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Feb. 23 2010 - 10:36 am | 1,630 views | 3 recommendations | 9 comments

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.


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  1. collapse expand

    Truth and Reconciliation commissions are typically employed in countries emerging in the aftermath of dictatorial regimes. They are for use by countries with nascent institutions of justice. What the United States needs to do is enforce its own existing and international laws. Obama’s failure to uphold existing law is the height of fecklessness. For the victims of US torture and indefinite detention, the greatest hope for justice remains that some foreign government will pursue cases against the torturers. Spain may well lead the way and once the ball gets rolling, the United States will be rightly humiliated on the world stage.

  2. collapse expand

    When he was thirteen, my brother had some friends over and somehow an expensive upholstered chair was shredded. Understandably angry, my mother told him it was his responsibility to see it fixed. My brother dumped the chair in the desert and spun an elaborate web of lies and excuses about why the chair had not returned from the shop. I had to ask him how he thought it would all work out, knowing full well that the chair was rotting out in the desert. He looked at me like I didn’t get it. His motivation was to avoid responsibility, hope the problem miraculously went away, or at the very least punt the problem forward to some hazy day where the outcome was less apparent. That is the American socio-political process in a nutshell. We used to have leaders on both sides who viewed challenges and mistakes as part of adult life. To face these challenges and unpleasant tasks was a measure of maturity and integrity. It’s been a long time since that kind of leadership has been witnessed in this country. Apparently we will have to wait a bit longer.

  3. collapse expand

    Mr. McQuaid,

    The precedents in South Africa and South America apply to torture and murder and injustice within the countries in question. No country has ever had a “truth and reconciliation commission” to examine what it did during a war. The Nuremburg Trials were the closest thing to that and they were conducted against the loser in the war and not by the losing country itself.

    The nearest thing I could think of was in 1920 when the British parliament had hearings on the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar in the Punjab. Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer ordered his troops on April 13, 1919 to open fire on an unarmed crowd celebrating the annual Baisakhi events resulting in hundreds of deaths and injuries. While everyone in power, Conservative, Liberal, and Labor, denounced the massacre (including the arch-defender of British rule in India, Winston Churchill) Brigadier Dyer was never punished and remained defiant. Pro-imperialists outside of government rallied to his support. The Morning Post took up a collection for his support which reached 26,000 £ and he was lauded as the “Saviour of Punjab”.

    If the US were to have truth and reconciliation commission, something like that would probably be the outcome. People like Mr. Limbaugh and Mr. Beck would say that the torturers were heroes, defending us from terrorists. The Tea Party and Republicans would hold rallies at the Capitol and the Democrats would wring their hands and mumble about “not getting to carried away with this investigation business”.

  4. collapse expand

    And we all covered up in it.
    Ain’t nobody clean.

    Be nice to get clean though.

    How do we do that?

    We ante up and kick in, sir.

  5. collapse expand

    Someone once said, “you can’t see where your going if your constantly looking in the rearview mirror”. Some people still blame Herbert Hoover for the 1929 stock market crash.
    How long are you going to keep beating that Bush/Cheney drum? I beleive the previous administration made alot of mistakes, and torturing prisoners of war to get information may or may not have been one of them. The only true measure is results and you and I will never be prevy to that intel. No one will ever know how many innocent lives may have been saved and I’m not just talking about American lives!

    Remember you can’t change the past you can only learn from it.

    • collapse expand

      Crimes are crimes for which there is no justice until they are fully prosecuted! The entire concept of “not looking backward” is as ludicrous as it is in itself criminal (at least for someone sworn to uphold the law!). You can only prosecute crimes which happened in the past. Does someone believe that we can prosecute crimes committed in the future?

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  6. collapse expand

    We learn from the past, but not as quickly as we’d like. For example, previous administrations thought that by pushing covert action to install the Shah of Iran, that somehow we’d end up better for it. It turns out that was a short term fix that cost us dearly in the long run.

    We’ll never know for sure whether harsh interrogations of high level terrorists was worthwhile until we’ve seen the history pass and can understand it. It is too soon to know whether this policy is effective or not. I simply do not trust what could amount to a political witch hunt to figure this out.

    I do not like these harsh interrogation policies any more than I like to see war. However, we need to concede that these are combatants not associated with any country, they are not signatories to the Geneva Convention, they do not trade prisoners of war. In fact, the only reason they take prisoners at all is for propaganda purposes. The benefit of observing the Geneva conventions with a group that is not a signatory to them and that clearly operates outside of them is questionable.

    I don’t like what Cheney did. I don’t think I’d have made the same decision myself. But I also recognize that it was a legitimate judgment call, although I think it odious.

    I don’t care what stripe of political background you come from, we have to respect another’s party to make decisions at their level of authority. I think the Obama administration is doing the right thing.

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    About Me

    I'm a journalist and author who writes about science, environment, various forms of government dysfunction, and, against my better judgment, American politics. Also: the media and the future of journalism. My work has appeared in Smithsonian magazine, Wired, The Washington Post, Mother Jones, the Guardian and the Huffington Post. In a previous life I was an investigative/explanatory reporter for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. The edge of chaos, BTW, is that narrow zone between stasis and chaos where complexity emerges and interesting things happen.

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