As I’ve been thinking recently about our democratically elected government’s refusal to ban all methods of torture in it’s “War on Freedom”, and the American Psychological Association’s readiness to collaborate (with some “ethical” qualifications) under the professed belief of making interrogations safe for persons detained without benefit of civil and human rights, my mind drift’s to a chilling scene masterfully portrayed by Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier in John Schlesinger’s 1976 adaptation of the novel “ Marathon Man”, by William Goldman.
A young marathon runner and graduate student at Columbia University (Dustin Hoffman) is strapped to a chair in a windowless room in an abandoned building, somewhere in the recesses of New York City. Nicknamed “Babe”, he is about to be asked a very tormenting question by the elderly and very cultured Dr. Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier). Dr. Szell is a dentist, and was protégé of Auschwitz’s “Angel of Death” Dr. Josef Mengele. Szell is assisted by one man who walks with a limp and another very large male who are ready to assist in whatever fashion needed. Some information in needed by Szell and he believes Babe has it. Nearby is a black bag which contains dental instruments. The assistant places a solitary lamp close to Babe’s chair. Szell speaks three simple words, breaking a menacing silence. They are repeated over and over. Tormenting words that lead to a train of fear and pain………
“Is it safe?”
“Is it safe?”
“Is what safe?”
As patiently as ever: “Is it safe?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
No change in tone: “Is it safe?”
Babe’s voice was starting to rise: “I can’t tell you if something’s safe or not unless I know what you’re asking, so ask me specifically and I’ll tell you if I can.”
“Is it safe?” the bull-shouldered man said, steady as a rock.
“I can’t answer that.”
“Is it safe?”
“I don’t know—don’t you hear me?—I do not know—tell me what the ‘it’ refers to.”
“Is it safe?” Like a machine.
“You don’t like ‘yes,’ I’ll give you ‘no’, it isn’t safe — very dangerous. Be careful”
“It was still said with infinite patience, but this time there came a finality into the tone: ‘Is it safe?” so when Babe quietly answered back ‘I really really don’t know what you want me to tell you‘ he was not surprised when the bull-shouldered man started to move, to begin effecting changes. He gestured toward the big man, and immediately Babe felt the giant hands pressing in against the sides of his head, holding it tight and steady. The limper brought the lamp closer still………” (quoted from the novel, p. 173-174)
© 2008 Bob Parker & Alejandro Tomas
Another chilling scene occurred less than 2 weeks ago. This one is not fiction. The central player is not an actor. He is one of the most powerful people in the United States, occupying an office to which he was appointed for life. This person is US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Interviewed in London on the BBC Radio 4 program “Law in Action”, he was asked about his position on torture the day before Valentine’s Day:
” ’You can’t come in smugly and with great self satisfaction and say ‘Oh it’s torture, and therefore it’s no good’,’ …he said it was “extraordinary” to assume that the ban on “cruel and unusual punishment’ ” – the US Constitution’s Eighth Amendment – also applied to “so-called” torture. … ” ‘I suppose it’s the same thing about so-called torture. Is it really so easy to determine that smacking someone in the face to determine where he has hidden the bomb that is about to blow up Los Angeles is prohibited in the constitution?” ” he asked.
Justice Scalia’s comments come on the heels of an announcement by the White House that torture (in the form of waterboarding as the torture debate is being framed around) is legal. And, this follows attorney general Mukasey’s refusal to render an opinion on the legality of waterboarding by the White House that torture (in the form of waterboarding as the torture debate is being framed around) is legal. And, this follows attorney general Mukasey’s refusal to render an opinion on the legality of waterboarding despite “feeling” it would be torture if administered to him.
In a video interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News, President Bush talks about the legality of waterboarding. Listen to the framing of Chris Wallace’s question to the President towards the end of the interview (implying the assumed guilt of anyone the government labels as “terrorist” or “Al Qaida”) — “’whether it’s interrogation of terror prisoners or the intercepting of surveillance among Al Qaida members, are you ever puzzled by all the concern in this country about protecting the rights of people who want to kill us?’”. This is a set-up for Bush to attack the patriotism of critics saying “’I wouldn’t necessarily define (pause) some of the critics (italics added for emphasis) of my policy that way, I would say that they want to be very careful that we don’t overstep our bounds from protecting the civil liberties of Americans'”.
The latest statements concerning torture and interrogations from Justice Scalia, President Bush, and the Attorney General Mukasey when viewed in light of the probing scene between Dr. Szell and Babe, should lead us to rephrase Dr. Szell’s terrifying uestion to: “who is safe?” anymore?