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unimaginative2
2007-Dec-12, 17:04
The politics of waterboarding: health care v. torture


JOHN IBBITSON

The Globe and Mail

December 12, 2007

The high-ranking al-Qaeda prisoner wasn't co-operating. So they strapped him to a board, wrapped his mouth and nose in cellophane and forced water down his throat. Within half a minute, he was singing like Ethel Merman. According to a former CIA operative, that information disrupted planned attacks and saved lives.

It's called waterboarding and, under the direction of the Bush White House, the CIA practised it and videotaped two sessions, then destroyed the tapes when it seemed likely it would be forced to hand them over.

Most of the Republican presidential candidates are prepared to sanction water-boarding. (Only Mike Huckabee, John McCain and Ron Paul oppose its use.) The Democratic candidates have strongly condemned it.

The politics of waterboarding demonstrates the contrasting realities of the Republican and Democratic parties.

For the Republicans, America is still at war and, in war, things are justified that would not be permitted in peace. The Democrats believe that, if there was a war, it's over and time to move on.

What does the public think? Just ask the arch-conservative National Review, which concluded in a cover story: "Republicans are sleepwalking into catastrophe." Their party is so far removed from the electorate's concerns, the story says, that just as the 1980 election that put Ronald Reagan in office ushered in a generation of conservative governments, so 2008 could send conservatives into the wilderness for decades to come.

Waterboarding perfectly demonstrates their argument. It is torture, plain and simple, although Mitt Romney and the new Attorney-General, Michael Mukasey don't seem to grasp that. Those who have experienced it, such as U.S. Navy Seals being trained to resist torture, invariably beg for it to stop within seconds.

As such, waterboarding is a violation of both U.S. law and the Geneva Conventions. But five years ago - when, by the way, congressional Democratic leaders were briefed on the practice and raised no objections - Americans weren't thinking about the legal niceties. The country had been savagely attacked, and could be attacked again at any time.

In times of war, Americans set aside the rules. Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War. Woodrow Wilson pushed through the Espionage and Sedition Acts to stifle dissent during the First World War. And the United States didn't hesitate to spy, fund proxy wars and assassinate heads of government in the cause of defending freedom throughout the Cold War.

So after Andrew Card whispered "America is under attack" into George W. Bush's ear during his visit to a classroom on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, leaders of both parties elevated security above human rights, and the public agreed. This was a national emergency, and there was no time for lawyers. Americans told their leaders: If someone has information, get it from him and don't tell us how you did it.

The Democrats believe that, while vigilance is still necessary, the war in Iraq transformed and debased the war on terror. In any case, by now, there should be no Guantanamos, no laws that violate the Constitution, and no practices that violate the laws.

For the Republicans, the danger remains clear and present. Front-runner Rudy Giuliani is campaigning on a single theme: Only he is tough enough to protect America from renewed attack. Mitt Romney would double the size of Guantanamo if he could.

Where is the electorate? Polls show voters are as likely to trust the Democrats as the Republicans when it comes to security and the war in Iraq.

With the war-on-terror question a wash, that makes domestic policy dominant. And, as the National Review observed, "it is almost impossible to exaggerate the Democratic advantage on domestic issues: If it's an issue, they lead."

Not only Republican politicians but also Republican grassroots have lost touch with the broader population. Americans want health care they can count on, schools that teach, air that stops warming.

As for core Republican priorities - cutting taxes and spending, ending welfare abuse, preventing abortion, fighting crime - these issues aren't that important any more.

It comes to this: Democrats promise better health care while Republicans defend torture. Which may explain the National Review's headline: The Coming Cataclysm.

jibbitson@globeandmail.com