Previewing a declassified report that concludes that the prior Administration used techniques on terrorism suspects that amounted to torture, President Obama conceded that “we did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks.”
Of course, Obama couldn’t quite make himself confront Bush, Cheney & Co. with a point blank accusation. First, he had to couch the statement by using the pronoun “we” as if either he or his political party or the citizens of the United States were responsible for torture. Then, like a good Dad who praises his child before making a critical remark, he stated that a lot of things were done right, before pointing out that “we tortured some folks.” ‘That’s OK, Junior, try harder next time.’ And, by the way, what were those “right things” to which he was referring?
To further minimize the impact of his statement, Obama relied on the colloquialism — “folks.” We tortured “some folks.” He sounds like President Gomer Pyle. ‘Well, golly. I guess we tortured some folks.’ Those who were tortured were real flesh and blood people, human beings capable of feeling the extreme pain and humiliation of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” They were entitled to being treated as such.
It gets worse. The President then rationalized the use of torture in the context of the stressful times we were in. While it was certainly not cool to torture folks, it was understandable that our government would resort to such techniques because, you know, it was kinda scary back then.
I think it’s important when we look back to recall how afraid people were after the twin towers fell and the Pentagon had been hit and the plane in Pennsylvania had fallen and people did not know whether more attacks were imminent and there was enormous pressure on our law enforcement and our national security teams to try to deal with this. And, you know, it’s important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had. A lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots, but having said all that, we did some things that were wrong.So, our folks — meaning, the leaders of our government — were frightened and working under pressure, but, nevertheless, they were “real patriots” and so we shouldn’t hold them accountable just because they tortured other folks. As if the use of torture was simply an understandable spontaneous reaction to the tragedy of 9/11 and not a well calculated policy decision that those in the Bush Administration and their allies and apologists continue to believe was justified.
As Charles Pierce puts it: “Quite simply, nobody who engaged in torture, nobody who worked to establish a legal rationale for torture, nobody who applauded torture or encouraged it or welcomed its practice, has any right to be referred to by anyone, let alone the president, as a patriot.”
I’ve written before that President Obama’s biggest mistake when he first took office was refusing to allow his Justice Department to investigate, much less prosecute, the government officials who authorized torture. He maintained that since his Administration wouldn’t condone torture we can simply move forward. (See, e.g.,Pitfalls of Only Looking Forward, Tortured Logic.) But we are not moving forward. If we are to remain a nation of laws, when high government officials break the law or cynically bend the law to justify human rights violations there must be consequences.
Obama’s latest comments, as mealy-mouthed as they were, elicited the predictable backlash from the right while the media noted that they “reopened debate.” The upcoming report by the Senate Intelligence Committee is significant, but without a true reckoning that confirms once and for all the immorality, illegality and inefficacy of torture, we remain stuck in a debate that should have been resolved.