If I ever have to die for my beliefs, I sincerely hope that my reward in secular humanist heaven is a bottomless platter of crisp, thick-cut Irish bacon—delicious. But for an al Qaeda suspect locked up at Guantánamo, finding out that interrogators snuck a tiny grain of pepperoni into his already-eaten cheese pizza might be cause for sheer terror.
Torture is in the eye of the beholder, but by the definition of the United Nations convention against torture, waterboarding and other CIA and military interrogation “techniques” revealed in declassified memos, meet the definition of prohibited acts of torture.
Handcuffs too tight? OK. Simulated drowning? Not OK.
So the Bush administration lawyered up and gave itself permission to use specific methods that they say weren't really torture, but just sort of torture-ish.
It makes sense that Obama, staking his presidency on restoring credibility to the federal government both at home and abroad, decided to release the torture memos to fully disclose the extent to which torture tactics had been countenanced by the previous administration—otherwise he could be accused of trying to cover it up. But now, appealing for an approach that looks forward rather than back, the president has signaled that he isn’t interested in putting American intelligence officers on trial.
The problem with torture isn’t torture. The problem is hypocrisy. As a global superpower that professes to believe in the rule of law, by torturing, we failed to live up to the ideals that we espouse for ourselves and the world.
But pinning the blame on a few individuals is way too convenient. It lets the rest of us off the hook. We didn’t have the memos, but we knew what was going on, right? They don't stash detainees in the Caribbean because "It’s better in the Bahamas." The interrogators ran amok, waterboarding Abu Zubaida and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed a total of 266 times, and the rest of us were watching American Idol and 24.
“Yes, We Can (Remember?)”
Elections count. The American electorate took a long time to come around to the conclusion that the Bush/Cheney administration had taken the country on the wrong course, and Obama’s election was a signal that the nation wanted to turn the page.
Although there’s a clear legal basis for prosecuting those involved in torturing terror suspects, the change in the moral direction of U.S. policy already took place in 2008.
If we go down this road, the cycle of reprisals will never end. A lot of those eager to see Obama’s Justice Department convict members of Bush’s staff, military lawyers or interrogators in the field might be less enthusiastic when 2012 or 2016 rolls around and a Romney or Palin administration starts bringing charges against members of the Obama White House for the “crime” of allowing stem-cell research.
We might as well see what comes of our disclosure to the rest of the world before taking any next steps. Because we’re not the only ones out here doing it.
The rest of the world is justifiably upset by the disclosure of American torture. But before our guys go to jail, maybe Egypt, Iran, Turkey, China, Russia, France, Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua ought to come clean about their intelligence practices.
I’ve never been in a Saudi jail, but I’d be willing to bet that in the basement of Riyadh Central Prison, waterboarding is considered an appetizer.
And invariably, the wrong people will go down. The leaders, former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who set the institutional culture which allowed torture to go on, will have deniability, and the Lynndie Englands of the world will go to prison because they didn’t have the willpower to do the right thing.
Somewhere along the way, America started becoming the warden at Shawshank. As the Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby wrote Wednesday, we crossed “the line that separates us from the enemy we are trying to defeat.” Our image is tarnished abroad, and we’ve made it that much tougher to protect the Roxana Saberis of the world.
The bootleg legal reasoning concocted to get around the UN conventions should get lawyers disbarred and everyone else fired—maybe even publicly shamed. But for Obama and the country, going down the road of prosecution will be nothing short of pure torture.
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.