4.16.2013

Independent commission: "It is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture"

I want to highlight something in today's New York Times that might be receiving more attention if not for the horrific events yesterday:
WASHINGTON — A nonpartisan, independent review of interrogation and detention programs in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks concludes that “it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture” and that the nation’s highest officials bore ultimate responsibility for it.
The 577-page report, the result of "almost two years of intensive study, investigation, and deliberation" copiously documents the global torture regime the U.S. government implemented after 9/11. It also debunks some of the most commonly heard arguments by torture apologists. One often hears people who are supportive or indifferent about torture confidently state that the U.S. has always done this, that wars are ugly, that it's naive to think this is anything new, and so on.

Well, this panel, convened by the Constitution Project, a legal research and advocacy group, concluded that "the events examined in this report are unprecedented in U.S. history," and that "there is no evidence there had ever before been the kind of considered and detailed discussions that occurred after 9/11 directly involving a president and his top advisers on the wisdom, propriety and legality of inflicting pain and torment on some detainees in our custody."

It didn't require a particularly sophisticated and intricate knowledge of U.S. history to know that something fundamental changed after 9/11 regarding torture. Something that was always considered beyond the pale suddenly became mainstreamed. "Liberal" pundits wrote columns solemnly conceding that it might be time to torture people. A wildly popular network show had its protagonist carry out torture regularly. Traditional names for particular methods of torture were even changed: "water torture" became "waterboarding."

The report also found "no persuasive evidence" that torture produced reliable information that could not have been obtained by any other means. While this might be worth stating, I happen to think it's the worst case to make against torture. To even engage in a debate over whether or not torture "works" is to forfeit a basic sense of humanity. Whether or not it "works" should be entirely irrelevant. Snatching random drug dealers off the street and dangling them out of helicopters until they spit out the names of their bosses might "work." A lot of brutal and illegal concepts might "work." That's not a justification for torturing helpless captives. The U.S. government itself has prosecuted and convicted Other People for doing the same thing to U.S. prisoners. I doubt that those prosecutions depended on whether or not those instances of torture "worked."

Surely, the failure to investigate or prosecute these grave criminal acts has been the Obama administration's greatest moral failure. An exquisitely Orwellian mantra of "Look Forward, Not Backward" was offered as a straightforward justification of why these particular criminals should be exonerated. The Times article notes that Obama aides have admitted that the president "feared that his own policy agenda might get sidetracked in a battle over his predecessor’s programs." What could be more morally grotesque than that? "I sure would love to see these killers and torturers prosecuted, but, dammit, I just have too much on my plate right now."

If you ever find yourself in legal trouble, just inform the judge that it's irresponsible to proceed with this case - it will just get so messy and you have other things going on at the moment - and you prefer to Look Forward, Not Backward. See how it works out.