizeable contingent of politicians, judges, and other influential figures are now calling for transforming draconian behavior—that once would have made Americans blanche—into the order of the day.
Blaming Political Correctness for Terrorism
King’s hearings underscored the urgency with which a growing cast of influential characters seeks to open yet wider the door to the sort of anti-democratic (and anti-constitutional) actions that have been woven into counterterrorism policy since September 11, 2001. As chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, King made it his job to acknowledge the obstacle that—as he might put it—excessive tolerance for minorities, foreigners, or other religions and cultures can pose. “To back down [from these hearings],” he insisted when criticized, “would be a craven surrender to political correctness and an abdication of what I believe to be the main responsibility of this committee—to protect America from a terrorist attack.”
It was hardly the first time in the Obama era that political correctness has been identified as a major cause of terrorism, or at least as a major roadblock to confronting terrorism. One need only think back to the November 2009 killing spree in which Major Nidal Hasan, a Muslim Army psychiatrist, fatally gunned down thirteen people at Fort Hood, Texas. In an op-ed penned several days after the attack, Republican Congressman John Carter, who represents the district where Fort Hood is located, pointedly connected political correctness to the dangers posed to the country by terrorism, warning, “Political correctness is killing Americans and undermining the national security of the United States.”
Key political figures continue to use the Hasan case to harp upon the imagined horrors of being politically correct. For instance, in February, a Senate Homeland Security Committee report was still fretting that military “worries” about “political correctness inhibited Hasan’s superiors and colleagues who were deeply troubled by his behavior from taking the actions against him that could have prevented the attack at Fort Hood.” Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn, commenting on the report, insisted that “we must never allow the safety of those who defend our freedom to play second fiddle to political correctness.”
Dorothy Rabinowitz, a conservative columnist in the Wall Street Journal, echoed Cornyn, arguing in a much-cited op-ed that military psychiatrists failed to see Hasan’s rampage coming because they inhabited “the world of the politically correct.”
The message that political correctness is allowing Al Qaeda–ish wolves in sheep’s clothing to penetrate the country’s defenses has been spreading, based in part on claims about unlearned lessons from past incidents of terrorism. Last month, at New York Law School’s City Law Breakfast Series, for example, Michael Mukasey, George W. Bush’s last attorney general and the former chief judge of the Southern District of New York, informed an audience of judges, lawyers, reporters and law students that political correctness had actually been responsible for the FBI’s failure to stop the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.
“When a group of FBI agents approached what they thought was a bunch of folks who were taking rather aggressive target practice,” he told his audience, “and thought that they would give them a toss…and get their identification and so on…. these folks put them off and challenged them and said [the FBI agents] were engaged in what is now known as profiling and [the agents] being polite, politically correct, backed off.” These “folks,” Mukasey added, included the ones who later hatched the plot on the World Trade Center.
On the specific crimes of political correctness, Mukasey was blunt: it gives a free pass to Islam which he suggests is a dangerous religion. “We live in a culture…in which we hesitate to ask questions about other people’s religion, but when that religion is something they use as a justification for imposing a system on us, we are very well entitled to ask questions about it and to draw appropriate conclusions.” These “appropriate conclusions,” his audience was left to conclude, seemed to include the notion that Islam “causes” terrorism.
According to Mukasey, guilt over earlier eras of American history is now working to derail commonsense measures for safeguarding the country. “We were very much on guard…and still are against a repetition of our treatment of the Japanese during World War II and of fomenting religious and ethnic tension in this country. We are also a society that is reluctant to examine other folks’ religions. For those two reasons, we shun the notion of a war on any movement that is or claims to be inspired by a religion.” According to Mukasey, even President Bush was swayed by an irresponsible emphasis on tolerance into “going so far as to tell us that…‘Islam is a religion of peace.’ ”
Revenge Enters the Torture Debate
The conviction that political correctness has been crippling America’s struggle with violent jihadists inevitably leads Mukasey and others like him into treacherous waters that tend to sweep away ever more civil liberties, as has been true for Washington policymakers since George W. Bush’s “Global War on Terror” began. For them, the urge to chip away at a traditional American commitment to religious toleration reflects a deeper imperative to jettison a wide range of traditional legal protections.
In Mukasey’s rendering of recent history, the failure of Al Qaeda to mount another major set of attacks in the United States can be explained by the Bush-Cheney administration’s willingness to stiff-arm politically correct civil libertarians and human rights advocates. As the former attorney general put it at that breakfast meeting, “A great deal of this success, I believe, was due to the CIA interrogation program, which involved…questioning [detainees] vigorously at times.”
He’s talking about torture, of course, a word he couldn’t quite bring himself to utter, even though the euphemisms of others on the subject offend him. Here’s what he said about the phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques” which often replaced “torture” in Bush administration and media accounts of what CIA interrogators and others were doing: “[It was] probably one of the worst PR campaigns since New Coke.… It sounds like a wash product, doesn’t it? Enhanced—get the whitest wash on the block. I think ‘harsh techniques,’ ‘coercive techniques’ would have been a whole lot more accurate and in the end a whole lot less harmful, because when you use the euphemism like ‘enhanced’ it sounds as if you are trying to hide something that you believe to be horrible and that you’re ashamed of…and that was a disastrous choice.”
Only the politically correct, it seems, would imagine that there was anything shameful or dishonorable about torturing a naked prisoner, tied helplessly to a chair or bolted to the floor.
And talking about the temper of the times, recently yet another judge from the Southern District of New York introduced a new rationale for torture, one that, even in the darkest days of the Bush administration, had not been publicly spoken, much less authoritatively explained from the federal bench. At the sentencing of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the sole Guantánamo detainee to be tried in a federal court (for his role in the bloody 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania), the judge, Lewis Kaplan, made it his business to opine about torture. During the trial, he had refused to let the government’s star witness testify. His grounds: only through Ghailani’s torture had investigators been able to identify that witness who was thus “fruit of the poisoned tree” and constitutionally prohibited from taking the stand. For this, he was embraced as a hero by civil libertarians, myself included, and reviled by conservatives and war-on-terror hawks.
Convicted on one of 284 counts, Ghailani was sentenced to life without parole. During his sentencing, Judge Kaplan suddenly took off the gloves, to use a phrase much loved by those in favor of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in the Bush years. Specifically, he went out of his way to undercut any moral (as opposed to strictly legal) objections to the torture of detainees in American custody. He said:
I have not previously expressed any opinion as to whether Mr. Ghailani’s treatment by the United States was illegal and I do not do so now. That question is not before me. What I will say is this: Whatever Mr. Ghailani suffered at the hands of the CIA and others in our government, and however unpleasant the conditions of his confinement, the impact on him pales in comparison to the suffering and the horror that he and his confederates caused. For every hour of pain and discomfort that he suffered, he caused a thousand-fold more pain and suffering to entirely innocent people.
From a well-respected member of the federal bench, that statement represented an under-reported benchmark in American legal history. In a few carefully chosen words, Kaplan moved the arguments in favor of torture out of the context of gaining actionable intelligence (however mythical that might be in torture cases) and into the context of revenge. In so doing, he displayed a startling willingness to throw away enduring normative restraints on the exercise of power over those incapable of resisting, restraints that had previously seemed inseparable from American culture and the American legal system.
No longer on the bench, Mukasey had explicitly justified the torture of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed on the grounds that the pain his interrogators inflicted disgorged invaluable information for stopping future attacks on Americans. Judge Kaplan took Mukasey several steps further, by implying from the bench that no one could morally object to American interrogators torturing a terror suspect, not because he offered actionable intelligence but simply because of the terrible crimes he was, at the time, alleged to have committed.
It has been a persistent worry of civil libertarians that violations of the rights of non-citizens would eventually contaminate the ways citizens are treated, too; that a process of “enemy creep” would, in the end, result in the Guantánamo-ization of American terrorism suspects.
When rights were first denied to captives at Guantánamo Bay, the Bush administration argued that a prison in Cuba should not be considered subject to the constitutional principles that apply to Americans everywhere or to anyone within the territorial boundaries of the United States. It is, however, quite another matter, as in the King hearings, to single out Muslims or others in our midst as potential terrorists and then to argue that when arrested—even if they are US citizens or captured or tried on US soil—they should be denied the protections of US law.
At the moment, the most alarming example of “enemy creep” can be found in the case of Bradley Manning, the US Army private who allegedly downloaded hundreds of thousands of classified documents from Army computer systems and turned them over to WikiLeaks. He is now being held on twenty-four charges in twenty-three-hours-a-day solitary confinement in a brig at Quantico Marine Base in Virginia, while awaiting a court martial slated to begin later this spring.
There, among other punitive forms of treatment, he has reportedly been denied his clothes at night (though he is now apparently allowed to sleep in a coarse, tear-proof gown), supposedly as a form of self-protection. In captivity, nakedness, as the infamous abuses at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison demonstrated, is above all a form of humiliation, and often the first step towards physical and sexual abuse, including torture. Manning, neither Muslim nor accused of terrorism, is nonetheless clearly considered by his captors an enemy of the nation, a traitor. As a result, he is being kept under conditions which should make Americans take note of the blurring of, and crossing of, previously sacrosanct lines and the dismantling of long-established rights when it comes to defining and punishing “the enemy.” Though no jihadi terrorist, Manning, too, is being punished before being tried for the crime of threatening national security.
In a recent press conference, President Obama professed to find nothing legally or morally objectionable about such punishment without trial. The Pentagon, he said, had assured him that “the procedures that have been taken in terms of his confinement are appropriate and are meeting our basic standards,” adding that “[s]ome of this has to do with Private Manning’s safety.” (State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley, who had publicly criticized the Pentagon’s handling of Manning, which led to that question about him at the press conference, was soon after forced out of his job.) Perhaps we are to believe that, according to the standard put forward by Judge Kaplan, however abusive the conditions of Manning’s confinement, the impact on him pales in comparison to the suffering and the horror he is alleged to have caused.
Thanks to Mukasey, Kaplan, King, those overseeing the treatment of Manning and others, the embrace of cruel standards when it comes to alleged enemies of the state is gaining traction. These officials and former officials seem to be part of a process, remarkably uncommented upon, that is turning previously unthinkable rhetoric into normal discourse and intolerance into a rationale for challenging the rights of anyone accused of violating the country’s security.
Perhaps we should consider the King hearings and the ever more extreme statements of a growing cadre of well-respected figures as an omen. At an increasingly rapid pace, the boundaries of acceptable civil discourse are being crossed and rights in America are being tossed away—at least when it comes to national security issues. Today, even with a constitutional lawyer as president, fear continues to cow those who have the power to make a difference.