Saturday, April 25, 2009


Irreconcilable Differences

The reactions to the recent disclosure of the "torture memos" by the Obama Administration has led to two quite different reactions. Liberals, like myself, want to go further than merely releasing memos and establish a capable, non-partisan commission to investigate and publicize as much as can be made public about the previous administration's use of torture, or "harsh interrogation techniques" to extract information from terror suspects in custody. Conservatives, like Dick Cheney, decry the whole business of making anything public. They argue that simply by publicizing the techniques the Administration is giving Al Qaeda invaluable information that can then be used to train their foot-soldiers on how to resist these techniques.

Added to all this commotion is a news account that the FBI had obtained valuable information from one suspect before he was turned over to the CIA. The FBI did not use torture or harsh interrogation techniques at all. The FBI agent simply showed the suspect a picture of a high-ranking Al Qaeda person. The suspect asked, "how did you know that he was the one who planned the 9/11 attacks?" The FBI man said nothing. He had not known until that moment that the person in question had actually planned anything.

I don't know how to find common ground between the extreme liberal and conservative reactions to the release of the memos. I try to recreate some of the attitudes that existed immediately after September 11, 2001. I remember corresponding with a woman who lived in Westchester County and commuted daily into New York to work. She wrote that she was fearful and dreaded going into the city. There were a lot of fearful, terrified people. There were a lot of them in the Administration. The President was fearful of another attack and was willing to do whatever it took to prevent it. Many people believed that torturing captured Al Qaeda suspects would induce them eventually to give up some information that might be useful. Who could blame them for trying? The United States had spent fifty years preparing defenses and responses to a Russion ICBM attack, but was utterly defenseless against a small, disciplined band of criminals who were willing to commit suicide by flying planes into large buildings.

Our federal constitution specifically forbids our government from imposing harsh or unusual punishment on convicted or suspected criminals. What the Bush administration did was clearly against the constitution. Merely re-defining "torture" did not get around the constitutional prohibition. However, conservatives and others argue that, aside from the constitutionality of it, did the techniques used produce useful information? Did they really save us from another attack? This may be a question that noone can answer, either because the answer is unknown or because the information is of such a nature that it must remain classified for many years. Mr. Cheney and others have said that the techniques did, in fact, elicit invaluable information that allowed us to forestall a second attack. Mr. Cheney may be correct, or he may simply be covering his ass. Leaving aside his relationship with the truth, I can see that a dangerous precedent has been set. A future President can claim, as did Mr. Bush, that the country is in grave danger and he, the President, must use extraordinary powers to foil an attack. He will claim the right to ignore the constitutional prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishment" in the treatment of persons that he has decreed to be "enemy combatants." This future President may simply be using these extra-legal powers to coerce and intimidate his political opponents. Presidents are only human and have more than their share of belief in the goodness of their cause. Mr. Nixon believed that he was not a crook, and that he was incapable of committing a crime. His political enemies were simply out to get him and he was obligated to defend himself and defeat them by whatever means was available, such as examining their income tax returns, looking at their FBI dossiers, and putting them on his enemies list.

Constitutional prohibitions against torture came about to prevent just such things. Our President is not a king, but many Presidents think that they have the powers of a king, specifically King Henry VIII. Henry was not above having his political opponents imprisoned in the Tower, tortured, and executed. Henry believed that the King had a divine right to rule. That was a common belief among kings until recent times. We want safeguards in place to prevent any future President from assuming a divine right to imprison even American citizens in a struggle against either a real or imaginary foe. The imperial Presidency has to go.

My position is that there should be a "truth and reconciliation commission" to examine and air the business of torturing captives in the "war" against terror. Let everything become known. Did torture in fact reveal new information that could not have been obtained in other ways? Was such information as critical to our defense as Mr. Cheney says? Can we afford to give our government officials the power to do the things that were done? What were they thinking?

Setting up such a commission will be difficult. If it is merely a congressional committee, it will immediately be bogged down in partisan bickering and name-calling. Perhaps it should not be established by government at all. Perhaps a group of churches can cooperatively set up such a commission and obtain persons to operate the commission who are beyond partisan reproach. I have a few candidates: The Dalai Lama, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Pope Benedict.

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