Here’s what I thought when I heard the Conservative Political Action Conference has decided to honor former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld with something CPAC calls the “Defender of the Constitution Award.”
As I imagine CPAC is aware, Rumsfeld is the man who signed the very first memo authorizing the torture techniques that later became infamous with the revelations of photos from Abu Ghraib prison. Philippe Sands wrote the definitive book on the subject; it’s called “Torture Team: Rumsfeld’s Memo and the Betrayal of American Values.” The topic is also thoroughly covered in the bipartisan report of the Senate Armed Services Committee, “Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody,” which concluded:
The abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own. Interrogation techniques such as stripping detainees of their clothes, placing them in stress positions, and using military working dogs to intimidate them appeared in Iraq only after they had been approved for use in Afghanistan and at GTMO. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s December 2, 2002 authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques and subsequent interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody. What followed was an erosion in standards dictating that detainees be treated humanely.
I thought about how different things might be today if, instead of Rumsfeld, America had been blessed with a Defense Secretary who really was a defender of the Constitution, and who therefore would have refused to partake in its violation. Someone who valued the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, who understood that the Constitution elevates to the Supreme Law of the Land treaties like the Geneva Conventions and the United Nations Convention Against Torture. Certainly we’d be safer. Our standing in the world, and in our own eyes, would be undiminished. And of course the Constitution itself would be stronger, having been spared a withering assault.
I thought about people like Alberto Mora, who fought Rumsfeld’s torture memos as the Navy’s General Counsel, and Major General Antonio Taguba, who was forced to retire for his critical report on torture at Abu Ghraib, and Air Force interrogators like Major Matthew Alexander and Col. Steve Kleinman, who have fought heroically against torture (Alexander’s most recent book, Kill or Capture, comes out today). I thought again of the Constitution, and of the condition it might be in today if these men had won and Rumsfeld had lost.
And then I thought about what kind of person, in the face of all this, would choose to honor a key architect and enabler of America’s torture regime as a “Defender of the Constitution.” You’d have to be an unfortunate combination: partisan, cynical, intellectually empty. You’d have to perceive of the Constitution primarily as a cheap prop in a public relations campaign, and be willing to exploit it that way. You’d have to be ignorant of irony and oblivious to Orwell.
All of which is a pretty fair description of what today in America passes for conservatism. It’s a movement that doesn’t know the difference between a defense and a desecration, and celebrates them as one and the same.