I don’t mean to seem overly excitable, but the upcoming presi- dential election in the United States strikes me as being of monumental importance. What the contest between George W. Bush and John Kerry amounts to, fundamentally, is a referen- dum on whether the United States wants to secede from Western civilization.
In fact, the secession began just under four years ago, when Bush was first elected. The question is whether the American people, having now seen the full consequences of that election, want to ratify it, or whether they want rejoin Western civilization and consign the second Bush presidency to the status of an aberration in the historical record.
Until recently, it has seemed clear that, no matter what differences of opinion we Canadians might have with the United States, they were largely mat- ters of strategy and detail. Underneath all the chatter, we knew that no matter what they did, Americans were still motivated by a basic set of principles that we all share, namely, liberal- democratic or ”œWestern” principles.
What has become increasingly clear, over the past four years, is that the Bush administration and the Republican Party do not share these principles.
When the United States first declared that prisoners taken during the war in Afghanistan would be denied prisoner-of-war status, along with the protection of the Geneva Convention, I was only mildly surprised, and like many people, only mildly concerned. After all, I thought, we’re talking about the United States here, they’re not going to be doing anything crazy in Guantanamo Bay. We can trust them.
A couple years later, it turns out that they were doing crazy things in Guantanamo.
The principles underlying the Geneva Convention protections are fairly straightforward. Normally, in order to impose hard treatment upon an individual, the state must prove that the person has committed a crime. Because of the enormous resources that the state has at its disposal, and the rel- ative disadvantage enjoyed by the accused, Western jurisprudence tradi- tionally imposes a heavy burden of proof upon the state, along with cer- tain rights to the accused.
In wartime, this is clearly inappro- priate for dealing with captured enemy soldiers, for the simple reason that the state also has an overriding interest in ensuring that they do not return to the field of battle. Thus it has seemed rea- sonable to err on the side of over- incarceration during wartime. But the flip side of this indulgence shown to the state ”” in particular, the relaxation of the usual burdens of proof ”” is that the state is not allowed to impose hard treatment upon prisoners of war.
What has become clear, in the past year, is that the United States has refused to grant the Geneva Convention protections to the prisoners at Guan- tanamo precisely because it intended to impose hard treatment upon them ”” treatment that, setting aside legal niceties, satisfies the conventional defi- nition of torture. Furthermore, it seems clear that the most despicable behavior in Iraq came closely upon the heels of a visit from the warden at Guantanamo, who offered his advice on how to get more useful information out of Iraqi prisoners.
I don’t want to flog an ailing horse here, but it’s important that we all recog- nize just how big a deal this is. The United States has not only Al-Qaeda, but also a large number of captured Taliban soldiers in Guantanamo ”” men who were clearly serving as part of the state military in Afghanistan. The rationale for refusing them prisoner-of-war status was that Afghanistan was not a real state at the time of the US-led invasion.
There is no question that the treat- ment at Guantanamo set the stan- dard for practices in Iraq. Without even getting into the Abu Ghraib debacle, suffice it to note that the United States has routinely imposed hard treatment not just upon captured soldiers of the Iraqi Army, but even upon uniformed officers (at least two of whom have died as a result of beatings in American inter- rogation facilities).
Of course, we all know that vast numbers of American citizens don’t care about any of this. What is more surprising is that so many members of the elite have failed to see the signifi- cance of these events, and in particu- lar, the extent to which they represent an attack upon the bedrock principles of a liberal-democratic political order.
Michael Moore is still upset about American participation in the bomb- ing of Bosnia. Yet if you ask whose side the United States was on in that con- flict, the answer is clearly ”œour side.” But if asked the same question now, with respect to the war in Iraq, I think it would be impossible in good con- science to say that the United States is any longer on ”œour side.”
They have, in effect, seceded from the West, and are playing on their own side now. The question is whether they really like it that way.