Don’t stop talking about torture

Some may call it a dead topic that should stay dead, but I think that a national discussion of torture needs to continue. Andy Worthington’s March 13 posting on Truthout offers an excellent summary of the issue.

As for me, I think American citizens need to know if their government is living up to its stated ideals or violating the same standards to which it holds other nations. When the U.S. government touts its Army Field Manual,  or signs on to the Geneva Conventions or other international treaties—do we mean it, or do we reserve the right—via American exceptionalism—to change the rules when it’s convenient for us?

The recent ruling by Justice Department official David Margolis—effectively absolving Bush Administration lawyers from responsibility in enabling “enhanced interrogation techniques” in Iraq and Guantanamo—makes this dialogue even more imperative.

I don’t know what Margolis’ motivation was, and he’s not talking. His ruling overturned four years of investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. Perhaps he’s protecting his own, circling the wagons around the fraternity/sorority of  lawyers. Perhaps he’s been instructed—as the Obama administration has emphasized many times—to focus on the future, not on the past. After all, if the Obama administration prosecutes, or censures, or even criticizes the previous administration, it could set in motion—horror of horrors—future efforts at holding government officials accountable for their actions.

I can’t say for sure why they’re doing what they’re doing. But we do know that the UN Convention Against Torture, signed by President Reagan in 1988 and incorporated into US federal law, defines torture as:

any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person …

In the infamous “torture memo,” John Yoo and Jay Bybee  tortured that definition into submission—probably at the behest of the Bush administration—and now, they’ve gotten away with it.

When I watched portions of the Congressional hearings on torture in 2009, it occurred to me that one sure way to define torture would be to ask the defenders of “harsh interrogation techniques” a simple question: “If someone did that to you, or to your friend or family member, would you call it torture?”

Thankfully, President Obama took action, shortly after being inaugurated, to reverse the most egregious interrogation policies of the Bush Administration, announcing, in January 2009, that America was reverting to the Army Field Manual’s rules.

But President Obama’s welcome policy shift is not the end of the story.  A terrible precedent has been set, both by the original torture memos and by David Margolis’ recent ruling. Even if we follow the Obama administration’s apparent predilection for not looking backward or placing blame, we will face these issues again in the future. This administration’s unwillingness to establish accountability will undoubtedly come back to haunt us. The Justice Department’s ruling effectively gives cover to future foes to torture our soldiers with impunity.

Blame and punishment for the perpetrators of the Bush Administration’s foolhardy and inhumane policy is probably not the answer. Particularly in today’s political climate, such a strategy would most likely be counterproductive, resulting in endless political warfare.

There is, however, an alternative. It’s called “truth and reconciliation,” and the process–though sometimes painful and complicated–has had good results in post-apartheid South Africa and other regions where conflict and alleged war crimes have divided the community. There’s even a precedent for this process here in the U.S., in Greensboro, North Carolina, where a local Truth & Reconciliation Commission was organized in 2004 to examine and learn from a divisive event in Greensboro’s past, in order to build the foundation for a more unified future.

I acknowledge that getting a truth and reconciliation process in place to examine what happened during the Bush Administration, and to try to promote national healing, is a long shot.  But if we don’t address this issue now, then when will we?

-Photo credit: Bill Concannon, Burning Images