Monday, April 18, 2005

Exit to the Shadowlands

The Pentagon recently issued a draft of a new "Joint Doctrine for Detainee Operations." This schizophrenic document plays both good cop and bad cop in Bush's torture regimen. On the one hand, it officially enshrines the totally illegal and -- dare we say it? -- Kafkaesque classification of "enemy combatant" as a permanent fixture of U.S. policy, thus creating a whole new order of human beings: The Shadowlanders, the "Ghost Prisoners" -- Those Cast Into Outer Darkness Beyond All Reach of Law. Non-persons, basically, subject to the arbitrary will of the American Executive and his subordinates. If they say you're an "EC" -- for whatever reason, or none at all -- then you are, and that's that.

So there's your bad cop. Now comes a friendlier face. The Doctrine also declares that all detainees -- even subhuman EC scum -- must be treated humanely, according to US and international law, and "the laws of war." This of course follows the PR line Don Rumsfeld has long been pushing regarding his concentration camp in Cuba: "We provide these guys with Geneva protections, even though we don't have to." As innumerable revelations have shown over the past few months, this is the usual outright lie -- but still, it's a good thought, right? Good to see it codified in U.S. military doctrine, right?

Well, sure -- except for the little "out" clause that the good cop keeps in his pocket. And it's not the one that Human Rights Watch mentions in its wholly admirable -- and largely ignored -- condemnation of the Doctrine draft. HRW focuses this phrase: "[Enemy] combatants 'are still entitled to be treated humanely, subject to military necessity, consistent with the principles of [the Geneva Conventions]." HRW sees that "military necessity" as an opening for the kind of frisky horseplay so admired by Rush Limbaugh, LGF and other war-porn addicts.

But elsewhere, the Doctrine specifically states that no "military necessity" can justify violating the laws of war. This seems to be a contradiction, as HRW points out; but surely, the worthy ethicists at the Pentagon could claim with some justification that they are actually defining "military necessity" so narrowly that it can never be used to excuse inhumane treatment. In any case, the Doctrine leaves the point muddled -- perhaps deliberately so.

However, there is an unambiguous "out" for torture that HRW seems to have missed. Early on in its good-cop cajoling, the Doctrine says that "all the Armed Forces of the United States shall comply with the law of armed conflict during all armed conflicts, however such conflicts are characterized, and" -- wait for it, here it comes -- "unless otherwise directed by competent authorities, shall comply with the principles and spirit of the law of war during all other operations.” [italics added]

Well, there you are! What else do you need? However "military necessity" is or isn't defined, it doesn't matter: the requirement to treat detainees humanely can always be overridden by "directions" from "competent authorities." Isn't this where we came in? With "torture memos" issuing from the "competent authorities" of the White House and the Justice Department, setting out the "legal" justification for the whole system of death, brutality and degradation in the Bush Gulag. So what, exactly, is different about this new "doctrine," other than a new coat of PR paint?

The answer: nothing. The death and degradation will go on.

More on this theme at Home Cooking: Feast of the Conquerors.