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March 13, 2008

The Golden Rule


Charles Peña

As children, most of us learned the so-called golden rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Or in more plain language: "Treat others as you would like to be treated." Also known as the ethic of reciprocity, the golden rule is a moral principle common to most of the world's religions, including Christianity and Islam. According to Matthew 7:12, "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets." And according to the Prophet Mohammed, "Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you." While the golden rule is not an absolute guide to determine which actions are right or wrong, it is an important test of moral consistency and coherence. In that respect, two policies of the Bush administration promulgated in the name of the war on terrorism have failed the test.

First is the policy of extraordinary rendition, which is the apprehension and extralegal transfer of a person from one state to another. Beyond the fact that such action essentially amounts to kidnapping, the rendition program is controversial because the United States has transferred suspected terrorists to countries where harsh interrogation techniques (that would probably otherwise be considered torture by US standards) are not prohibited. Defending the practice of rendition, President Bush argued that "one way to [protect the American people] is to arrest people and send them back to their country of origin, with the promise that they won't be tortured. That's the promise we receive. This country does not believe in torture. We do believe in protecting ourselves. We don't believe in torture." And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has asserted, "The United States has not transported anyone, and will not transport anyone, to a country when we believe he will be tortured." Yet since 9/11, suspected terrorists have been rendered to Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen – which have all been criticized by the State Department's annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for "torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." Apparently Rice doesn't bother to read the reports published by the department she heads.

(It is important to point out that the extraordinary rendition program was actually in place in the Clinton administration prior to 9/11 (there are at least 14 known cases of extraordinary rendition during the Clinton's tenure as president and 12 of those were to Egypt, where at least three were executed). But its primary purpose was not for interrogation. According to former National Security Council member Richard Clarke, "Extraordinary renditions were operations to apprehend terrorists abroad." And according to former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer, the purpose of the rendition program was "to dismantle these terrorist cells overseas. We wanted to get suspects off the streets and grab their papers. The interrogation part wasn't important." This is not to say that persons were not interrogated in the countries to which they were rendered. And in all likelihood, they were tortured. According to Scheuer, "I would not, however, be surprised if their [rendered persons'] treatment was not up to US standards." Even more specifically, "There were no qualms at all about sending people to Cairo and kind of joking up our sleeves about what would happen to those people in Cairo in Egyptian prisons.")

In addition to the United States not following the golden rule, a more practical problem with the rendition program is unless the target is Osama bin Laden or a person known with absolute and unimpeachable certainty to be a direct terrorist threat to the United States, the more widespread use of rendition under the Bush administration means an increased likelihood that innocent people will be rendered and subsequently tortured. The fact that 16 of the 53 individuals who have been subject to extraordinary renditions post-9/11 have subsequently been released is evidence that not everyone rendered is a terrorist threat. Moreover, half of those released claimed they were tortured while in foreign custody (only one claims not to have been tortured) and, even more disturbing, two claim they were tortured while in American custody.

Another Bush administration policy (related to rendition) that fails to meet the test is waterboarding. Dating back to the Spanish Inquisition (a fact that should speak volumes), waterboarding is an interrogation technique that simulates drowning and is considered to be torture by its critics. (Not calling waterboarding torture is about as torturous as former President Bill Clinton's discourse about the meaning of is: "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is. If the – if he – if 'is' means is and never has been, that is not – that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement.... Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true.") In 2006, the Department of Defense explicitly prohibited the use of waterboarding by US military personnel (likely as a result of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal). The CIA reportedly put a similar ban in place in 2006, but CIA director General Michael Hayden has admitted to the prior use of waterboarding on three al-Qaeda prisoners during 2002 and 2003: Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Abu Zubayda, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. So with both DoD and the CIA currently banning the controversial practice, why did President Bush recently veto a bill that would have prohibited waterboarding by the CIA (but still allowing 19 other interrogation techniques used by the military)? According to the president, "If we were to shut down this program and restrict the CIA to methods in the [military's] field manual, we could lose vital information from senior al-Qaeda terrorists, and that could cost American lives." The fact that the CIA has restricted itself to the methods in the field manual (and we haven't been attacked since the CIA's decision not to use waterboarding) is apparently lost on Bush.

But more importantly, also lost on the president are the consequences of not following the golden rule. Advocates of extraordinary rendition and waterboarding would argue that the terrorists who attacked America are not observing the rules and norms of the so-called civilized world and, therefore, should not be subject to the same treatment as everyone else. And certainly we can't expect the terrorists to act any differently just because we choose to adhere to humane standards. But it's not the hearts and minds of the terrorists we have to win over; it's the hearts and minds of more than one billion Muslims around the world who judge America by its actions – and who may choose to take action based on ours. So rendition to Muslim countries whose ruling regimes are considered repressive by their populations is just further confirmation of bin Laden's assertion that the United States is supporting oppressive Muslim rulers at the expense of the well-being of Muslims and is incontrovertibly hypocritical to the Bush administration's claims of wanting to bring democracy to the Muslim world. Ditto for the practice of waterboarding, which – in effect – sends a message to Muslims that we are willing to treat them cruelly and harshly because they don't matter.

But rendition and waterboarding purportedly save American lives and isn't that ultimately what matters? According to Danielle Pletka at the neoconservative bastion American Enterprise Institute, "I'm not a big fan of torture. Unfortunately, there are times in war when it is necessary to do things in a way that is absolutely and completely abhorrent to most good, decent people." Even some staunch libertarians have gone so far as to argue that the Constitution is not a suicide pact – so if we have to act in ways that are contrary to the principles on which our country was founded and what we stand for in order to defend ourselves against terrorism, that is the small price we must pay. But to argue that the Constitution is not a suicide pact is to lose sight of the fact that it is inviolable. And it is important to remember the oath each and every president takes: "I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

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  • Photo - George Cole

    Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
    Policy Institute
    , an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. He has also appeared on CNN, Fox News, NBC Nightly News, ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and The McLaughlin Group, as well as international television and radio. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda, and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.


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    His articles have been published by Reason; The American Conservative; The National Interest; Mediterranean Quarterly; Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics, & Public Policy; Journal of Law & Social Change (University of San Francisco); Nexus (Chapman University); and Issues in Science & Technology (National Academy of Sciences).

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