There has been much throwing about of brains on the subject of “what to do” about the Bush Administration’s unabashed and openly confessed use of “interrogation techniques” that are, without question, classified under U.S. law as torture. There seems to be a ripening consensus among our great and good that nothing at all should be done about this perpetration of a capital crime by the top officials of the government — although one does descry, here and there, a hint that there might be a ritual sacrifice of one or two middling-high figures if the issue gets too hot to brush aside completely. (If I were, say, John Yoo, I’d be looking at sabbaticals in Dubai or Saudi Arabia — or Israel, maybe, where a man of his expertise in the rationalization of war crime could certainly find gainful employment.)

When the question of what to do about the torturers was put to Barack Obama on TV this week — after it was voted the single most important question that viewers wanted the president-elect to answer — he responded with his usual mealy-mouthed blather about a preference for “moving on” and “looking to the future not the past,” etc., etc., while throwing in a couple of non-commital pieties about the rule of law and so on. He even refused to say whether he would direct his attorney general to make a specific inquiry into allegations of torture — by anyone in government, much less top officials. Again, it seems clear that if it is at all possible, Obama will bury the issue several fathoms deep — just as Bill Clinton thwarted and killed off several investigations into high crimes by the first George Bush and his crew.

In any case, the “debate” on this question in the rarefied climes of Establishment goes on, even as the principals — George W. Bush and Dick Cheney — openly confess their crimes in a series of self-justifying “interviews” with pathetic, bootlicking toadies; i.e., the nation’s “media elite.” Yet on the same day that Obama was waffling about “moving forward” from that little spot of bother about interrogations, Bush was also on national television, openly confessing to at least one clear-cut, indisputable war crime — again, a capital crime under U.S. law: the torture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged “mastermind” of the 9/11 attacks. Bush said he authorized the use of a “list of tools” for interrogating KSM — tools which included waterboarding, as Dick Cheney confirmed in yet another television confession.

Perhaps the strangest thing about the torture “debate” is that there is any debate at all over “what to do” about those who ordered the crimes to be committed. Scott Horton at Harper’s explains what hundreds of years of Anglo-American jurisprudence clearly says about heads of state who order and countenance torture: they should be tried, and if convicted, executed. In fact, the verdict passed on the last head of state in this legal tradition who was found guilty of torture was that “he be taken to a place of execution, where his head was to be severed from his body by an axe.”

What’s more, this head of state — King Charles I — was specifically charged with the same crime that Bush and Cheney have confessed to: authorizing the “torture and brutal mistreatment of prisoners taken in wartime,” as Horton notes. So where’s the debate? Our laws, our traditions, all the long-held, deeply-rooted moral and civic principles to which our leaders loudly pledge fealty are clear: when a government official authorizes torture, he should be executed.

Personally, I’m against capital punishment. I would prefer to see Bush and Cheney sentenced to, say, a life term of emptying bedpans at a hospital — in Sadr City. But in any case, the law of the land says unequivocally that leaders guilty of ordering torture must face the most severe penalties. All of the elite hand-wringing and head-scratching and admonishments for “moving on” are so much sound and fury, signifying nothing but their own moral cowardice — and their true opinion about the “rule of law.”

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