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Torture: Just Walk On By April 23, 2009

Posted by Dwight and Lynn Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, politics.
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The Obama Administration’s pronouncements on holding Bush Administration officials accountable for the torture of prisoners has been shallow and incoherent.

On Tuesday, President Obama seemed to leave the door open to prosecuting Bush Administration officials who wrote the justifications for torture at secret CIA prisons.

This is an improvement over the administration’s comments on Monday at a press briefing. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, in responding to a question asking why Bush Administration officials were not being held accountable for enabling torture, replied, “The President is focused on looking forward, that’s why.”

And on Thursday, Gibbs repeated the canard about looking forward.

Gibbs’s response was similar to columnist (and former Reagan speech writer) Peggy Noonan’s suggestion that we just move on. “Some things in life need to be mysterious,” referring to the torture memos. “Sometimes you need to just keep walking.”

The memos from Bush’s Office of Legal Counsel clearly endorse torture. And torture is a war crime.

When a crime has been committed, wanting to “move on”, “look forward”, or “just keep walking” is not a defense. These are not remotely intelligible comments. Either torture is a serious crime or it is not. If it is not, then just say so and admit that the United States will sometimes torture suspects when it wants to. But if it is a serious crime, it is simply delusional to think that by “just looking forward” the stain of torture will somehow disappear. Especially when the purpose of much of the torture was not to save lives but to protect the Bush Administration’s rationale for invading Iraq.

I’m sure any criminal defendant would prefer judge and jury to “just look forward”, but such an appeal would be laughable in a court of law. Accountability conceptually requires that we not look only to the future.

Obama seems reluctant to spend political capital warding off the storm of abuse that surely will come from Republicans if he prosecutes Bush Administration officials; and he seems, rightfully, concerned about whether we have the proper mechanisms and institutions in place to carry out such a prosecution.

These pragmatic concerns are worth considering. But we should not confuse pragmatism with moral corruption. Without prosecutions, it will be impossible to claim that the United States does not torture, and for morally suspect reasons.

The message these comments send is that if you are one of the “villagers” working inside the Washington Beltway, you should not be held accountable for a serious crime. And Obama, after only three months in the presidency, is perilously close to joining the village.

But it is dangerous to allow political leaders, of all people, to violate the law when the issue involves matters of policy. They, uniquely, have the power to abuse authority and their actions have ramifications that extend far beyond a few isolated incidents.

When government officials know they can do what they want without being held accountable there is no limit to the power they might seek. So we can be a nation of laws in which serious crimes are punished regardless of the position of the perpetrator, or we can hope that no one like George W. Bush is ever elected again.

I would not want to rest the future of democracy entirely on the very thin shoulders of American voters.

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Comments»

1. sole4sail - April 23, 2009

At least you make a coherent argument, even if you are wrong.
The President has said he will leave it up to Eric Holder. He wants it to be a legal issue, not a political one. This is going to be a story for a long, long time. Originally, Spain was going to head the investigations, but since they backed down, they forced Obama’s hand. He is trying to play it like a statesman, which he’s supposed to. The problem is that the Bush Administration so convoluted the legalities of this mess that untangling it will be next to impossible.
It certainly won’t be accomplished overnight.

Ian Duckles - April 24, 2009

I must disagree somewhat with the claim that “the Bush Administration so convoluted the legalities of this mess that untangling it will be next to impossible.” As I see it, the legalities here are quite clear. The 8th Amendment, the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention on Torture (ratified into law by the signature of then President Reagan) are clear that torture is illegal, and we have numerous legal precedents of individuals tried and found guilty for torture using the method of water boarding. Political pundits and the establishment media are working very hard to introduce red herrings and put up a great deal of smoke screen, but the central point, as Dwight noted above, couldn’t be clearer, “The memos from Bush’s Office of Legal Counsel clearly endorse torture. And torture is a war crime.”

2. sole4sail - April 24, 2009

Clearly.
I take it you’ve read every one of the, what is it, eight thousand correspondences now in question?
Torture is a war crime. No duh.
Since you’re clearly the most well-informed individual on this investigation, could you please tell us all the names of the individuals you have proof are guilty of exactly which war crimes, how many and to what degree, and what the proper sentence for each person should be? Right now?
Didn’t think so. Look, we’re on the same side here, believe it or not. Crimes were committed and people should be held accountable. But if you think this is gonna be easy, you’re insane.

Ian Duckles - April 24, 2009

I certainly didn’t intend to imply that the torture scandal would be resolved overnight. Clearly there is a great deal more information about this issue that still remains classified. Perhaps I misunderstood the thrust of your post, which suggested to me that you thought Dwight was mistaken in his argument that there was clear evidence of torture that demanded prosecution. If we all agree on this, great! That being said, it is now unclear to me what you objected to in Dwight’s original post.

As for a (partial) list of some of the most egregious perpetrators (and some of the minimal punishments I think would be appropriate), all of whom committed the war crime of torture, I would include:
George W. Bush (death penalty…not really, as I am in principle opposed to capital punishment, but the irony sure would be delicious)
Dick Cheney (life imprisonment…even a 5 year prison term would accomplish this given his health)
Donald Rumsfeld
John Yoo (Loss of academic appointment, disbarment)
Jay ByBee (Impeachment, disbarment)
Condoleeza Rice (Loss of academic appointment)

Obviously the list will need to be much longer and I am sure I have already left off some important names, but it seems that the evidence–already publicly available, and in many cases by the perpetrators own admission–that these individuals committed war crimes is pretty overwhelming.

Lastly, there may be other laws and statutes that apply, but minimally, each of the individuals identified above could be prosecuted under the UN Convention on Torture, which, under Article VI of the Constitution is the “supreme Law of the Land.”


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