While the Bush administration and Congress grapple over the wisdom of using torture in the war on terrorism, Michigan’s state government has taken a hard-line stance on the issue. Thanks to a bill signed into law last Tuesday by Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, torture is now explicitly illegal in the state. Although the new law may seem to be little more than a symbolic statement on our nation’s foreign policy, the measure also addresses a genuine problem in Michigan’s criminal code.
Bush may continue to outsource his tactics to Egypt and Eastern Europe, but Michigan has forever closed its doors on the practice. Torture is now punishable in the state of Michigan by up to life in prison. We can breathe a sigh of relief with the knowledge that our state government that it will certainly not tolerate torture within Michigan’s borders. We will never have to contend with the tortured screams of people for whom the constitutional protection of habeas corpus does not apply.
To be sure, prosecutors must be careful not to abuse the new law. Fraternity rituals that encourage a pledge to nearly drown himself with alcohol – which one could call “vodka-boarding” – might be heinous, but would not merit life in prison for offending brothers.
National politics almost certainly played a role in the timing and publicity of the new law, but the measure is not wholly symbolic. Recently, a Huron County woman was subjected to years of violent and torturous acts at the hands of her husband. The man regularly and intentionally overdosed his diabetic wife with insulin in order to render her unconscious. He would also suffocate her with a plastic bag, dress her unconscious body in provocative lingerie and bind her arms. The cruel treatment often took the woman to the brink of death, and when she was not being physically abused she was forcibly locked up.
When the abuse was discovered, prosecutors were shocked to learn that they could charge with husband with nothing more than kidnapping and domestic abuse. Until last Tuesday, there was no direct torture legislation on the books. After being found guilty of 17 counts of abuse under the old laws, the man could still theoretically face life in prison, but these charges cannot adequately encompass the severity of his crime. The new legislation will ensure that prosecutors can ring up those guilty of torture with a charge that more accurately describes their crimes.
This new law sends a powerful and noble message. Torture is wrong, and it is wrong regardless of whether it happens in a basement in Huron County or in a secret prison camp in the Middle East. Michigan’s state Legislature and governor have given prosecutors an unfortunately needed tool to combat unconscionable acts at home while simultaneously signaling to the federal government that torture is universally unacceptable.