As this bipartisan Senate report suggests, it may eventually be clear that the “W” is for “worst President ever.”

On February 7, 2002, President Bush signed a memorandum stating that the Third Geneva Convention did not apply to the conflict with al Qaeda and concluding that Taliban detainees were not entitled to prisoner of war status or the legal protections afforded by the Third Geneva Convention. The President’s order closed off application of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which would have afforded minimum standards for humane treatment, to al Qaeda or Taliban detainees. While the President’s order stated that, as “a matter of policy, the United States Armed Forces shall continue to treat detainees humanely and, to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of the Geneva Conventions,” the decision to replace well established military doctrine, i.e., legal compliance with the Geneva Conventions, with a policy subject to interpretation, impacted the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody.

Very postmodern, this dickering over the meaning of commonplace words. Recalls the semiotic confusion about the word “is” under the last administration. I hold it to be self-evident that the good ol’ U.S. of A. is lagging behind in a few elementary subjects, like grammar and basic human rights.

There’s another interesting take on the connections between torture and language in the recent Profession 2008: Peter Brooks’s “The Humanities as an Export Commodity.” But perhaps it’s wrong-headed of people to keep harping on grammar. I remember Samuel Johnson’s strictures on the debate between John Milton and Claudius Salmasius over the theory and legality of the regicides during the English civil war: “No man forgets his original trade: the rights of nations, and of kings, sink into questions of grammar if grammarians discuss them.” But then again, as these quotes make clear, it’s not only grammarians like myself who are quibbling over grammatical issues. When the people who decide the rights of nations and others and themselves turn grammarian to justify their actions, perhaps it’s the grammarians who ought to respond–with the red pen.

The abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own. Interrogation techniques such as stripping detainees of their clothes, placing them in stress positions, and using military working dogs to intimidate them appeared in Iraq only after they had been approved for use in Afghanistan and at GTMO. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s December 2, 2002 authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques and subsequent interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody. What followed was an erosion in standards dictating that detainees be treated humanely.

“Senior military and civilian officials conveyed the message” that led to an “erosion in standards dictating that detainees be treated humanely.” Yeesh. I suppose Senate reports are meant to be measured and calm, but this periphrasis clearly means that “under the instructions of the President and the Secretary of Defense and top generals, the U.S. military committed acts of torture that violated the Geneva Convention.” Where’s George Orwell when you need him?

And having watched that video of Bush at the press conference in Iraq earlier, I might add that if anyone does get serious about prosecuting this under the rubric of war crimes, that shoe will start to look pretty good in comparison with the kitchen sink.

Link to document discovered at Andrew Sullivan.

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