Thursday, April 16, 2009

Tortuous Logic

Under pressure from the ACLU, First Gentleman Obama has released four Bush-era memos that provided the legal rationale for "enhanced interrogation techniques." He has also issued a statement ruling out "prosecutions against those who had been involved. It is a 'time for reflection, not retribution,' he said."

As Chris Floyd notes, Obama's refusal to enforce the law is disturbing though hardly surprising. He quotes Obama's statement:
But at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past. Our national greatness is embedded in America’s ability to right its course in concert with our core values, and to move forward with confidence. That is why we must resist the forces that divide us, and instead come together on behalf of our common future.
and points out that "the forces that divide us," according to Obama, "refers to those who are calling for the instigators and perpetrators to be prosecuted. They are the ones insisting on the disturbing, disunifying course of "laying blame for the past." But what, in the name of God, are America's 'core values,' if they do not include prosecuting people who order and commit the high crime of torture? ... For the Obama defense is nothing other than the Nuremberg defense: 'I was only following orders. I was given assurance by the highest authority that my actions were legal in all respects.'" Not to worry, though: Obama declared that "we have taken steps to ensure that the actions described within [the memos] never take place again."

Attorney General Eric Holder explained
, "It would be unfair to prosecute dedicated men and women working to protect America for conduct that was sanctioned in advance by the justice department." Actually, as Floyd points out, citing Glenn Greenwald, this is a lie: those dedicated torturers "were told quite specifically by Bush's White House shysters that there was no guarantee that their actions would be considered legal by a court."

All this reminded me of something I'd read in Norman Finkelstein's Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict (Verso 1995, page 117):
"We shall never be rough or heartless where it is not necessary; that is clear," Himmler told an assembly of Nazi murderers at Posen. His lieutenants were exhorted to be "hard" but "not become hardened", and to "intervene at once" should "some Commander exceed his duty or show signs that his sense of restraint is becoming blurred." The SS leader even issued definite instructions forbidding his subordinates to indulge in gratuitous torture. An order of August 1935 laid down that "any independent, individual action against the Jews by any member of the SS is most strictly forbidden". Concentration-camp guards had to sign a declaration every three months that they did not mistreat prisoners. In autumn 1942, Himmler declared that, in the case of "unauthorised shooting of Jews", "if the motive is purely political there should be no punishment unless such is necessary for the maintenance of discipline. If the motive is selfish, sadistic or sexual, judicial punishments should be imposed for murder or manslaughter as the case may be". And he did on occasion actually have SS sadists punished. In effect, there were two distinct categories of murder: the Final Solution, which, however ghastly, was sanctioned by German's "historical mission", on the one hand, and the gratuitous torture of prisoners or "excesses", on the other. Against the other, according to Hohne, the "SS judicial machine [was] set in motion".

In his postwar memoir, Commandant of Auschwitz, the exemplary "ultra-Nazi" Rudolf Hoess underlines that he "never personally hated the Jews", indeed, that "the emotion of hatred" was "foreign" to his "nature." He reports never having sanctioned the "horrors of the concentration camps" -- by which he evidently intends, not the systematic mass extermination supervised by him, but the sadistic outbursts he claims to have "used every means at my disposal to stop". Hence, he continues, "I myself never maltreated a prisoner, far less killed one. Nor have I ever tolerated maltreatment by my subordinates". "I was never cruel, and I have never maltreated anyone, not even in a fit of temper."

Repeatedly, Hoess professes profound disgust at those SS guards who gratuitously tortured camp inmates. "They did not regard prisoners as human beings at all. .... They regarded the sight of corporal punishment being inflicted as an excellent spectacle, a kind of peasant merrymaking. I was certainly not one of these." He notes that his "blood runs cold" as he recalls "the fearful tortures that were enacted in Auschwitz." Unfortunately, he confides, "Nothing can prevail against the malignancy, wickedness of the individual guard, except keeping him constantly under one's personal supervision." Special contempt is reserved for the prisoner collaborators given to orgies of violence: “They were soulless and had no feelings whatsoever. I find it incredible that human beings could ever turn into such beasts. ... It was simply gruesome."
No wonder Obama's hero Ronald Reagan considered the SS thugs whose graves he visited at Bitburg in 1985 to be victims. Not only had they been victims of Nazism, "drafted into service to carry out the hateful wishes of the Nazis", but they'd been demonized for following orders by vengeful lawyers and judges who refused to move forward with confidence, preferring to lay blame for the past, choosing retribution over reflection.