Writing a piece about torture with its attendant cast of thousands is as imponderable a task as writing an article about a Wimbledon match while it is still being played. In the case of the tennis match, no sooner would one begin describing a 125-mile-an-hour service before a forehand volley, backhand return, lob, and overhand smash might occur. Obviously, its one heck of a lot smarter to wait until the match has concluded before writing the story. In the case of the former -- torture -- about the time one finishes a paragraph or two, a new revelation, charge or declassified document becomes available, thus making what has just been written obsolete.
In the current unfolding story about torture -- which involves the Obama White House, the CIA, DOJ, OLC, DOD, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney," Scooter" Libby, Donald Rumsfeld, John Ashcroft, Condoleezza Rice, John Yoo, Jay Bybee, et al -- one obviously cannot -- and must not -- wait until the story has concluded before committing it to print. It is far too critical and deserving of far more light than almost any other issue before the American public. For the use of unlawful, immoral and inhuman forms of torture -- regardless of what "they" are doing and regardless of whether it is euphemistically referred to as "rendition" or "enhanced forms of interrogation" -- raises questions that are at the very heart of what defines the United States of America.
Over the past week or more, we have begun asking a lot of questions, such as:
- "Who was responsible for Okaying the torture?"
- "What if any acts of terror were averted as a result of the torture?"
- "When did the U.S. first begin using torture?"
- "Where were these interrogations carried out?"
- "Why did President Obama first state that no one will be prosecuted?
Despite the fact that we still have more questions than answers, it is becoming clearer with each passing day that the Bush Administration used the horror of 9/11 for their own purposes. That day of unbelievable tragedy and pain became their rationale for legitimizing torture -- a kind of "any-port-in-a-storm" approach to national defense. Before too long, the administration proclaimed that they had uncovered "evidence" of a link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein and of the existence of WMD's in "al-Qaeda-backed" Iraq. All of this, of course, provided the rationale for beginning that preemptive war -- a war which is now the longest in our history.
Before the end of the Bush Administration, there was already evidence both the United States military and the C.I.A. were engaging in what at best were "questionable" -- at worst "illegal" -- forms of "enhanced interrogation." During the 2008 presidential campaign Barack Obama attacked the Bush Administration for such acts, and proclaimed that once in office he would move swiftly to root them out. Millions of voters were attracted to the Illinois senator because -- among other things -- he had an obvious moral center.
The disclosures occasioned by all the recently declassified documents have given birth to a myriad of debates. As of this writing, it is unclear precisely what role or roles will be played by the House and Senate. Which committee or committees will start issuing subpoenas? On the House side, will it fall to Ike Skelton's Armed Services, Jane Harman's subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism risk Assessment or John Conyers' Judiciary to hold hearings? Over in the Senate, will Carl Levin (Armed Services), Dianne Feinstein (Selected Committee on Intelligence), Joe Lieberman (Homeland Security) or Patrick Leahy (Judiciary) choose to pick up the gavel? And once the subpoenas begin flying, who will seek immunity and who will simply refuse to testify, thus bringing about both a legal challenge and a constitutional showdown?
Indeed, will the White House seek to outflank Congress by appointing its own "Blue Ribbon Commission on Torture?" Or, will Senator Reid and Speaker Pelosi (both of whom appear to have had knowledge of what the Bush Administration was up to) name their own "Joint Special Investigation Committee?" The possibilities are endless.
President Obama's initial response to torture was crystal clear:
The United States does not and will not engage in torture; the United States does not and will not violate international law.
But then came that gnawing, vexatious inconsistency:
Neither those who carried out these illegal acts nor those who formulated the legal justification for them will be liable to future prosecution! In the case of who actually performed the illegal acts, they were "only following orders" [This is hauntingly like the Nuremberg Defense, Befehl ist Befehl.] In the case of those who dreamed up the legal justification for said acts -- members of the Office of Legal Counsel at the Department of Justice -- all the president would say is that "we seek to look not backwards but forwards."
This was indeed a shocking conclusion, coming as it did from a president who spent the past 16 years as a professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago. Well, within the past 48 hours, the president did "clarify" his thinking, and state that the matter of future prosecution belongs not to the White House, but to the Department of Justice. Without question, this is the right way to go.
To most thoughtful people, the issue of torture (and our response to it) is one of both legal and moral import. For generations, we have been a nation of laws and not one of men and women. For generations, we have been a beacon of light in a world that often languishes in darkness. Our devotion, our commitment to what is lawful and humane has given both hope and direction to people living on seven continents. But now it has been revealed that for a time, the United States of America has been operating not in the light but rather the shadows; that we have justified the use of illegal torture techniques by convincing ourselves that in order to assure security, we must become as diabolical as our enemies.
Regrettably, there are those who persist in seeing torture as a primarily political issue. Cheney, Gingrich and Rove -- among others -- say that those who are against "enhanced rendition" are weak, short-sighted cowards bent on giving aide and comfort to our enemies. Talk shows and so-called "news" programs are rife with "experts" who proclaim that not only does torture work; it has kept us safe. I have been told to my face that "If water-boarding, sleep-deprivation or tearing out their fingernails saves even one American life, it is worth it." I listened in on Rush Limbaugh the other day. In the middle of a rant about "weak-kneed, lily-livered liberals," there was a slapping sound, followed by the "Mouth That Roared" sarcastically proclaiming, "I just slapped myself in the face. Oh my, I've just been tortured!"
I do hope that both those who did the actual torturing and those who created the legal justification for those acts will be prosecuted. I don't care how high up the political food chain it goes . . . even if in the end it includes Democrats as well as Republicans.
This should be not a political issue. It is definitely no laughing matter. It is terribly serious and rests at the very heart of what has long made America a light unto the nations.
Don't let the light go out. . .
©2009 Kurt F. Stone