NEW YORK—George W. Bush has shoved American politics into the dark realm of the lunatic right, zipping past Joe McCarthy into territory previously covered by historical accounts of Germany in the 1940s.
We've lost our right to see an attorney, to confront our accusers, even to get a fair trial. Government agents have kidnapped thousands of people, many of whom have never been heard from again. Bush even signed an edict claiming the right to assassinate anyone, including you and me, based solely on his whims. Torture, the ultimate sign that civilized society has been replaced by a police state, was repeatedly authorized by government officials who smirked the few times reporters had the temerity to ask them about it.
The 2000, 2004 and 2008 presidential elections have been and will prove to be decisive moments in American history. In each case, the American people were offered a stark choice between a future of freedom and one under tyranny.
In 2000, the American people chose dictatorship, watching passively as a rogue Supreme Court violated the Constitution and handed Bush the keys to the White House. We had a chance to restore the vision of the original Framers in 2004. Instead, we sat on our asses while Bush stole yet another election. The 2008 race could mark our last chance to get back the system of government we enjoyed before the Dec. 20, 2000, coup.
We must elect—by an overwhelming, theft-proof majority—a candidate who promises to renounce Bush and all his works. A reform-minded president's first act should be to sign a law that reads as follows: "The federal government of the United States having been illegitimate and illegal since January 20, 2001, all laws, regulations, executive orders, and acts of commission or omission enacted between that infamous day and 12 noon Eastern Standard Time on Jan. 20, 2009, are hereby declared invalid and without effect." Guantanamo, secret prisons, extraordinary rendition, spying on Americans' phone calls and e-mails, and "legal" torture would be erased. Our troops should immediately pull out of Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Somalia; we should apologize to our victims and offer to compensate them and their survivors. Bush should never appear on any list of American presidents. When he dies, his carcass shouldn't receive a state funeral. It ought to be thrown in the trash.
Unfortunately, no one like that is running for president. To the contrary, most of the major presidential candidates want to accelerate America's slide into outright moral bankruptcy. Inspired by what good people find appalling, America's Mayor has turned into America's Maniac. Torture, says Rudy Giuliani, is smart. He endorses the medieval practice of waterboarding, revived in CIA torture chambers after 9/11, in which a person is strapped to a board, tipped back and forced to inhale water to induce the sensation of drowning.
"It depends on how it's done," Giuliani said when asked about waterboarding and whether it is torture. "It depends on the circumstances. It depends on who does it." Giuliani used to be a federal prosecutor. Would he have used similar logic in the prosecution of an accused torturer?
The mayor-turned-monster even used a campaign stop in Iowa to mock the victims of sleep deprivation, long acknowledged by international law as one of the severest forms of torture. "They talk about sleep deprivation," he said. "I mean, on that theory, I'm getting tortured running for president of the United States. That's plain silly. That's silly."
Waterboarding causes pain, brain damage and broken bones (from the restraints used on struggling victims), and death. Survivors are psychologically scarred. "Some victims were still traumatized years later," Dr. Allen Keller, director of the Bellevue/New York University Program for Survivors of Torture, told The New Yorker. "One patient couldn't take showers, and panicked when it rained."
Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin described the sleep deprivation he suffered as a captive of the Soviet KGB: "In the head of the interrogated prisoner, a haze begins to form. His spirit is wearied to death, his legs are unsteady, and he has one sole desire: to sleep ... Anyone who has experienced this desire knows that not even hunger and thirst are comparable with it."
Giuliani isn't the only wanna-be Torturer-in-Chief. Congressman Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican, offered this Lincolnesque rhetorical gem at one of the debates: "What do we do in the response to a nuclear—or the fact that a nuclear device or some bombs have gone off in the United States? We know that there are—we have captured people who have information that could lead us to the next one that's going to go off and it's the big one ... I would do—certainly, waterboard—I don't believe that that is, quote, 'torture.'"
In an appearance on Fox News' Hannity and Colmes, Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said the United States does and should torture: "We have received good solid information from [torture], and have saved American lives because of it."
Duncan Hunter made fun of the concentration camp at Guantanamo: "You got guys like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed [a detainee victim of U.S. waterboarding], "who said that he planned the attack on 9/11. You got Osama bin Laden's bodyguards. Those guys get taxpayer-paid-for prayer rugs. They have prayer five times a day. They've all gained weight. The last time I looked at the menu, they had honey-glazed chicken and rice pilaf on Friday. That's how we treat the terrorists. They've got health care that's better than most HMOs ... They live in a place called Guantanamo, where not one person has ever been murdered."
Three inmates have been found dead at Gitmo. (The military claimed they were suicides.) As of August 2003, at least 29 POWs had attempted suicide. Scores of hunger strikers are being force-fed. Fred Thompson says he won't authorize waterboarding "as a matter of course" but likes to keep his options open. Mitt Romney punts questions about waterboarding: "I don't think as a presidential candidate it is appropriate for me to weigh in on specific forms of interrogation that our CIA would employ. In circumstances of extreme threat to the nation, where we employ what is known as enhanced interrogation techniques, we don't describe those techniques."
At a Democratic debate in New Hampshire, Barack Obama refused to rule out torture. "Now, I will do whatever it takes to keep America safe. And there are going to be all sorts of hypotheticals [presumably, Tancredo's hoary "ticking time bomb" fantasy] and emergency situations, and I will make that judgment at that time." Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden said they agree with Obama. Democrats Bill Richardson, John Edwards and Chris Dodd have offered unequivocal stances against torture. On the Republican side, only John McCain and Ron Paul have done so. Even McCain, himself a victim of torture in Vietnam, refuses to rule out voting to confirm Bush's attorney general nominee, Michael Mukasey. "If it amounts to torture," Mukasey said of waterboarding, "then it is not constitutional."
Ted Rall is the author of the new book Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.