Specifically, the use of torture as an openly admitted, formally recognized instrument of national policy, approved at the highest level of government. The Bush Administration has now dropped all pretense that it is not engaging in interrogation techniques and incarceration practices long recognized by both international and U.S. law as blatantly criminal. What's more, the Administration boldly asserts that the president can simply ignore laws prohibiting torture if he feels that circumstances warrant the use of "interrogation methods that might otherwise be prohibited under international law," the New York Times reported over the weekend.
(The Washington Post had a similar story -- similarly buried deep inside the paper. A brazen declaration of presidential tyranny -- in the service of torture, no less -- was considered worth mentioning somewhere in the "papers of record," but obviously not worth making a big fuss about.)
Torture is at the very heart of the Bush presidency, the most quintessential manifestation of its governing philosophy: a "Commander-in-Chief" state, where presidential directives can override any law in the name of "national security." The use of torture demonstrates that not even the most heinous crimes -- including techniques used by Nazi sadists and KGB brutes -- are beyond the pale of the "unitary executive's" arbitrary will. On the basis of this authoritarian power -- established through a series of presidential orders and "legal" opinions by appointed lackeys -- many other crimes can be "justified": aggressive war; kidnapping and rendition; indefinite detention; secret prisons; warrantless surveillance; even the "extrajudicial killing" of people the president designates as terrorists or terrorist "suspects."
The highest officials of the Bush Administration have gone to enormous lengths to twist, pervert and destroy legal precepts that have been in force in Anglo-American law for centuries -- precisely because they know that their policies are criminal under any reasonable understanding of the law. Bush, and the likely prime mover of the torture regime, longtime authoritarian Dick Cheney, were told at the very beginning that the policies they were instigating would leave them and their minions open to criminal charges. That's why the Administration's legal hacks have devoted so much relentless attention on subverting the Geneva Conventions, which are incorporated into and have the full force of American law.
Bush and his minions know that if the rule of law is ever restored -- even partially and imperfectly -- they will be rightly be subject to prosecution, imprisonment and possibly even execution.
And this is why torture is the core issue -- perhaps the only real issue -- in the presidential campaign. Iraq is not really an issue; whoever wins, the war will go on, in one form or another. Even under the so-called withdrawal plans of the "progressive" candidates, Americans will be killing and dying in Iraq for years to come. As for the economy, by their own admission none of the presidential aspirants will do anything more than tinker around the edges of the present rapacious system -- an unholy marriage of crony capitalism and corporate socialism that has devastated America's communities, left millions with harsher, diminished lives, corrupted civic society and degraded and homogenized American culture. For the elite factions that thrive on war profits and the brutal economic structure, none of the candidates represents a serious enough threat for any action -- beyond the usual lying, sabotage, vote-rigging and media manipulation to get their favorite into power, of course.
But torture is a different matter. Consider how many very powerful people -- and hundreds of their minions -- face very serious charges if the next president decides to apply the law. Will they really allow this to happen? Or even risk allowing this to happen?
Right now, the torturers control the military and the security apparatus, including many secret forces and units that we know little or nothing about. They have already used these assets to launch a war of aggression, to instigate a system of torture, to spy without restraint on the American people, and to imprison anyone in the world they claim is a terrorist. Why should we imagine that they will draw the line at using these assets to save themselves from prison -- or the poison needle?
It would seem then that the Bush Administration has only two choices: cut a deal with the candidates on torture -- or eliminate them from the race, one way or another. It goes without saying that John McCain will do nothing but revel in the authoritarian powers brought into the open by Bush; certainly it is inconceivable that he would ever prosecute the instigators of the Bush torture regime. Thus the focus here falls on the winner of the Democratic nomination.
It is Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton who will have to come to terms with the Bush team on torture. (If they have not already done so, that is. Given the intimate, growing personal ties between the Bushes and the Clintons, one could plausibly surmise that Clinton at least has already signalled her benevolent intentions on this point. But perhaps not. The true relations of our ruling families remain forever obscured from the rabble. Meanwhile, Obama is clearly leaning in the "right" direction, as noted here, although he retains a little wiggle room; perhaps he's not yet sealed the deal.)
In the most benign scenario for these negotiations, perhaps some small fry will be offered up as a PR sop for the victor. Just as Scooter Libby took the fall for Karl Rove (in another obvious backroom deal), we might see John Yoo or that despised putz-for-all-seasons, Doug Feith, put on trial, while Bush, Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Condi Rice and the other "principals" go free.
But it is much more likely that any acknowledgement of criminality will be unacceptable to the torturers. It would establish a principle -- or rather, re-establish a principle -- that would forever leave them open to future prosecution.
So again, we come down to a stark choice for the Democratic candidate: either agree to "move on" from "bitter partisan rancor" over "enhanced interrogation techniques" -- or else. There are of course several ways to eliminate someone from public life; the tools have been refined somewhat since the days when "lone gunmen" stalked the land, removing inconvenient figures.
But given the proven nature of the Bush team -- and the dire consequences they face from any normal, rightful application of the law -- we should assume that they will do whatever it takes to escape those consequences.
And that's why torture is the decisive issue of this campaign. But this decision will not be in the hands of the voters; it will be made -- as most of the decisions that govern our lives are made -- in the inner sanctums of elite power.