A criminal on trial for a postal crime (circa 1965) gave the following testimony, as quoted by a St. Louis Division Postal Inspector who attended the trial. The Prosecutor asked the defendant, ‘Did you know that what you did was illegal?’ The defendant was not the stereotypical dumb criminal. His literate, if ill-considered, response was, ‘I knew that it was reprehensible, but I didn’t know that it was illegal.’ It was a jury trial. The jury was probably unimpressed by his candor. He was convicted.
We don’t always have such candor by which we may judge a person’s actions. Sometimes, there are other ways to observe that which is intended to remain a secret.
We now have news that former President George Bush has acknowledged, in his pending memoir, approving the waterboarding torture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. More than mere acquiescence, his approval was in the form, “Damn right.”
“When the President does it, that means it is not illegal.”
– President Richard Nixon
I suggest that we stand the Prosecutor’s question on end and ask, ‘Did you, President Bush, know that what you did was reprehensible?‘
This is not a question we are likely to ever be allowed to ask directly. It is a question for which, by his own actions, Bush has already given his answer.
The Prosecutor’s question, ‘… illegal?’ was asked of Bush. His administration’s answers were consistent in denying illegality. He answered that he relied upon carefully considered legal opinions (Alberto Gonzales, et al.) in his administration’s policy of “enhanced interrogation“.
“We do not condone torture. I have never ordered torture. I will never order torture.
The values of this country are such that torture is not a part of our soul and our being.”
– President Bush, 22June2004
But his response to questions about his direct involvement in approving this policy was uninformative. It was barely possible from his responses to determine who gave the actual approval for the policy. It was ultimately ferreted out that Donald Rumsfeld – no, Dick Cheney – no, somebody – gave the order to proceed. Each person illuminated by this guessing game played the good soldier by falling on his sword. That is, falling on it after carefully turning the sharpened edge downward.
There is no ambiguity about the reprehensibility of torture. That is proven by the fact that Bush allowed others in his administration to be examined for responsibility, while being silent about his own responsibility until after he left office.
This is the man who “didn’t appreciate speculation” about his personnel, who referred to himself as “The Decider“. He allowed the speculation to continue, uncorrected. He decided to tell the truth only now, when he is safe from consequences.
That he was adamant about the legality and practical necessity of torture, but reluctant to reveal any responsibility but oblique involvement in the formulation and implementation of policy, speaks as loudly to the jury of history as a defendant’s words from 1965:
‘I knew that it was reprehensible, but I didn’t know that it was illegal.‘