Monday, June 8, 2009

A Reflection on Where We Are Now

A Reflection on Where We Are Now
by Rob Crawford

We are entering June, which is Torture Awareness Month. I have always felt uncomfortable with condensing such important matters into a time frame, as if awareness--and, hopefully, the principled actions that accompany awareness-- can be safely put aside for the rest of the year. On the other hand, we live in a world of competing atrocities and urgent concerns, as well as the joys of summer, so anything we can do to remind ourselves and those with whom we converse that the urgency of confronting U.S. torture is a good thing--and that it is a continuing challenge. The shame and remorse that we feel that these terrible deeds were committed in our name do not disappear with the winter rains--nor with a new administration.

Why is this June unlike previous June's? Because, I believe, the anti-torture movement is at a critical stage, a moment of crisis, where the significant achievements we have won with President Obama's executive order ending all abusive treatment will either be solidified and extended so that our nation will never again return to the brutal and inhumane treatment of those it captures; or, that the political, cultural and ideological settlement will be such as to keep torture as an option, an item on the menu of state actions that can be employed in the name of national security, brought out as a response to the next emergency or "impending emergency". There is the appearance of our having put the "dark side" behind us--the Bush-Cheney administration is out of power; Obama is taking a different course--and thus we can safely "move forward". There is a widespread perception that America has returned to the rule of law and has restored its "moral authority". I believe, however, that the battle for public opinion about the legitimacy of torture has never been greater. Nor am I confident, given some recent decisions, that the Obama administration will do the right thing.

The events of the spring of 2009 have amply demonstrated that the struggle for a torture-free America is far from over. In the entire time of my involvement in this sordid issue, I have seen nothing like this spring's attention to torture. Not even the Abu Ghraib photos stirred the kind of debate we are seeing now. The release of the memos created a firestorm of commentary about what was done, why it was done, and what were the likely consequences for our country. In the history of the United States, there have been few parallels where the government's policies have come under such close moral and political scrutiny.

Obama's decision to release the secret torture memos on April 16 rightly called forth demands for investigation and accountability, including, of course, from our own National Religious Campaign Against Torture. Commentators from across the political spectrum, shocked by the brutality of the methods authorized in the memos and the accounts that appeared in the leaked report of the International Committee of the Red Cross, were moved to voice their dismay. The pressure for a Commission of Inquiry and/or criminal investigations grew dramatically.

These calls for accountability were met with an onslaught of commentary from the political right and the national security apparatus, led by Dick Cheney. We heard about how "enhanced interrogation" saved the United States from another terrorist attack, how it is an essential tool in the war on terrorism, and how Obama's ending that program has put the country in jeopardy. Throughout it all, there was a continuing denial that the U.S. had engaged in or authorized torture and that what Americans saw in the Abu-Ghraib photos had nothing to do with policy. And what was policy was not about unlawful or immoral acts but just a matter of "policy differences," "hard-choices" by well-intentioned leaders doing their best under strained circumstances to protect the nation. In May, Republicans jumped on the possibility of implicating the Democrats, essentially warning that any investigation into the Bush-Cheney era would be accompanied by a partisan counter-attack, giving preemptive substance to worries that any investigation would be too partisan and too divisive for the country. Further, we were repeatedly told not only from the right but from mainstream commentators that it would somehow be better for the country if we followed the president's advice to not look backward. In short, the counter-attack has been fierce and has been given voice in every single major media outlet.

Although difficult to assess, my guess is that this counter-attack by the advocates of "aggressive interrogation" was largely effective. The result? The anti-torture movement's call for accountability either through a commission of inquiry or criminal investigations appears to have been stymied--at least temporarily. The President himself has discouraged such efforts and the Congressional Democratic leadership seems to concur.

If this assessment is correct, think about the implications: with the release of the memos, there can no longer be doubt that crimes of the highest order were authorized by the president and vice president, the national security council, the Secretary of Defense and others in the chain of command, and the Director of the CIA. Certainly, many people will continue to deny that crimes have been committed but this denial increasingly strains credulity. The critical question is how we can claim that we are a nation of laws if there is no effort to hold accountable those who have broken the law? How can the grave immorality of torture become a part of our national consciousness if amnesia is the prescribed solution, especially when so much of what passes for informed public opinion still is attempting to justify these immoral and unlawful policies?

Depending on the outcome of the ongoing "debate" about torture or "enhanced interrogation," the "exception" of the Bush-Cheney torture regime may easily turn into a "torture culture"--a culture that, even though divided about torture, is still largely willing to consider torture as a legitimate tool of government if the country's national security is claimed to be at stake. From my perspective, given that the danger of another terrorist attack may be with us for a long time, this attitude translates, practically, into support for torture among broad sectors of the public. Polls continue to suggest this to be the case.

Such an outcome is unacceptable. If the moral core of our country is to survive (we are saying that it cannot survive if we opt for state torture under any circumstances), the struggle has become one for the hearts and minds of the American people. Let's not deceive ourselves; we can lose. We have much to do in educating our communities about the facts of what has happened and to converse about the moral and political implications of these sorry events.

Thus, this June and the months following deserve our continuing commitment to the anti-torture struggle. Contact WSRCAT for suggestions about what you can do.