THE BLOG
09/17/2006 07:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Clarifying Moment

I'll admit it: I have something in common with President Bush. We both seek what he likes to call "clarifying moments". He gave me one this week, at his Friday news conference, talking about the need for his proposed legislation to "clarify" the Geneva Convention on treatment of war prisoners:

THE PRESIDENT: This debate is occurring because of the Supreme Court's ruling that said that we must conduct ourselves under the Common Article III of the Geneva Convention. And that Common Article III says that there will be no outrages upon human dignity. It's very vague. What does that mean, "outrages upon human dignity"?

Okay, let's pause for the requisite round of jokes: how few syllables should the words have, Mr. President, before you know what they mean? Have you never seen the word "upon" before? And so forth.
Now, let's get down to it. Did you ever imagine in your wildest, or saddest, dreams that a President of the United States could ask with a straight face what the phrase "outrages upon human dignity" means? Watching the Sunday morning yak shows, I saw maybe two dozen people, pols and pundits, pontificate on the issue, but none of them registered any shock that an American President could be posing that question. Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday came close, wondering why, in a question to John Negroponte, the country could observe the "unclarified" Convention for 47 years, interrogating Soviet spies and Viet Cong agents, without any bewilderment or complaining about restraints on the interrogation process.
But, as I wondered aloud on my radio show this week, maybe this question isn't about Bush. Maybe it's about us. Maybe a country that has tolerated so much dehumanizing drivel for so long in its popular culture really has lost a sense of what an outrage upon human dignity looks like. Maybe a steady diet of "reality" shows focussed on humliation, hit records featuring the glamorization of gangsters and the fantasized subjugation of women, and movies featuring the sexualization of violence--along with corporate management techniques devised by the same computers that designed the office parks they're deployed in--maybe all of this has made us a little bewildered about something as "quaint", to use Alberto Gonzalez' description of Geneva provisions, as human dignity.
Maybe we really did get the President we deserve.

FACT-CHECKING UPDATE: A commenter directed me to a website (better known in LA for its LA Times-bashing, which I admire) which fact-checks the Gonzalez quote referenced above. I used that version because, having half-remembered the quote, I Googled it, and this version popped up high in the results. But, in his zeal to absolve Gonzalez of calling the Geneva Conventions "quaint"--which he achieves--blogger Patterico ignores, as most of us have, the more damning part of the quoted text:

In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions requiring that captured enemy be afforded such things as commissary privileges, scrip (i.e., advances of monthly pay), athletic uniforms, and scientific instruments."

Forget "quaint"; "strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners" being rendered "obsolete" is what this debate is all about.