Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Re: On War And Murder

June 1, 2005


Re: On War And Murder
From: Dean Lawrence R. Velvel

Dear Colleagues:

Given the "vigor" of comments I sometimes make, one might not know or think it, but this writer comes from a legal background in which one is trained not to call evildoing American leaders what one might otherwise call them, not to describe them by words that other people could conceivably use. One did not, for example, call Lyndon Johnson, Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger or George W. Bush murderers, even though the first five were collectively responsible for millions of useless deaths and the sixth is responsible for what often is now estimated to be in excess of 100,000 deaths, including nearly 2,000 Americans, all in what currently, and for a long while past now, has seemed to be a useless endeavor launched by lies, propaganda and gross miscalculation.

Last week, however, I had to do what one reads of military commanders having to do (and unlike Rumsfeld, I did not do it by a standardized letter signed for me by someone else or by a machine). I had to write a letter of condolence to a parent whose son was killed in Iraq. Military commanders write such letters to the parents of their dead men or women. I wrote to one of our students who is the father of a soldier killed in Iraq. (The student body of our law school, you see, is comprised more of people whose ages range from 30 to, say, 60 than of students in their 20s.) In all the years of Viet Nam, during which I was teaching in law schools from the fall of 1966 onward, and despite being active in litigation about the constitutionality of that war starting in the last part of the 1960s, I do not ever remember knowing or in any way being connected to anyone who lost a relative, let alone a close relative, in that war. That was, of course, doubtlessly due to the fact that it was, in the words of a recent book, a "Working Class War" that was fought by a conscripted army, not a voluntary one and certainly not one that attended law school.

Having to write a letter of condolence, brief as the letter was, causes one to reflect that there is murder going on in Iraq, of American soldiers as well as Iraqis, and that Bush is primarily responsible for all this murder. Which makes him a murderer I would suppose (as are Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz), even though all of one’s training is that one doesn’t call the President of the United States a murderer. But what is it except murder when we now know, among other things, that this war which has killed scores of thousands of people was launched on the basis of lies, distortions, propaganda and phony spin, that (as the British Cabinet paper shows) it was decided upon while Bush was claiming he had not decided on war (a false Bushian claim analogous to those of Wilson, FDR and LBJ before him), that for political reasons it was fought with a force insufficient to accomplish its objectives, that civilians were killed by the tens or scores of thousands despite the usual propaganda of precision this and precision that, and that by claiming the inapplicability of the Geneva Conventions Bush opened the door to deaths by torture? Not to mention the possibility that the reasons for this war were economic (oil) and psychological/dynastic (let’s get even for what Saddam tried to do to Daddy).

It seems to me that, when things analogous to this were done by a Capone or a Giancana or a Pol Pot, or a Stalin or a Hitler or a Milosevic or a Charles Taylor, we often called the perpetrator a murderer. Why is Bush different? Because he is the head of a supposedly democratic state? -- a state so democratic that its Presidential candidates present an echo not a choice, its Congress lacks the cojones or morality to investigate or terminate what is being done, many of its citizens get cheated out of their votes, which, in Florida in 2000, made Bush President in the first place by robbing blacks and Jews of their votes, and, as with Viet Nam, some people -- unless they deliberately thrust the situation aside mentally -- are beginning, I think, to walk around sick to their stomachs because they know they can have no influence on the now long-running disaster that is going on? This is some democracy, isn’t it?

You know, although my own training is that one doesn’t call a murder a murderer if he is President of the United States, in the last month and a half I’ve been hearing and reading some remarkable comments. The written comments mainly relate to torture; the oral ones are broader.

If I heard and am describing it correctly, on BookTV on CSpan II this last (Memorial Day) weekend, the well known liberal or leftist commentator, Bill Press, called our leaders "charlatans," and Alan Wolfe, the famous academic from Boston University and, now, from Boston College, called them "scoundrels." "Charlatans" and "scoundrels" is pretty serious stuff; one is not used to hearing our top leaders described that way by serious people.

On April 10th, The New York Times said in an editorial that "The authority for rendition" -- the felonious crime by which we transfer prisoners to other countries for torture -- comes . . . from a classified directive that President Bush signed shortly after 9/11." This comment, startlingly enough, is tantamount if not identical to saying that Bush bears liability for the crimes that exist because of the rendition, since it was he who authorized it and he and others have long known it led to torture -- a federal crime. (Strangely, nobody seems to have picked up on the meaning of The Times’ statement, although it is equally true that nobody, no matter how conservative, has emailed me to claim that the rendition is not a felonious crime under Federal law or to say I have been wrong in the past in saying Bush is guilty of the crime.)

On April 24th The Times ran an article -- at the bottom of an inside page (page 6) to be sure, just like it buried news of the holocaust during the War -- saying that Human Rights Watch had reported that there was "‘overwhelming evidence’" of "‘mistreatment and torture"’ by Americans at various places on the globe, that George Tenet could be liable as an accomplice to torture, and that Alberto Gonzales "‘was himself deeply involved in the policies leading to these alleged crimes,’" as he certainly was when he was White House Counsel. The Times itself said that "the government has shown no interest in an independent inquiry" into the question of torture and abuse, and that "Republicans in Congress" have "blocked" one.

On April 28th the redoubtable Bob Herbert wrote -- anyone who wants a decent American society ought to thank God for Bob Herbert -- that "the big shots who presided over a system that ran shamefully amok . . . [have] escaped virtually unscathed," because in the world of George Bush "it’s the grunts who take the heat. Punishment is reserved for the people at the bottom. The people who foul up at the top are promoted." (My only quarrel with what Herbert wrote is that lately it seems that lots of the grunts are being acquitted by military tribunals -- as one would cynically expect? -- so that the grunts too are escaping punishment, just like the big shots.)

In an editorial printed (or reprinted) in its National Weekly Edition of May 2-8, The Washington Post said (correctly) that extreme torture practices, like waterboarding (i.e., "simulated drowning"), were approved at "White House meetings presided over" by Gonzalez, and that "the Bush administration and the Republicans in Congress have repeatedly rejected calls for [an independent] commission or a special prosecutor to investigate how "such widespread and serious war crimes came about."

In a brilliant column printed (or reprinted) in The Post’s National Edition of May 9-15, Eugene Robinson asked "will history’s verdict" on the war on terrorism, "be tempered by shame?" He then wrote:

. . . . The White House and Pentagon officials who opened the door to these abuses, and the careerist Army brass who oversaw the brutality, sit comfortably in their offices, talking disingenuously of "rogue" privates and sergeants.

. . . Some prisoners were "rendered" to cooperating countries where old fashioned fingernail-pulling is a routine investigative technique. Others have simply "disappeared," as if the U.S. government were some Latin American junta whose generals wear gold-braided epaulets as big as vultures.

. . . . How can President Bush preach to the world about democracy, about transparency, about the rule of law, and at the same time disregard national and international law at will? What message can Vladimir Putin be hearing? Or the dictators in Beijing? Or the mullahs in Tehran? The thing is, history tends to be relentless in pursuit of the truth -- and its judgments tend to be harsh. (Emphasis added.) World War II may have forged the Greatest Generation, but the internment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps will never be excused.

History will not be kind to government lawyers who invented ways to interpret statutes against torture so that they permitted the abuses they were designed to prohibit. It will not be kind to medical doctors who attended interrogation sessions that clearly crossed the line -- doctors who helped inflict pain rather than alleviate it. There will be no free pass for the Bush administration officials who permitted torture, or for a Congress that let them get away with it. (Emphasis added.)

Robinson is right, obviously so. History ultimately gives no free pass to evildoers. Even the South (Bush country), after 80 years of getting a free pass by temporarily winning the ideological battle over what the Civil War was about, ultimately got its comeuppance when historians finally began telling the truth about what that war was about -- slavery -- in the last half of the 20th Century.

On May 18th a Times editorial said that "The White House and the Pentagon have refused to begin any serious examination of the policymaking that led to the . . . torture and even killing of prisoners," the "administration has stonewalled outside efforts to accomplish that task," and -- a point made here many times -- "The men who wrote the memos on legalized torture and evading the Geneva Conventions have been promoted." (Emphasis added.) (Those men would, of course, include John Yoo, Jay Bybee, Alberto Gonzalez and, it seems virtually certain, Jack Goldsmith, all of whom were promoted within government or went, or went back, to prestigious civilian jobs.)

On May 23rd The Times again editorialized that administration "stonewall[ing]" has "prevented any serious investigation of policy makers at the White House, the Justice Department and the Pentagon." But abuse, torture, and ultimately murdering prisoners and covering up the murders were the result "of the initial decision by Mr. Bush and his top advisers that they were not going to follow the Geneva Conventions, or indeed American law, for prisoners taken in anti-terrorist operations," and that humane treatment would be given "only when it suited ‘military necessity.’" (Emphasis added.) Translation (or at least this writer’s translation): Bush and his buddies adopted policies which led to murder. This, one thinks, makes them complicit in torture and murder, at least as of the date - - pretty much early on - - when they learned that torture and murder were the result.

On May 30th -- yesterday as I write this -- The Times carried a story saying that law firms which in my day were called "white shoe" firms -- the fancy Wall Street and Wall Street type firms from cities other than New York -- are now taking on the job, in droves, of representing prisoners at Guantanamo. This kind of thing would have been unthinkable in prior wars, and shows what even some of the upper crust of the deeply conservative law profession think of what Bush and company are doing. And on the same day, Bob Herbert said this:

. . . . The U.S. is now widely viewed as a brutal, bullying nation that countenances torture and operates hideous prison camps at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in other parts of the world -- camps where inmates have been horribly abused, gruesomely humiliated and even killed.

. . . . But the anger and rage among Muslims and others had been building for a long time, fueled by indisputable evidence of the atrocious treatment of detainees, terror suspects, wounded prisoners and completely innocent civilians in America’s so-called war against terror.

. . . . It’s now known that many of the individuals swept up and confined at Guantanamo and elsewhere were innocent.

. . . . This is much more than an image problem. The very idea of what it means to be American is at stake. The United States is a country that as a matter of policy (and in the name of freedom) "renders" people to regimes that specialize in the art of torture.

"How," asked Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, "can our State Department denounce countries for engaging in torture while the C.I.A. secretly transfers detainees to the very same countries for interrogation?"

. . . . William Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said in an interview last week that it’s important to keep in mind how policies formulated at the highest levels of government led inexorably to the abusive treatment of prisoners.

"The critical point is the deliberateness of this policy," he said. "The president gave the green light. The secretary of defense issued the rules. The Justice Department provided the rationale. And the C.I.A. tried to cover it up." (All emphases added.)

Amen, brother. Schultz has it exactly right, including that "‘The President gave the green light.’" This is "Murder, she wrote," to steal a phrase from Agatha Christie (and television too). Bush (and his buddies) authorized it, others carried it out, and a spineless, purely politically oriented, Republican controlled Congress has been complicit by not putting a stop to any of it and not arranging for the top dogs (to make a bad pun) to be investigated and punished for it.

On May 31st The Boston Globe carried an op ed column coauthored by Ralph Nader saying it is time to consider the impeachment of Bush and Cheney, and to introduce a resolution of impeachment for this purpose, because of the lies and distortions by which they took us into the Iraqi war. That impeachment proceedings are desirable is a point made a few times previously on this blog (albeit in connection with the serious felony of conspiracy to commit torture), but this is the first time this writer has seen impeachment called for in a publication that is a member of the mass media, much less a prominent member. And whatever one may think of Nader, who is perhaps not the great man of 35 years ago -- although he is right about a lot of what is wrong in this society -- the fact remains that he also is right in saying that lies and distortions paved the road to war. The fact also remains that a major (even if highly liberal) publication, one owned by The New York Times no less, chose to carry a column calling for impeachment. One doubts The Globe would have done this two years ago, one year ago, or even six months or three months ago.

So, as indicated, lately one has been hearing and reading some pretty tough comments about what Bush and his buddies have done. This is long overdue, but seems to finally have begun. And as for all the people of the country who have been and remain silent about it (which includes almost all of the media notwithstanding the recent efforts of The Times and The Post), and/or who voted for Bush in 2004 after we had learned what was going on, such people too, I would judge, are complicit, just like the Congress. Silent citizens, including the media, are complicit no less than the Germans of the 1930s and 1940s. Of course, like the Germans of those days, Americans have lots of reasons to ignore what is going on. They are busy with their own lives and families, they are busy with their jobs, politics doesn’t interest them, and so on. What is more, most of us feel, and probably are, helpless to force Bush to stop it. But it is being done in the name of Americans, and, unlike the Germans under the Nazis, Americans could speak out against it without being hung from meathooks. I do not understand how a failure to speak out is anything other than complicity, especially in a country that brags about its citizens having the right to speak and the right to vote. And this goes double for the press, which, after all, owns one, as Mark Twain once had it. (Wasn’t it he who said that this country has freedom of the press for the man who owns one?)*

*This posting represents the personal views of Lawrence R. Velvel. If you wish to respond to this email/blog, please email your response to me at Your response may be posted on the blog if you have no objection; please tell me if you do object.

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