Why America won’t come to terms with torture, Iraq and the Bush years
Someone asked me why, in my previous post, I wrote that we’d never see a South Africa-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission here in America to sort through the transgressions of the Bush years. Good question!
The country would benefit from such an approach on our response to 9/11. In the weeks and months after those terror attacks, the White House, Defense Department, CIA and other agencies pursued moral and legally questionable actions and policies that are geopolitically and historically significant. They go to the heart of our national identity and place in the 21st century world. I’d include the Iraq war, but for the purposes of this post will focus on U.S. treatment of prisoners. James Fallows says that the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility report on the “torture memos” used to justify those questionable policies is analogous to John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” and what it did for the atom bomb attacks on Japan. It exposes the terrible tradeoffs we made as a society in the name of security.
We certainly need some truth and reconciliation. The problem is, while everyone would nominally agree that reconciliation is a good idea (see, for example, the rote calls for “bipartisanship”), America remains fundamentally at odds over the “truth” part. Google “torture” and “poll” and you’ll find a bunch of ambiguous results. Americans narrowly approve of torture in some situations. Americans are split over torture investigations. Americans want a torture investigation. A majority of Americans think waterboarding is torture.
Obviously the problem isn’t just this set of issues but the deep political divisions that have nearly paralyzed the government during the Obama administration. There is a not-insignificant minority of Americans and a significant number of politicians and pundits that think “harsh interrogations” of terror suspects are necessary and effective. There’s also a credulous political press who will amplify their objections to any kind of investigation or process that suggests they are in the wrong. Every time Dick Cheney makes an assertion about the effectiveness of “harsh interrogations” – no matter how repetitive or unfounded – it’s news because of the extraordinariness of an ex-vice president criticizing another administration. (Though it grows less extraordinary each time he does it.)
Until there is some kind of political consensus that torture is wrong – some broad agreement on that something went wrong post-9/11 – it’s going to be very hard to get to the bottom of what happened, assign responsibility, and move on. Some leadership would be helpful here, but the Obama administration is determined to do as little as possible on this front – and, more generally, eschews decisive action that might generate significant political pushback from the other side.
On some level, though, this isn’t political at all – it’s just how we roll. America the land of “moving on,” of “closure.” Not real closure but “closure.” The notion that you shouldn’t dwell too long on unpleasant, ambiguous things but turn your face to the sun and keep moving forward. This forward inertia is often a good thing. Not here, though. Ideally, torture should be exposed to the full light of public inquiry and acknowledged, by consensus, as wrong. On a practical level, torture ought to be made politically and bureaucratically radioactive: take away any incentives from future politicians and their appointees to employ these techniques. Instead, though, we’re once again leaving ourselves to the mercy of events and expediency.