I Knew That It Was Reprehensible

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.”

There has been plenty of argument already about the legality of torture in general, and of this form of torture in particular.

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.


5 Responses to “I Knew That It Was Reprehensible”

  1. 1 Jim
    November 11, 2010 at 6:41 pm

    Jim One, maybe someday I will tackle ‘State of Denial’. Books have become difficult for me. My correlation of the words ‘denial’ and ‘Bush’ indicates Bush’s persistent denial of the truth in many areas. As much as he was probably influenced (and dis-served) by sycophants, Bush did a major share of the ‘gulling’.

    Our society can only poorly assimilate the truth that it does receive. Case in point: Bush’s statement of December 2, 1999, declaring the need to remove Saddam Hussein. As for the WMD that weren’t there, I hope that Woodward has included some of Scott Ritter’s observations. The public has also been oblivious of the 2000 Bush transition team’s pre-occupation with Iraq. They were explicitly uninterested in Al Queda briefings and wanted more than one Iraq briefing.

    From such Neo-Con aspirations of Benevolent Global Hegemony sprang the impetus and justification for much that was reprehensible.

    Bruce {theeconomist}, your blog will take some work to catch up on, but that looks to be a good thing. Your contribution here is appreciated. That goes double if you can keep Jim One occupied!

    – Jim Too

  2. November 11, 2010 at 3:39 pm


    I am only about 2/3 through “State of Denial”, but there is ample evidence that W. allowed himself to be gulled by the sycophantic nature of bureaucratic people. He is certainly not the first to do so because it is subtle and ubiquitous. He would often send out clues simply by body language, inattention and informal comments.

    One example, from memory and not exact: W. was warned by someone, it might have been Wolfowitz, that he should be careful about what questions he asked during briefings, such as the daily intelligence brief. In that section W. suddenly seemed to realize why he kept hearing about so-and-so in Tanzania (or some such place) – it was because he had previously asked a question about the subject out of idle curiosity and the briefers picked up on it as something POTUS was interested in. (Wouldn’t one think that he would have figured this kind of thing out while governor of Texas, if not before?)

    As for Obama I have a strong sense that he is less naive, but that is due to a lack of evidence in “Obama’s Wars” so far as I can recall. In NSC meetings for example it was he who would pull discussions back from digressions, often to concentrate on such objectives as getting a definite exit plan for the Afghan war. (He never did get one, other than the arbitrary date he set himself.)

    I doubt that any human being is completely invulnerable to the effect. Reminds me of an old Peter Sellers movie – I think it was called “Being There”. The plot was that a simple workman who happened to be a double for the president was chosen to substitute for him after a disabling accident. He went on to make seemingly brilliant decisions by simply defaulting to experts around him!

    I do know that Obama reveres Lincoln and sought to emulate him in avoiding yes-people (ever p.c.) in choosing his cabinet.

    Jim W.

  3. November 11, 2010 at 12:14 pm

    Jim W.,

    Do you have a sense of comparison of Obama’s and Bush’s style in being willing to hear bad news having read the two Woodward books? If so, what is your sense.

  4. 4 Carroll Boswell
    November 10, 2010 at 9:00 am

    “And this is the judgment: the Light has come into the world but people loved the darkness rather than the Light because their deeds were evil.” President Bush was a man who hated the light for obvious reasons, and that necessitates surrounding himself with people who won’t be a risk of shedding light on anything. He hated light so much, as I recall, that he screened out everyone who was likely to object to anything he said before he would even make a campaign speech. What bothers me is that we have books about President Bush’s faith, and that Christians hold him up as a fellow believer. On his own head be it. I am reminded of Jesus’s words to the Pharisees that if they had admitted they were blind it wouldn’t have been held against them, but since they claimed to be able to see, their guilt would remain. I take that to include that if someone claims to be Christian, whether he is or not, he will be judged as if he were, and judgment begins with us.
    So fundamentalist Christians have come full circle, from objecting to the way liberals change the meanings of their words to the opposite so they can go on talking as if they were Christian, to doing the same things themselves. Liberals change the meaning of things like “resurrection” and “salvation”; but fundamentalists change the meaning of things like “mercy” and “love” and “reprehensible”. Before the election I had a fundamentalist in our congregation ask me how I could vote for a man who supported such immorality as abortion. I asked him how he could vote for a man who supported such immorality as torture and he said, “At least they live through it.” At that point I was speechless what to say. There was no way to communicate.
    Keep up your good work, though it must seem like preaching to the choir a lot.

  5. November 6, 2010 at 8:22 pm

    I am currently and belatedly reading Robert Woodward’s “State of Denial” about the first years of the Bush II administration and the Iraq War. Prior to this year, my first for blogging, I was not properly motivated to read it, but like “Obama’s Wars” it is an eye-opener. In Woodward’s chronological narrative I am now at the point where it has become apparent that there WERE NO WMD (acronym plural) in Iraq.

    David Kay (special Pentagon investigator), George Tennet (CIA Director) and Retired General Jay Garner (civil administrator for Iraq before Bremmer), all “fell on their swords” for the president on the issue. They each lied by publicly stating that he was responsible for giving Bush incorrect information about Iraq obtaining uranium from Africa, thus obfuscating the issue. They appear to have done so out of a sense of loyalty, which makes their actions all the more puzzling that they afterward revealed or leaked the truth to Woodward.

    As a compulsive truth-teller (which possibly explains why I didn’t get further in the Navy than I did) I can only surmise that the cause of this behavior is tribalism, a post-election phenomenon now in full bloom in Washington. Truly, reprehensible behavior is endemic in bureaucracies.

    Already at the halfway point of the book the lesson stands out boldly without ever needing to be explicitly expressed that a leader who neglects to have adversarial people among his advisors, and who consistently reacts positively to those who bring him news he likes, and who fails to measure all strategies against proper principles, invites a subtle corruption that permeates everything he does and taints his legacy.

    As to subtle methods of torture, I can personally attest to the efficacy of sleep-deprivation following a period of physical and mental exhaustion. It works, and hallucinations are the least of it. Haven’t tried water-boarding. George W. Bush was familiar with college hazing and doubtless approved of it, but to institutionalize it in secret without proper safeguards is to create a cruel precedent that will be long remembered.

    Yes Jim, as you so well put it, by writing these things in his book W. proves that he still doesn’t get it.

    Jim W.

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