Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Torture Issue

We are witness to the unseemly spectacle of former senior officials of this country twisting language and thought processes--as they once twisted the law--to justify their condoning of the use of torture.  The question, sadly, is no longer whether our interrogators were authorized by these men to torture captured or suspected terrorists, but how to bring those responsible to account--and to do so without the appearance of a partisan vendetta.  

The often asserted boast that we are "a nation of laws" has the hollow ring of a cliche these days.  At the national level, we had thought to re-establish the principle with the disgrace and resignation of former President Nixon.  Then came Reagan and Iran-Contra--a scandal that sadly pales in comparison to the activities of the Bush Administration.  

But mockery of the law reaches deeper in our culture than merely in our national politics.  Who can doubt but that our current economic fiasco was caused by people who casually stretched and twisted and broke the law in order to enrich themselves?  Who can trust the fairness of our legal system when our jails are filled with minor drug offenders--some victim to the atrocious three strikes law--whilst white collar criminals go scott free?  When some of our states continue to practice the barbarity of capital punishment despite ample evidence of its discriminatory application?  And, to get right down to the level of individual responsibility, who among us can claim to faithfully observe the traffic laws or the tax code?  We have become, it seems to me, a nation of scofflaws rather than of laws.  Laws, it seems, are made to be observed by others, not ourselves.  

My primary hope for Barack Obama is not that he find a fix to our economic woes--a symptom, surely, rather than a cause; nor that he simply lead us out of war and back to peace; nor even that he find solutions to problems caused by our neglect of basic education and health care for our people.  My primary hope is that he lead us into a new and more honest understanding of who we are, so that we can "move forward"--as he likes to say--with a greater clarity of purpose, a real sense of justice, and a clear conscience.   

I have agonized a good deal over the torture issue.  If we are to be "a nation of laws," how can we let those responsible go unpunished?  In this context, I was heartened to read this New York Times column by Roger Cohen, since it reflects much of my own thinking in the matter. If we're going to investigate, let's not just go after the obvious scapegoats, no matter that they bear primary responsibility. Because there's plenty of blame to go around. There's the Congress of the United States--Democrats, I regret to say, as well as Republicans--who failed to stand up to those who legalized this abomination. There's the press and the media, who raised no timely questions or objections. Where were our brave investigative journalists when we needed them? Who was paying attention? There are those in the military who must have been persuaded to turn a blind eye, and those in the intelligence community and law enforcement who saw fit not to blow the whistle; and those who simply "obeyed orders." Alas, too, there's the rest of us, Americans all, who allowed ourselves to be cowed into distraction from our own due vigilance by fear-mongering.

It's all very well, at this point, to throw up our hands and say we didn't know. Blame the bad guys who misled us and committed these dreadful acts without our knowing it. We refused to buy that argument when we heard it from the average German citizen after World War II, but now, it seems, we have no problem selling it to ourselves.

I have found myself wishing, with many other liberals like myself, that Barack Obama would do the "right thing" and initiate prosecutions against the miscreants at the top. I myself have been dismayed that the only people to suffer consequences have been those low-ranking "bad apples" from Abu Ghraib. They have unfairly taken the rap for their superiors, including Rumsfeld and his gang of memorandum-writing sycophants. I do share the belief that this national disgrace should not be swept under the rug.

I believe that we should have at the very least a truth commission to investigate the entire mess, with as much transparency as possible, and that we should leave the question of prosecutions open until we have explored every avenue of responsibility. We should do it, not as an act of retribution but as an act of self-examination, in order that we not repeat nor tolerate such barbarity ever again.  And when, and if, we have managed to carry the investigation beyond politics, then, and only then, should we consider the need for punishment.  


roger said...

not to be picky about the rule of law, but i think that it is not the place of the president to initiate any prosecution. that would be the duty of the attorney general. who should be replaced if he does not even open an investigation. also, since when is "they were following orders" any sort of legal excuse? i'm looking at, well, you leon panetta. the fbi, apparently, refused to "follow orders" to torture prisoners. how does the cia get a pass on that? and what kind of treasonous notion is it that the "clandestine services" will refuse to do their jobs if constrained by the rule of law.

i have given up on democracy and the rule of law for our country. obama seems unready for the task you have set and the promises he made.

there is so far no change in which i can believe.

PeterAtLarge said...

Roger, I think we are not too far apart in our ideals. Trouble is, the kind of change I'd love to see RIGHT NOW would take a different country, a different history, a different time, a different people. Re-reading what I wrote, I think this is what I meant in speaking of my "primary hope" for Obama: that he lead us all toward the change of heart and mind that is yet needed to open the way to the kind of change I personally can believe in. You could be right about Obama, but I tend to think it has more to do with rest of the country being "unready"--including, especially, our elected representatives. You say, too, that you have "given up on democracy and the rule of law for our country." I'm not quite that far along. I need to hold onto my little piece of optimism! Thanks for your honest insights. They're much appreciated.