Twenty years from now, how will we remember this "global war on terrorism''? Assuming it's over by then -- assuming we haven't escalated a fight against al Qaeda into an all-out clash of civilizations -- will we look back on the GWOT, as Washington bureaucrats call it, and feel pride in the nation's resolve and sacrifice? Or will history's verdict be tempered by shame?
The answer will depend on how this Congress comes to terms with the documented mistreatment of prisoners in Afghanistan, Guantanamo, Iraq and who knows where else in the secret archipelago of U.S. detention.
The Bush administration and the Pentagon are whitewashing the whole thing. Congress still has the chance to uphold this nation's ideals and values, and some Senate Republicans (Lindsey Graham, John McCain, John Warner) vow to seek accountability. Given the inaction so far, though, I'm not holding my breath -- unlike the prisoners who were apparently tortured by "waterboarding," an interrogation technique in which the subject is strapped down and held underwater until he feels himself at the point of drowning.
It was a year ago when the first snapshots emerged from Abu Ghraib -- the pyramids of naked men; the vicious dogs lunging at naked men; and Lynndie England with her leash, leading a naked man like an animal. The one I can't get out of my mind is the hooded prisoner with wires attached to his genitals, fearing electrocution but seeming almost resigned to it, arms outstretched and head slightly inclined in a pose suggesting the Passion. It's something out of Hieronymus Bosch, a fantasy of Hell from the late Middle Ages.
A year later, only the low-ranking grunts who grinned and gave thumbs-ups while committing these sadistic acts have been made to answer. Only one ranking officer -- a reservist, a woman, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski -- has been sanctioned. The White House and Pentagon officials who opened the door to these abuses, and the careerist Army brass who oversaw the brutality, sit comfortably in their offices, talking disingenuously of "rogue" privates and sergeants.
Physicians for Human Rights has just issued a report finding that U.S. authorities carried out "an ongoing regime of psychological torture of detainees" in Afghanistan, Guantanamo and Iraq.
The U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which the United States has signed, bans the inflicting of severe "physical or mental" pain to obtain information or a confession. There's no way that the infliction of physical agony, prolonged sleep and sensory deprivation, confinement in painful positions for hours on end, sexual humiliation, threats with snarling dogs and other documented U.S. abuses fall short of the definition.
Some prisoners were "rendered" to cooperating countries where old-fashioned fingernail-pulling is a routine investigative technique. Others have simply "disappeared," as if the U.S. government were some Latin American junta whose generals wear gold-braided epaulets as big as vultures. Most prisoners have been given neither adequate military nor civilian rights. Many don't know why they were arrested or what charges they face.
It may be that these are all terrible people who wish to harm the United States -- we have no way of knowing, because the supposed evidence is secret. But even if they are, this mistreatment is wrong. If the price we pay for complete safety is complete abandonment of our ideals, the price is too high.
How can President Bush preach to the world about democracy, about transparency, about the rule of law, and at the same time disregard national and international law at will? What message can Vladimir Putin be hearing? Or the dictators in Beijing? Or the mullahs in Tehran?
The thing is, history tends to be relentless in pursuit of the truth -- and its judgments tend to be harsh. World War II may have forged the Greatest Generation, but the internment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps will never be excused.
History, I predict, will not be kind to government lawyers who invented ways to interpret statutes against torture so that they supposedly permitted the abuses they were designed to prohibit. It will not be kind to medical doctors who attended interrogation sessions that clearly crossed the line -- doctors who helped inflict pain rather than alleviate it. Ultimately, there will be no free pass for the Bush administration officials who permitted torture, or for a Congress that let them get away with it.