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On Nov. 16, 1776, Gen. George Washington stood on the Jersey Palisades and peered across the Hudson River through his telescope as the British tortured American militiamen who had surrendered and then put them to the sword. Hearing the screams of his men, according to an aide, Washington turned and sobbed "with the tenderness of a child."
Washington, no Dick Cheney, vowed that Americans would be different and he ordered that all prisoners, including captured spies and the soldiers who tortured Americans and mutilated the corpses with their bayonets, be treated not as enemies but as humans. After the battle of Princeton, he ordered an officer to take charge of 211 British privates. "Treat them with humanity," he directed, "and Let them have no reason to Complain of our Copying the brutal example of the British army in their Treatment of our unfortunate brethren."
That became the policy of the revolution, embraced by Congress, the Continental Army and the new nation's leaders, like John Adams, who had helped Jefferson write the Declaration of Independence and nominated Washington as commander in chief of the army. Adams declared that "Piety, Humanity, Honesty" were to be America's war policy and its foreign policy forever. Human rights were the cornerstone of the new nation, the whole premise of the revolution.
One of the first acts of Congress under President Washington was the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789, which human-rights victims have used ever since to hold people accountable for crimes against humanity and which bedeviled Cheney and President Bush in the wake of Abu Ghraib and revelations of secret torture chambers across the Middle East.
The central idea of the Enlightenment was that everyone on earth was entitled to certain rights as humans, and the Bill of Rights and the 14th amendment said that when anyone on the planet, not just a United States citizen, set foot on American soil he would enjoy those rights. Washington's alien act extended those rights to people abroad who might be harmed by the inhumane acts of Americans.
Washington's example illumined all our history, but such quaint idealism to many now seems outmoded, unsuited for a struggle against savage Muslim fanatics. As the Cheneys view it, in the fall of 1776 they could afford not to torture spies and combatants because nothing more was at stake than the survival of the new nation.
Is it unfair to measure a leader's patriotism today by the standards of 1776? You can bet that the whimperings of Washington, Adams and the other founders would meet their match in today's Congress with the likes of Ted Cruz and Arkansas's own Tom Cotton, who object to even a public discussion of the brutal interrogation of captives in the Afghan and Iraqi wars.
The U.S. Senate's report on CIA interrogation during the early stages of the wars is treated as a political tempest arranged before the new Republican Congress assumes office, but it is more than that. It is an important way station in the evolution of the American experiment. No event in U.S. history, with the possible exception of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has so stained the image of the one nation on earth that honored individual freedom and humanity as did the graphic revelations of torture at the Abu Ghraib prison that were transmitted around the globe.
Sen. Diane Feinstein, chair of the Intelligence Committee, had fought with the CIA and the Obama administration early this year over release of the report, which was the product of hundreds of interviews and a review of more than 6 million CIA documents. She said the "enhanced interrogation" of at least 119 prisoners, who were submitted to waterboarding, sleep deprivation and more violent acts, was a stain on our history and that it was important for the country to admit its wrongs and to show the world that "we really are a just and lawful society."
Eighteen months ago, a nonpartisan, independent review of the secret detentions headed jointly by Democrat James R. Jones and Asa Hutchinson, now Arkansas's governor-elect, had reached almost identical conclusions though it got muted attention.
"It is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture" and that the nation's highest officials bore ultimate responsibility for it, the report said.
At the time, Hutchinson said he was shocked at what he had learned, some of it by his own interviews, and that it was important to have an exact public record of the torture. Sounding a little like John Adams, Hutchinson said, "The United States has a historic and unique character, and part of that character is that we do not torture."
Amazingly, Hutchinson echoed the remarks last week, when virtually every Republican figure of consequence, for one reason or another, was condemning the massive Feinstein report (its heavily redacted executive summary alone ran to more than 500 pages).
Cotton, the congressman soon to become senator, called the report a pack of lies. The report shot down the assertions by Cheney and a succession of CIA officials that waterboarding and other extreme techniques had produced valuable intelligence. Hutchinson's report also had concluded that torture never worked.
The other members of the Arkansas congressional delegation (all except Sen. Mark Pryor) were only a trifle more circumspect, contending that the findings should not be made public.
One other Republican joined Hutchinson: the inveterate hawk John McCain, himself the victim of torture as a POW in Vietnam. McCain said the report was true and should be exposed to the world and that it proved conclusively that torture succeeds not in reaching the truth, but only what the torturers want to hear.
We all wait to see what measure of humanity Asa Hutchinson will bring to the affairs of the state; but, on this day that celebrates our benevolent impulses, Arkansans can take some pride that the man they elected stands alongside the founder of his country.
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