Torture: Why It’s Best To Go Slow On ‘The Past That Is Haunting The Future’

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By SHAUN MULLEN

GUEST VOICE

As someone who has banged the drum relentlessly about the Bush administration’s torture regime, there is a certain satisfaction to be felt in the events of the past week.

This includes the knowledge that so long as America is a functioning democracy with a semblance of an independent news media and a vibrant blogosphere, a fuller account of what happened was bound to begin to emerge. And with it macabre story lines such as the White House’s obsession with using torture as a political instrument by unsuccessfully trying to waterboard nonexistent information out of detainees that would justify the Iraq war by linking Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda.

All good, but what happens next?

That is difficult to answer given the many tentacles — moral, judicial and especially political — emanating from the entire torture issue and what, if anything, to do about Bush administration enablers.

Difficult yes, and made much more so because President Obama is determined to not play a leadership role, at least not at this juncture.

Remember, as most people do not, that Obama was compelled to release the CIA torture memos. Recall also that an administration that has displayed extraordinary message discipline has been all over the lot on the question of what should happen next, although the White House and Democratic Party leadership seemed to have coalesced around a go-real-slow approach.

That means ruling out naming a special prosecutor or establishing an independent commission for the time being because it will detract from an ambitious policy agenda that is determinedly forward looking and not backward looking. (That’s the job of the exerable Dick Cheney.)

Anyhow, in looking ahead, national myopia is not an option, which is what the usually sage Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan is counseling. Neither is waiting a few months until cooler heads prevail because many of the heads are self righteous and if the Republicans are good at anything at this point, it’s retaliating. Although the scenario is a bit far fetched, scuttling health-care reform in the service of congressional action on torture is an unacceptable trade-off.

So what to do in, say, the next 60 days?

My answer is a bit of a cop out as someone who believes in his head and heart that certain administration perpetrators need to be held accountable, and perhaps some Democrats, as well. But we’re bound to learn more — perhaps a lot more about the torture regime — within this time frame, most importantly a fuller accounting of what those perps did.

This will include the court-ordered release of more photographs from Abu Ghraib and a report from Justice’s Department of Professional Responsibility that was initiated before Bush left office. It will show that with torture as in so many other things, notably the run-up to Iraq war, the White House was utterly disinterested in dissenting voices. The views of officials opposed to torture on legal and moral grounds were dismissed out of hand and the officials sometimes dismissed, as well.

Tomorrow is the fifth anniversary of the Sunday evening that Abu Ghraib exploded into the American consciousness and we were shocked to learn through “60 Minutes” that our government had turned Saddam’s torture chamber into one of its own.

The torture saga is freighted with ironies, but none is larger than the fact that while the Bush administration used torture to try to defeat Al Qaeda, a task that was a miserable failure except in Iraq, torture became the biggest recruiting tool for the terrorist group.

It has taken the intervening years to begin to untangle this web of grotesqueries, most importantly understanding that what happened at Abu Ghraib, the CIA black sites, Guantánamo Bay and in Afghanistan was not the work of rogue interrogators but was initiated at the highest levels of government.

Too many pundits are focusing on torture more as a test for the new administration than an abject moral failure of the old one. Obama was elected to fix what Bush broke and not to outfit some of his aides with frog suits, although both are in their own ways of equal import. Nevertheless, living a few more weeks with “the past that is haunting the present,” as the Washington Post put it, before determining how to move forward is the right course.

Image by Matt Mahurin

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shaun Mullen is a former The Moderate Voice columnist. Over a long career with newspapers, this award-winning editor and reporter covered the Vietnam War, O.J. Simpson trials, Clinton impeachment circus and coming of Osama bin Laden, among many other big stories. He blogs at Kiko’s House.

Author: Guest Voice

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4 Comments

  1. There are actually three different debates here, and the public discourse is getting muddied. There's a difference between torture, harsh interrogation and interrogation. People seem to be either caught up in a semantic debate as to what constitutes torture, and where the line is drawn with harsh interrogation.

    At this point, it might be moot, as Obama has banned even harsh interrogation. But definition matters, as does clarity in terms of whether you're talking about torture or harsh interrogation. A relative of mine worked as an interrogator in the days of serious infiltration of South Korea from the North. When spies were captured, all he had to do was drive the guy around downtown, modern Seoul, and he'd break. No pressure was necessary. The spy would see that everything he had been told about democracy, S. Korea, and the U.S. was a lie. It would overturn his whole paradigm. Some would say that's torture — psychic torture. Others might say it's okay to do.

  2. phalaanx:

    Thank you for delineating these important differences, but you are arguing last month's talking points. In the relatively short period of only a few weeks, there is now a widespread consensus insofar as the public discourse is concerned that many of the interrogations on Bush's watch were textbook examples of torture.

    This month's talking points are whether any of the key players should be accountable for their actions.

    Next month's — or at least I hope so — will be what venue would be appropriate for airing out the torture regime and dealing with the draconian issue of what to do about the key players.

    I myself favor a bipartisan 9/11-type commission for starters, but as I have written repeatedly Obama does NOT want to take a leadership role in any of this, at least until his policy agenda advances.

  3. “The spy would see that everything he had been told about democracy, S. Korea, and the U.S. was a lie. It would overturn his whole paradigm. Some would say that's torture — psychic torture. Others might say it's okay to do.”

    Perhaps I am misunderstanding you Phalaanx, but I can't think of any sane person anywhere who would consider this torture, just as I can't imagine any sane person anywhere not considering water boarding a person 183 times to be anything other than torture.

    And as to the strange idea that there is still some debate over whether the techniques in Bradbury's memo are torture or not, the army, the navy, the Marines, the Airforce and the FBI have already officially declared on this- they were.

    The only question left is do we leave it up to each individual administration to decide what the law is or do we reinstate our defining creed as a country- a nation of laws, not of men.

  4. Perhaps I am misunderstanding you Phalaanx, but I can't think of any sane person anywhere who would consider this torture, just as I can't imagine any sane person anywhere not considering water boarding a person 183 times to be anything other than torture.

    Thank you, truflo, lol. My reaction exactly.

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