Extraordinary Rendition Doesn’t Mean a Great Song in the Third Act

Claiming it’s wrong to do something while doing it is disingenuous. Sometimes it’s against the law, unless you are the law. In a great disservice to our freedoms, Alberto Gonzales, now that he is securely Attorney General, defends the practice of ‘extraordinary rendition.’ That’s sending terrorist suspects to other countries for questioning, usually with torture in mind and quite the reverse of his congressional testimony before confirmation.  He said in those days that renditions would not be made to countries where it was “more likely than not’ that detainees would be tortured. More likely than not
is a pretty subjective call, when you’re sending prisoners to some of the most repressive and violent regimes on the planet. The official claim is that the threat of rendition is a powerful tool interrogating suspects who fear rendition. I’ll just bet it is!

So, if I have this straight, Alberto is playing semantic games while terrorist suspects continue to be flown out of American jurisdiction. Sort of like Chile in the seventies.  Augusto Pinochet ran a similar air service and the international community is still trying to add up the ‘disappeared’ and make him pay for it.  No wonder America fears the establishment of an International Tribunal and won’t play that game. It is after all, somewhat messy and terribly inconvenient to have to carry out various tortures and personal humiliations within the rules.

Think about it.

On the other hand and taking the opposite position, what are your options if it becomes your personal responsibility to prevent who knows what by who knows whom? The possibilities are infinite, the suspects many, the languages unfamiliar, the stakes as large as tall buildings and urban populations, the instructions murky and the chain-of-command unclear. The very air is fragrant with deniability. Thus is built a pretty good case for ‘get these people out of my jurisdiction and squeeze information from them like juice from a lemon.’ Send them somewhere that Arabic is understood, a place untraceable to me personally, that doesn’t give a tinker’s damn about niceties and have results on my desk by next week.

It works.

At least, if the absence of terrorist attacks on American soil is any indication, it works.  We prefer not to know the details, but we’re personally glad as hell that it works. We’re not collectively comfortable with various infringements on prisoner rights, but what the hell were they doing there anyway, we’re at war for chrissake.

So, I suspect that were Alberto Gonzales or Donald Rumsfeld to sit down with you or me over a quiet drink and lay out for us gruesome possibility against gruesome necessity, we might say, “Well, Don, whatever you think” and “thanks Al, for coming by.” Closing the door, walking back in to the still-crackling logs in our fireplace, we’d (perhaps) sit in one of their still-warm chairs and muse that theirs was an impossibly difficult job. We’d be glad the ball was in their court, comforted that they knew what to do with it when a blistering return came sizzling down the backhand alley and way less sure of how to regard their careful responses before Senate committees.

I don’t know how I personally feel about all that.  I know that my commentary is more strictly constitutional in the serenity of my office than when my heart pounds, feeling a presence behind me at a late-night ATM.  I understand that our American openness trumps everyone else’s closed societies and we pay a collective cost for that which we are not always willing to pay individually.  I have been mugged and know the racing thought ‘just let me live through this.’ I know the comfort of writing from safety can make my snug and sometimes smug opinion repugnant to those without a net. The expendable, the men and women who take the fall, with the responsibility, the burden, the requirement to take bad choices and make the best of them and stand there naked when it all goes to hell.

The ethical stand is almost always taken from safety and yet that safety is oft times bought and paid for with blurred ethics.  It’s what makes statesmanship so rare.

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