Questions We Wouldn't Ask In A Sane World
On Wednesday, in response to a question from the opposition, a minister of the Crown stood in the House of Commons and assured the honourable members that neither he nor the Prime Minister of Canada advocates the murder of Julian Assange.
Which is nice, I suppose. But it's also troubling.
How is it possible that in this most civilized of nations, in 2010, a member of Parliament felt the need to raise the matter? And while we're asking rhetorical questions that would not need to be asked in a sane world, how is it possible that the Republican party has so completely embraced aggression and brutality that almost all its leading figures feel the near-drowning of suspects is a valid interrogation technique and imprisonment without charge or trial is a legitimate practice that should be expanded? Why is it that most people in the United States and elsewhere are not disturbed in the slightest that, despite abundant evidence, American officials who apparently committed heinous crimes in the war on terror will not be investigated and held to account, while Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who apparently did nothing illegal this week, is hunted to the ends of the Earth? And how in hell is it possible that when a former president of the United States of America admits he authorized the commission of torture - which is to say, he admits he committed a major crime - the international media and political classes express not a fraction of the anger they are now directing at the man who leaked the secrets of that president's administration?
I marvel at that paragraph. It would have been inconceivable even 10 years ago. Murder treated as a legitimate option in political discourse? Torture as acceptable government policy? No, impossible. A decade ago, it would have been satire too crude to be funny.
And yet, here we are.
The question in the Commons Wednesday was prompted by the televised comments of Tom Flanagan, political scientist and former chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. "I think Assange should be assassinated, actually," Flanagan said Tuesday.
This was the hard-right id laid bare. The day before, Sarah Palin said much the same. Explicitly or implicitly, so did many others, including journalist Bill Kristol, Congressman Pete King, blogger John Hawkins, and the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal. Even in Canada, Flanagan wasn't the first to advocate Mafia tactics. That honour, such as it is, goes to Ezra Levant, a columnist with the Sun newspaper chain and the man who distinguished himself on the Omar Khadr file by arguing it was unfortunate American soldiers didn't grease the wounded 15-year-old on the spot. "They should have walked up to him and shot him like a mangy dog," as Levant so memorably put it.
Incidentally, Ezra Levant will soon host a primetime show on the new Sun news channel. One expects many more such bon mots.
Happily for the cause of decency, sanity and civilization, Tom Flanagan apologized for his comments. Less happily, the others did not. "The way in which so many political commentators so routinely and casually call for the eradication of human beings without a shred of due process is nothing short of demented," wrote Salon's Glenn Greenwald.
It started on Sept. 11, 2001. We were frightened. We were prepared to think the unthinkable, to accept what had been rejected, in the name of security. What was it Ben Franklin said about those who would trade liberty for security? We couldn't remember.
It was small stuff at first. There was talk of "stress-and-duress" interrogation techniques. It's only sleep deprivation and a little pain, we were told. It's not torture. Oh, no. When Abu Ghraib revealed what this meant in practice, we were shocked. Or most of us were, rather. Some had already become morally numb.
Incarceration without charge or trial. Kidnapping. "Enhanced interrogation." Detainee deaths. We learned more and more but cared less and less.
A 2009 Pew poll found half of Americans think torture is "often" or "sometimes" justified when interrogating terrorists. Another 22 per cent say it's "rarely" the right thing to do. Only one-quarter say it's always wrong.
Critics now call the Republicans the "party of torture" for good reason. Almost two-thirds of Republican voters think torture is "often" or "sometimes" justified, while only 14 per cent think it's always wrong. Dick Cheney's bizarre and legally absurd claim that the near-drowning of prisoners - "waterboarding" - is acceptable because it isn't torture is now dogma among leading Republicans who either don't know or don't care that this and other policies they advocate would be deemed major crimes by any court in the civilized world.
Then along comes George W. Bush with a memoir and the boast that "damn right" he had authorized waterboarding. "It is hard to overstate the enormity of this admission," wrote Boris Johnson, the Conservative mayor of London. Waterboarding is torture. Torture is a major crime. Bush freely admitted it. And the Convention Against Torture requires authorities everywhere to investigate and prosecute "wherever there is reasonable ground to believe that an act of torture has been committed."
Which they refuse to do. And most people are just fine with that. Stuff the law.
Now, contrast this with Julian Assange. One can certainly argue - as I would - that Assange is an irresponsible zealot. One can also argue that there should be a law forbidding what he did this week. But there isn't. Legal analysts have looked hard but it seems that what Assange did wasn't a crime.
And a lot of people want the U.S. government to murder him.
I suppose, if I were considerably more cynical, and liked crude satire, it would be funny. But all it makes me feel is a vague sadness for something that has been lost.