President Obama, a man who can be counted on to deliver an inspirational speech, made an unambiguous admission about the systematic brutality visited on Muslims who fell into American hands after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. He left no ambiguity about the “enhanced interrogation techniques”. In one of the most regrettable phrases the great speechmaker ever uttered he made it clear that “we tortured some folks.”
That was in the summer of 2014, and the remark was prefaced by “after 9/11 we did a lot of good things, but…” His legal training was on display in the way he buried that terrible admission in the second half of a sentence that began reminding us of all the correct things we did after 9/11.
Great rhetorical speaking often calls for a stirring generality that can unite listeners and make the bitter medicine go down easier. Obama did not disappoint, making the larger, more abstract and more palatable point that “one of the strengths that makes America exceptional is our willingness to openly confront our past, face our imperfections, make changes and do better.” Keep that remark in mind, we’ll get back to it in the punchline.
His high-minded (to give him the benefit of the doubt) decision not to prosecute anyone for these war crimes, American crimes, flagrant violations of international treaties, etc. fails to account for one dependable human tendency. If you admit what your country did was abhorrent and then vow to look forward, without any accountability for those who ordered the savage, illegal acts committed, it’s not hard to imagine what will happen the next time you and other good people feel pushed into a desperate corner, surrounded by implacable, murderous enemies who hate your freedom.
This guy we have coming into office loves tough talk and loves the idea of inflicting maximum pain on our enemies. Waterboarding is not enough for him, he boasted, he’d do really bad shit, much worse than just controlled drowning over and over as you’re strapped to a board upside down, between punches in the face as you vomit and gag for air, at the very edge of cardiac arrest (which is why they always had a doctor by the waterboard– how about that for a post 9-11 turn on the Hippocratic Oath?)
I have whined about all this torture done in our names since I heard the U.S. had secretly “legalized” torture during the Cheney-Addington-Bush years. I was glad to hear, even as I winced at the grotesque nonchalance of the expression, an American president admit “we tortured some folks”. It was like hearing Bill Clinton say what no other American president had ever said: slavery was an atrocity and America should apologize for it. Another great moment of national healing that should have made folks feel much better.
Why am I whinging about this today of all days? Last week there was some debate, way in the background, about the fate of the 6,700 page Senate Torture Report. Although the Obama Administration has kept the report top secret since its release, it appears that the full scope of the torture program is laid out in its pages, specific atrocities are described in detail, it contains the testimony of the torturers themselves about gaining no useful intel from the torture, details the eventual insistence of the torturers and their bosses that the program be stopped because it did far more harm than good, and so on.
The full report is apparently a ringing slap in the face to tough talking guys like Dick Cheney, who continue to insist that torture works, that we got plenty of good intel from it, that those we tortured fucking deserved it, and worse, and that countless American lives were saved by torture, even if many of those tortured were wrongfully imprisoned detainees who had no connection to terrorist activities and were eventually released from indefinite detention.
When Republicans regained control of the Senate in 2015, Republican Senator Richard Burr, the new chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the committee responsible for the Senate Torture Report, apparently sought to collect all copies of the report that had been distributed so that the report could be classified and/or destroyed once and for all.
It seems mad to destroy the report, erase its still classified findings, but, that’s partisan politics, I suppose. Objection to torture is seen as largely a liberal tic in current American politics. Why that would be the case is hard for me to understand, I am certain that many conservative people also abhor torture, which has long been considered antithetical to American values, but there it is: torture is now another snarling partisan issue in our Divided States of America, like abortion, global warming, full rights of citizenship for homosexuals.
Obama took decisive action the other day to preserve the Senate Torture Report. He’s including a copy in his presidential library. He has been praised for this action. He has also classified the report for the maximum twelve years under the Presidential Records Act. Nobody, including, presumably, the incoming president and his administration, who are unlikely to consult it in any case, will be able to have access to the report until 2029, at the earliest.
The cliche about the unlearned lessons of history comes to mind. Along with this stirring epitaph about American Exceptionalism: “one of the strengths that makes America exceptional is our willingness to openly confront our past, face our imperfections, make changes and do better.” We can start to do that on the subject of torture in a mere twelve years, maybe.