Torture: Just Walk On By April 23, 2009Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, politics.
Tags: abuse of power, OLC torture memos, Peggy Noonan, Robert Gibbs, rule of law, torture, Washington insiders
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.