I mean those Bush administration officials who redefined torture for the twenty-first century, and brought America’s longstanding enthusiasm for torture out of the closet.
They’re going to get away with all this, and then some.
Justice Department investigators have concluded that three Bush administration lawyers who wrote controversial interrogation memos should not face criminal charges, but that conduct by two of them was problematic enough to merit possible state disbarment or other disciplinary action, according to two sources familiar with a draft report.
The department’s Office of Professional Responsibility in December completed its investigation into the legal authorization of the CIA’s use of waterboarding and other coercive interrogation techniques against suspected Al Qaeda leaders. The internal affairs unit concluded that Steven G. Bradbury — one of the lawyers who had worked in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel — had written at least three memorandums from 2002 to 2007 that, although troubling, did not merit any kind of serious disciplinary action, the sources said.
But, the investigators said, OLC lawyers John C. Yoo and Jay S. Bybee had engaged in an ethically questionable pattern of providing faulty advice to the CIA and administration officials about how they could conduct intensive interrogations that were deemed to be a crucial part of the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
The report, if ultimately approved by the Justice Department, would be referred to bar associations in states where the lawyers practice for possible disciplinary action.
But it gets worse.
A national poll indicates that most Americans don’t want to see an investigation of Bush administration officials who authorized harsh interrogation techniques on suspected terrorists, even though most people think such procedures were forms of torture.
Six in 10 people questioned in a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey released Wednesday believe that some of the procedures, such as waterboarding, were a form of torture, with 36 percent disagreeing.
But half the public approves of the Bush administration’s decision to use of those techniques during the questioning of suspected terrorists, with 50 percent in approval and 46 percent opposed.
“Roughly one in five Americans believe those techniques were torture but nonetheless approve of the decision to use those procedures against suspected terrorists,” CNN Polling Director Keating Holland said. “That goes a long way toward explaining why a majority don’t want to see former Bush officials investigated.”
Let me be clear. America is right now in the act of choosing to let injustice stand. And in the process, we are again choosing what kind of country we want to be. And we are deciding that we do not want to change, much. We walked up to the edge of change, and change for the better, but now we’ve caught a glimpse of what real change would require of us, and we are backing down from it.
It looks like Peggy Noonan will get her wish. In fact, we may — in this moment, anyway — have turned into an nation of Peggy Noonans.
America will “just keep walking.” Away from the reality and consequences of our choices, policies, and actions, and away from the potential to be the kind of country we waste time and breath claiming to be that would be better spent aspiring to be that America. But we do not yet want to be that America. Not badly enough.
We wanted change, but we do not want the work or the accountability change requires.
If we expose evidence of injustice without then dispensing justice, we essentially give our approval to those unjust acts. No, our words of condemnation are not enough. No, public scorn is not enough.
Once we know, we have to act. And we have to know, if we are to be anything close to the country we always thought we were.
It is not enough to expose everything to sunlight, and name names. This is were courage is required. Noonan wants to keep the blinders on and “keep walking” precisely because once we have knowledge you become responsible for that knowledge, we become responsible for acting on that knowledge.
We cannot reveal evidence of criminal policies and acts, without then holding the responsible parties accountable. We cannot expose injustice and then withhold justice. We cannot know of injustice and then withhold justice.
At least, we cannot do so and continue to be the country we have always thought we were or say that we want to be.
I wrote earlier that on November 4th we didn’t just chose a president, we chose the kind of country we want to be.
We are now just starting to walk towards it. This is just one step. A necessary one, albeit painful and difficult. That’s because what we’re walking towards, those of us who are willing, requires us to look at the worst we’ve done on the way to becoming better that we were. It’s a necessary stop on the way to what we will be: a country much closer to living its values.
We will not do that. It’s too hard. It requires too much of us.
Instead, we want to “keep walking.” We want to be “forward looking” and not “backward looking,” spending too much time “stuck in the past.” So, Faulkner notwithstanding, we convince ourselves not only that the past is past, but that it has nothing to do with the present; that our “just keep walking” approach has but countless miles between now and then. It is, perhaps, a comforting belief, but it will serve us no better on this issue than it has on the issue of race in the last few hundred years.
History is not a straight line that leads us to some terminal point as we “keep walking” — blinders firmly — into a the glorious horizon. It is not a straight line, or a direct path. It twists and turns and winds back upon itself again and again, and it will inevitably bring us back across some of the same ground we covered before. Only we won’t know the terrain any better, because we have kept our blinders on for the entire journey. We have not to much as looked down at the path we walk. Thus, we walk in to the same pitfalls, and trip over the wreckage we left on behind on previous trips through the same territory.
We “keep walking,” because to take our blinders off would mean looking at where we really are, and looking back at the path we’ve chosen to travel. And upon seeing what we see, we not only have to decide whether to “keep walking” or turn back in search of a less disastrous route, but we we have to ask ourselves why we chose this path, and why we didn’t take our blinders off sooner.
So we keep our blinders on, and keep telling ourselves it wasn’t torture, but “enhanced interrogation techniques,” though it was experienced as torture by those subjected to it. Nevermind that, as Kathleen Parker wrote, “If you have to ask, it probably is.”
Several years ago, I asked a veteran journalist for advice.
“I’m trying to figure out if I have an ethical conflict,” I began.
“If you have to ask, you do,” he said.
Simple as that. In posing a question, we often reveal the answer.
Apply the same construct to torture. If we have to ask, it probably is.
We will tell ourselves that that it was done to the “the worst of the worst,” though it was done to hundreds who were released because of insufficient evidence even for military tribunals.
We will tell ourselves it was done to “the worst of the worst,” who intended to do us harm, even though 55% of of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay were not determined to have committed hostile acts against the U.S., and only 8% were characterized as Al Qaeda fighter, 40% have no connection with Al Qaeda at all, and 18% have no connection with Al Qaeda or the Taliban.
We will tell ourselves it was done to “the worst of the worse,” even though our prisons often held the wrong men; men who “were innocent of any substantial wrongdoing, had little intelligence value, and should be immediately released.”
We will tell ourselves it was done to the “worst of the worst,” and that no serious harm was done, even though over 100 detainees have died in U.S. custody, 34 have been identified as homicides, but few have been reported, and it’s probable that some of the dead were wrongly detained and “innocent of any substantial wrongdoing.”
We will tell ourselves that it was done to “the worst of the worst,” though it was done to children — 60 who were under 18 and some as young as 14 when captured, who were subjected to extended isolation and sleep deprivation as well as interrogation.
We will tell ourselves it was done in order to get the truth out of detainees with high security value, even though in some cases it was done to give credibility to lies.
We will tell ourselves that all of this made us safer and protect our freedoms, even though the same legal reasoning formed the basis for subverting those very same freedoms.
We will tell ourselves we didn’t know how far it had gone or how bad it had gotten, even though we knew in May of 2004, and returned the Bush administration to power anyway.
We will tell ourselves that we are good people, people of faith, and have no conflict with approving of torture.
The more often you go to church, the more you approve of torture. This is a troubling finding of a new survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Shouldn’t it be the opposite? After all, who would Jesus torture? Since Jesus wouldn’t even let Peter use a sword and defend him from arrest, it would seem that those who follow Jesus would strenuously oppose the violence of torture. But, not so in America today.
Instead, more than half of people who attend worship at least once a week, or 54%, said that using torture on suspected terrorists was “often” or “sometimes” justified. White evangelical Protestants were the church-going group most likely to approve of torture. By contrast, those who are unaffiliated with a religious organization and didn’t attend worship were most opposed to torture – only 42% of those people approved of using torture.
One possible way to interpret this extraordinary Pew data is cultural. White evangelical Protestants tend to be culturally conservative and they make up a large percentage of the so-called Republican “base”. Does the approval of torture by this group demonstrate their continuing support for the previous administration? That may be.
But I think it is possible, even likely, that this finding has a theological root. The UN Convention Against Torture defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person…” White Evangelical theology bases its view of Christian salvation on the severe pain and suffering undergone by Jesus in his flogging and crucifixion by the Romans. This is called the “penal theory of the atonement” – that is, the way Jesus paid for our sins is by this extreme torture inflicted on him.
(Similarly, during the Inquisition some Christians also believed that torture saved souls by way of getting the accused to repent and/or recant before being dispatched into the next world. Not to mention the countless souls saved by the eradication of heresy and the defense of the church. In effect, they tortured out of love. The Inquisition still have its apologists, even today.)
We tell ourselves all of this, to avoid “facing our complicity in the cycle of violence and terror.”
The East and the West do not have separate, competing value systems. We do not treat life with greater sanctity than those we belittle. There are aged survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki who can tell us something about our high moral values and passionate concern for innocent human life, about our own acts of terrorism. Eastern and Western traditions have within them varied ethical systems, some of which are repugnant and some of which are worth emulating. To hold up the highest ideals of our own culture and to deny that these great ideals exist in other cultures, especially Eastern cultures, is made possible only by historical and cultural illiteracy.
The civilization we champion and promote as superior is, in fact, a product of the fusion of traditions and beliefs of the Orient and the Occident. We advance morally and intellectually when we cross these cultural lines, when we use the lens of other cultures to examine our own. The remains of villages destroyed by our bombs, the dead killed from our munitions, leave us too with bloody hands. We can build a new ethic only when we face our complicity in the cycle of violence and terror.
The fantasy of an enlightened West that spreads civilization to a savage world of religious fanatics is not supported by history. The worst genocides and slaughters of the last century were perpetrated by highly industrialized nations. Muslims, including Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime, have a long way to go before they reach the body count of the secular regimes of the Nazis, the Soviet Union or the Chinese communists. It was, in fact, the Muslim-led government in Bosnia that protected minorities during the war while the Serbian Orthodox Christians carried out mass executions, campaigns of genocide and ethnic cleansing that left 250,000 dead.
Those who externalize evil and seek to eradicate that evil through violence lose touch with their own humanity and the humanity of others. They cannot make moral distinctions. They are blind to their own moral corruption. In the name of civilization and high ideals, in the name of reason and science, they become monsters. We will never free ourselves from the self-delusion of the “war on terror” until we first vanquish the terrorist within.
Until we do so, we will “keep walking” a path of terror and violence, much of it of our own making.
Those who attempt to mend the flaws in the human species through force embrace a perverted idealism. Those who believe that history is a progressive march toward human perfectibility, and that they have the moral right to force this progress on others, no longer know what it is to be human. In the name of the noblest virtues they sink to the depths of criminality and moral depravity. This self-delusion comes to us in many forms. It can be wrapped in the language of Western civilization, democracy, religion, the master race, Liberté, égalité, fraternité, the worker’s paradise, the idyllic agrarian society, the new man or scientific rationalism. The jargon is varied. The dark sentiment is the same.
Until we hold accountable the torturers among us — and those who authorized or built the legal framework to support torture are even more responsible for torture than the individual interrogators, for they are accountable for what happens in every interrogation room, in every dark cell, at every “black site” — we are, ourselves torturers, terrorists, and unrepentant.