Saturday, December 18, 2010

Part 4: Why Does this Matter? The Case for Democratic Responsibility

The Troubling Conclusion about Assigning Blame
On June 8, 2004, less than two months after the photos were released, the Washington Post (Priest and Smith 2004) revealed the two memos, written by Gonzalez and Bybee. The revealing of the “torture memos,” showed that the Bush administration had implemented policies that legalized torture and denied the authority of the Geneva Conventions. The American public was then aware of the pictures as well as the torture policies set in place by the Bush administration. Six months after the torture memos were revealed, 50.4% of American citizens (31/50 states) voted to re-elect George W. Bush as President. The victory was not overwhelming but it could be read as approval, apathy, or ignorance towards the administrations violation of international law. “Some of the reports are available to the public through the Internet and in book form as well, but they do not seem to have had an impact on public opinion or the information media.” (Mestrovic 2007, 49)
Congress did pass the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, which appeared to reverse the trend (Sadat 2007, 144). But, the Military Commissions Act of 2006 “codified many of the Bush administrations policies as a matter of federal law” (Sadat 2007,144). The act granted President Bush absolute authority to classify individuals as ‘unlawful enemy combatants’ denying them protection under the Geneva Conventions. The act also authorized coercive testimony, limited the federal courts authority to review detainee’s claims of wrongful detention (Smuelers and van Niekerk 2008, and Sadat 2007), and “as of this writing, strict adherence to the Geneva Conventions is not part of the discourse for fixing the damage to social relations caused by the abuse at Abu Ghraib.” (Mestrovic and Lorenzo 2008, 180) Also, in 2005, instead of being reprimanded by Congress or the American public, Alberto Gonzalez was promoted to Attorney General.
While the bad apple soldiers were being court-martialed, President Bush was being reelected, passing laws to legitimize his policies, and promoting on of two “torture memo” architects. This does not seem like justice but it does show that the administration was able to shift focus away from their illegal policies and systemic abuses throughout the military. Two of the ways they were able to do was the successfully argue that their policies were justified based through the moral, utility, and legal debates and by shifting all blame for detainee abuse on the bad apple soldiers. One explanation about why scapegoating works so well is summed up by Geoffrey Stone:
The most effective way to alleviate the public’s fears may be to demonstrate that their government is taking action, whether or not that action is likely otherwise to be effective. Sometimes this may calm the public, but the very fact that the government takes drastic action also affirms the legitimacy of the fear. (Stone 2007, 175)
How did the American people view the Abu Ghraib controversy? How did they interpret the policies implemented by the Bush Administration? How much did the public know or care about the detainee abuse or the administrations policies? I believe that these are important questions and if answered could help us better understand the power that public opinion has in shaping policy and how much power public policy has on shaping public opinion. I think it is important for the American citizenry to understand its responsibility as political actors in a democratic society because elected official are by nature responsive to the wants of voters and are likely to act (Stone 2007). But if voters respond in fear and react positively to decisive action regardless of the consequences, then they authorize their leaders to justify deviant means and therefore implicate themselves as complicit in criminal behavior. As Stone remarks “The preservation of liberty requires citizens to rise above their most basic instincts. This must be learned and relearned with each generation.” (Stone 2007, 173)
If Stone is correct, then we need to dedicate our attention to answering these questions about the morality, utility, and legality of torture. We need to hold our leaders accountable for their actions because if we don’t, we support policies like those of the Bush administration that create resistance to our nation as a whole.
Through the sliding of meanings in the words and concepts it uses, The United States has cast a wide net in depicting any resistance as insurgency and terrorism. On the other hand the Islamic world has cast a wide net in depicting all intentions by the United States as Negative. (Mestrovic 2007, 197)
When we support oppressive policy, we support the resistance to the United States.

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