Thomas Paine v. the Right's torture defenders

One of the heroes invoked by torture-lovers had nothing but contempt for their views.

Published August 25, 2009 5:26PM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II)

GOP Congressman Peter King -- the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee -- had this rancid outburst today in Politico regarding Eric Holder's decision to investigate whether laws were broken by the Bush administration's torture:

"It’s bullshit. It’s disgraceful. You wonder which side they’re on. [It's' a] declaration of war against the CIA, and against common sense. . . . When Holder was talking about being 'shocked' [before the report's release], I thought they were going to have cutting guys' fingers off or something -- or that they actually used the power drill. . . "

Pressed on whether interrogators had actually broken the law, King said he didn't think the Geneva Convention "applies to terrorists."

Never mind that the Supreme Court in Hamdan ruled exactly the opposite:  that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions applies to all detainees, including accused Terrorists.  Never mind that the War Crimes Act makes it a felony to inflict "prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from . . . the threat of imminent death; or the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering. . . ."  and that these acts are therefore criminal whether or not King likes them.

Never mind that scores of people have died -- not merely been threatened with death -- in American custody as a result of "interrogation tactics."  Never mind that Ronald Reagan signed the Convention Against Torture which compels the U.S. to prosecute anyone authorizing torture; that the Treaty proclaims that "no exceptional circumstances whatsoever . . . may be invoked as a justification of torture"; and that Reagan himself said the Treaty "will clearly express United States opposition to torture, an abhorrent practice unfortunately still prevalent in the world today."  And most of all, never mind that King has no idea whether these people are actually "terrorists" because the people we tortured were never given trials, never proven to have done anything wrong, and in many cases were -- as federal courts have repeatedly found and as the CIA IG Report itself recognized -- completely innocent. 

My email inbox and comment section are filled with King-like accusatory sentiments that to oppose Torture is to defend Terrorists, because Terrorists deserve to be tortured, and that to oppose their abuse is to be treasonous because it's terrible to care if Terrorists are abused, etc. etc.  In his 1795 essay, which he entitled Dissertations on First Principles of Government, Thomas Paine wrote this as his last paragraph:

An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws. He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.

Can that be any clearer?  Of course, Paine also wrote in Common Sense that "so far as we approve of monarchy, that in America the law is king" and "in free countries the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other."  And in his Dissertations, he also wrote:

The executive is not invested with the power of deliberating whether it shall act or not; it has no discretionary authority in the case; for it can act no other thing than what the laws decree, and it is obliged to act conformably thereto. . . .

For anyone who believes in the basic principles of the founding, the fact that these acts of torture are illegal -- felonies -- ought to end the discussion about whether they were justified.

Few things are more repellent than watching the contemporary Right in America invoke the principles of the Founders -- in general -- to justify their warped and lawless authoritarianism.  But nothing is more repulsive than watching them pretend that Thomas Paine -- of all people -- has anything to do with them (Glenn Beck actually wrote his most recent book based on the explicit pretense that he is the modern day Paine).  Any casual reading of Paine makes clear that, today, he would be so far on what is deemed the "left" side of the spectrum that you'd be unable to find him.  Paine is nothing but what Joe Klein refers to as a "crazy civil liberties absolutist" and what Rush Limbaugh similarly calls "far, fringe, lunatic kooks, far left radical lunatic fringe." 

The Right today argues that condemning torture is wrong because the people who were tortured were just Terrorists -- barely human -- and they deserve no defense, not even the force of law.  Thomas Paine argued as a first principle that those devoted to liberty "must guard even his enemy from oppression."  Could the contrast be any more stark?


UPDATE:  The version of the IG Report released yesterday was heavily, heavily redacted.  It is now being reported that several of the redacted provisions detailed at least some of the deaths of detainees at the hands of their U.S. captors, while other detainees were simply "lost."


UPDATE II:  Tomorrow morning, I'll be on Democracy Now with Amy Goodman, at roughly 8:10 a.m. EST, to discuss all of these recent torture-related events.  Local listings and live video feed are here.

By Glenn Greenwald

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Peter King R-n.y. Torture