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The prose of the recently leaked report of the International Committee of the Red Cross on torture seems colorless. It is at the same time obscene — almost pornographic.
The 41-page ICRC report depicts scenes of prisoners forced to remain naked for long periods, sometimes in the presence of women, often with their hands shackled over their heads in "stress positions" as they are left to soil themselves.
The report's images of sadism also include prisoners slammed against walls, locked in tiny boxes, and strapped to a bench and subjected to the drowning sensation of waterboarding.
How could it be that we Americans tolerate the kind of leaders who would subject others to systematic torture — yes, that’s what the official report of the international body charged with monitoring the Geneva agreements on the treatment of prisoners concludes — torture.
Over the past week I have been asked to explain how this could have happened; who authorized the torture in our name? The Red Cross report lacks the earmarks of rogues or “rotten apples” at the bottom of some barrel.
This is what I have been telling those who ask:
Rather than Harry Truman’s famous motto on his Oval Office desk, “The Buck Stops Here,” this was a case of “The Buck Starts Here.” President George W. Bush set the tone and created the framework, with strong support from Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
The first hints of what was in store came from the President himself in the White House bunker late on Sept. 11, 2001, at a meeting with his closest national security advisers after his TV address to the nation about the terrorist attacks that morning.
The vengeful bunker mentality prevailing at that meeting comes through clearly in the report of one of the participants, Richard Clarke in his book, Against All Enemies. Describing the President as confident, determined, forceful, Clarke provides the following account of what President Bush said:
“We are at war.… Nothing else matters. … Any barriers in your way, they’re gone.”
When, later in the discussion, Secretary Rumsfeld noted that international law allowed the use of force only to prevent future attacks and not for retribution, Bush nearly bit his head off.
“No,” the President yelled in the narrow conference room, “I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.”
‘Taking the Gloves Off’
In the weeks that followed, the air in Washington hung heavy with demons of retribution. Afghanistan was invaded in October 2001, and during a prisoner uprising on Nov. 25, a CIA officer was killed there.