The Obama administration can no longer dodge the bullet of the war crimes committed while George W. Bush was in office. It is clear that the president is reluctant to act, fearing that this can of worms, if opened, could afflict Republicans and Democrats alike. He prefers, as he puts it, "looking forward" instead of "looking back."
Political realities explain his posturing. The deep, dark secret of the Democrats is that the party leadership wanted war with Iraq just as much as most Republicans, and it has been prominent Democrats who have been pushing hardest for military action against Iran. Many Democrats have spoken out in favor of "extraordinary rendition" and the so-called "enhanced interrogation" methods that are nothing more than euphemisms for torture. But Barack Obama’s reluctance notwithstanding, it is time to know the truth about what the government has been doing on behalf of the American people.
The accounts of systematic torture by American officials over the past eight years constitute a Bush administration legacy that is too important to ignore. Starting with the Taguba report of 2004 on Abu Ghraib, for which Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba was forced into retirement, they tell how torture started out as a procedure used sparingly on "high value" targets but quickly morphed into a regular interrogation technique. The latest revelations in the recently leaked Red Cross report [.pdf] should turn the stomach of every American citizen who reveres the Constitution and respects the rule of law. The Red Cross, which is the only international body that has been allowed to visit prisoners at Guantanamo, discovered that CIA doctors actually monitored torture sessions both in Cuba and at secret prisons elsewhere in the world. Detailed and extremely explicit testimony reveals that the presence of the CIA medical staff was to optimize the results of the torture, not to protect the prisoners who were being subjected to it, monitoring the process to permit the maximum infliction of pain without killing the victim. Prisoners were routinely waterboarded, confined in small boxes, hung by shackles from the ceiling, placed in freezing cells, starved, denied sleep, and slammed against walls. They were forced to stand naked and lie in their own feces and urine for days at a time. The torture would be varied from day to day to maximize the effectiveness, with different techniques used in succession or sometimes simultaneously. The torment was systematic and sustained, and it was government policy, not the activity of a few deranged jailers having fun. Any difference between the actions of CIA medical staff and Nazi doctors like Josef Mengele is purely a matter of degree. The American Medical Association, which has been silent on the abuses, should demand a full inquiry and be prepared to strip medical licenses from any physicians found to have participated. But will it?
It is clear that the CIA will not clean its own house on this issue. Director of Central Intelligence Leon Panetta has already said, "No one who took actions based on legal guidance from the Department of Justice at the time should be investigated, let alone punished." And the problem is much bigger than the Agency. Is there any doubt that the decision to torture was made at the highest levels in the White House? George W. Bush signed a memorandum on Feb. 7, 2002, stating that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to prisoners from the "war on terror." Dick Cheney, a master of the politics of fear, has repeatedly justified torture. He has most recently claimed that it prevented major terrorist attacks on the U.S., which is a lie as big as any ever told by Joseph Goebbels. Cheney’s secondary agenda is to prepare the ground for the Obama administration to be blamed for putting America at risk if there should be another terrorist attack. Cheney has already predicted that such an attack, when it comes, will be due to Obama’s abandonment of torture. One wonders if the former vice president actually hopes that the U.S. will be attacked, though speculation in that area would involve analysis of the mental workings of surely the most twisted and evil man ever to hold high office in America.
Is there any doubt that many of those tortured in American prisons over the past eight years were completely innocent and that the infliction of pain produced little or no information that enhanced the security of the United States? Can there be any question that those who carried out the torment knew perfectly well that what they were doing was wrong? Torture is a line that should never be crossed for reasons both ethical and practical. Abhorrence of torture is a marker of a country’s commitment to rule of law, as well as a measure of its fundamental decency, which is why the U.S. signed the international Convention Against Torture in 1984 and passed into law the War Crimes Act in 1996.
By rights, there should be a full investigation by an independent prosecutor and some serious jail time for those who approved and carried out torture. Forcing the government to do what is right should be everyone’s objective, but, recognizing that neither President Obama nor Congress has the desire to open a full investigation of war crimes, another approach might be preferable. Since there is a reluctance to punish, something like the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission should be considered. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was, from the start, not intended as an instrument to punish, which made it markedly different than the Nuremberg Trials after World War II. Many participants in state-sponsored crimes were granted amnesty so they could be frank about their actions. The commission was designed to bear witness to the abuses that took place under apartheid in a bid to make sure that such crimes would never take place again. It was established by law in 1995, and its tribunals sat in various cities in South Africa between 1996 and 1998. While it had many critics and did not achieve anything like across-the-board reconciliation, even its opponents would concede that it established a level of transparency and accountability for the many abuses that occurred under apartheid.
Circumstances in the United States and its "global war on terror" are necessarily different than post-apartheid South Africa, but the principle of establishing some kind of accountability that is both politically and morally acceptable without creating the perception of a witch hunt is a good one. It is vitally important to demolish the pretense that torture somehow serves a useful purpose, and the American public should understand, once and for all, that America’s largely well-deserved sense of virtue and "exceptionalism" should not serve as a cover for war crimes. Americans do not always wear the "white hats" and are more than capable of enacting bad policies and engaging in atrocities, just like everyone else in the world. A tribunal empowered to look at the evidence, classified and unclassified, would be able to set the record straight by demonstrating that there is no factual basis for the claims made by Dick Cheney that torturing people saved lives and averted more serious terrorist attacks. It would also establish the principle that there must be accountability for war crimes, even when they are ordered by the president of the United States.
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