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Bear Witness to a Torturer’s Weasel Words

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Night is night. Day is day. I don’t care how many times I hear some politician or prominent voice tell me we need to scale back civil liberties to protect us from danger. Right is right. Wrong is wrong.

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Last week, former United States Attorney General Michael Mukasey told an audience of lawyers, law students and community members at the University of Connecticut  School of Law that night is day, day is night, right is wrong and wrong is right.

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Mukasey unabashedly praised the portrayal of torture in the war porn movie “ZeroDark30” and he called for the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and other powerful law enforcement tools to

A blurry shot of former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey lunching with UConn Law School professors, April 16, 2013.

halt terrorism. As if such tools of hard power work.

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No matter how prominent a citizen the former federal judge Mukasey is, we must reject his calls for discarding civil liberties to protect us from boogeymen, and we must bear witness to the wrongs that Mukasey and his ilk have committed and allowed to occur on their watch.

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Fancy-pants law firm Day Pitney invited Mukasey as its visiting scholar last Tuesday, April 16, 2013 to speak at UConn Law. Mukasey was an hour late to the luncheon, since he went to Storrs instead of Hartford’s West End.

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The geographical confusion seems metaphoric for Mr. Mukasey intellectual positions. I couldn’t tolerate listening to Mukasey’s laurels for waterboarding – the CIA only did it three times, he said.

For the record, the CIA waterboarded Khalid Sheik Muhammed 186 times. But who’s counting?

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Waterboarding is torture. And when Mukasey finished his diatribe about why Barack Obama – he who has executed American citizens without due process of law – is making the United States less safe, he opened the floor for questions.

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I stood up first, as is my custom. The first question sets the table, and I went to the lunch specifically to bear witness to Mukasey’s hypocrisy and complicity in violating international human rights.

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At his confirmation hearings in October 2007, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island got Mukasey to say if waterboarding is torture, it is not constitutional.  Sen. Ted Kennedy got Mukasey to admit that if waterboarding was done to Mukasey, it would be torture.

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I stated that Mukasey acknowledged waterboarding is torture. He said he did not. So, this column three weeks ago stating that Mukasey acknowledged waterboarding was torture at his confirmation hearing was wrong. I read Mukasey’s semantic dance differently than he did.

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So I moved quickly to the next point: under the Geneva Conventions, as attorney general, he had a responsibility to prosecute war crimes committed by the Bush Administration.Why didn’t he?

He said that the Bush Administration did not commit war crimes, so he did not have to prosecute anyone.

My position as a post-speech questioner handicapped my ability to counter some of his lies. This was not a debate, but a forum designed to give a powerful person like Mukasey a platform. Yet for those of us who recoil at the idea of torture, we have to take whatever opportunity exists to challenge power.

The student from the UConn law review who was handing out the microphone at this point took the mike away from me. Mukasey could spew his lies without me countering him.

Mukasey went on to say that waterboarding is not torture, since torture is defined by duration and pain. He talked about pain compliance techniques. Then he asked me if I had read the Office of Legal Counsel’s 2002 memos, known colloquially as the “Torture Memos.”

These memos, written by Jay Bybee under the auspices of his predecessor, Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, gave President Bush the legal authority to torture. I replied that I had read them, right here at the University of Connecticut School of Law, in Prof. Paul Chill’s class.

Mukasey wanted to know what I thought of them. My simple reply: “Weasel words.” It should be noted that in his confirmation hearings, Mukasey repudiated the Torture Memos. He said then torture is not what this country is about. But at UConn, he stood on Bybee’s work.

At my next opening, I said that from the founding  days of the Republic, what set America apart was Gen. George Washington’s edict that we treated prisoners of war with respect and dignity. Now, I said, we have abandoned that and torture.

Mukasey said waterboarding isn’t torture. I said it was when Pol Pot did it. Incidentally, Sen. John McCain has said the same about Pol Pot.

But what does McCain know about torture? In what was perhaps the most surreal moment of my exchange with Mukasey, he seemed to derive pleasure from describing the Japanese and Cambodian tortures of pumping stomachs and stepping on people. It was sickening.

It should further be noted the head of Cambodia’s notorious S-21 secret prison, where more than 14,000 people were tortured and killed, this prison warden said Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon allowed Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to commit these atrocities.

Without a microphone and an ability to debate, I could not challenge Mukasey on this, the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program, or on other “enhanced interrogation techniques” America used on its “enemy combatants.”

Mukasey dismissed the abuses at Abu Ghraib as a lone-wolf army unit. I see it as symbolic of military policy initiated by Donald Rumsfeld, another war criminal. But I couldn’t respond. I do so here.

Mukasey refused to say waterboarding was torture, because if he did, he remains complicit in allowing it to happen. My last words were to simply pronounce as loudly and as clearly as I could for everyone in the room to hear: “Waterboarding is torture.” Day is day. Night is night. Wrong is wrong. Right is right.

During the whole exchange, Mukasey did not back down, nor did I expect him to. He is labeled staunchly conservative for a reason, and I did not anticipate my few sentences would change his calcified neural pathways justifying his approach to power.

I did expect my colleagues to hear me challenge power. I did expect people would talk about the exchange afterwards, and we could continue the conversation about our culpability in violating international law.

I did hope that that when Mukasey went to sleep last Tuesday night, the phrase “Weasel words” rang in his ears, and I hoped that when Mukasey was brushing his teeth on Wednesday morning, he heard my unamplified voice echo across the Starr Reading Room: “Waterboarding is torture.”

America must not torture. America must offer its citizens and enemies the shelter of civil liberties. That I even have to write the sentence that America must offer its citizens civil liberties shows how far Mukasey and his ilk have managed to push the debate.

The American commitment and the public appetite for civil liberties lessens every time some lone wolf or group challenges the U.S. government’s monopoly of the use of violence as a political tool. We should decry the use of violence at all, since it only begets more pain and suffering.

Prominent voices after the Boston Marathon bombing have called for the use of torture and the repeal of Miranda warnings on American citizens.  As if Miranda warnings ever constrained police anyways. A look at court decisions in the past three decades shows that police don’t have to read a suspect their rights.

At least the word, the name, Miranda symbolizes the ideal of the presumption of innocence and the extension of human rights to those who are suspected of committing a crime. We want police to let someone know their rights, because police make mistakes, and sending an innocent to jail is wrong.

Night is not day. Day is not night. Wrong is wrong. Right is right. Waterboarding is torture.

I beg my fellow Americans to disregard this harmful chatter. This rhetoric aims to increase state power, and we all suffer at the hands of the military industrial complex when this occurs.

The United States will be the world’s largest open air prison, thousands of times larger than the Gaza Strip, if we do not stop this lock-step march to police power.

Post-script: check out the Guantanamo Diaries of Mohamedou Ould Slahi at slate.com. Americans must move to prosecute those who committed war crimes in the name of liberty.

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