April 19 2009
To Obama on Torture: Do the Right Thing
Picture by Raphael Edwards
President Obama's decision to release the "torture memos" was a rare and important victory for transparency and took considerable courage. But his decision not to prosecute the CIA agents who committed acts of torture, on the grounds that they were just following orders, defies international and US law, betrays the President's own calls for accountability and moral renewal, and offends human decency, morality and common sense.
Some believe that the President's decision leaves the door open to prosecute the higher officials in the Bush administration who set the policy and tried to provide legal "cover" for the CIA. These are the most important crimes to prosecute, but that seems unlikely in the context of amnesty for those who were actually in the room.
Let's remember what we're talking about. Torture is second only to murder as the worst crime imaginable. Murder annihilates the victim's entire future, but to torture is to inflict unbearable pain and suffering (in fact, torture is designed, intended, to be unbearable) and scars the victim's future with the memory of what has been suffered physically and psychologically. That's why torture is a crime under international and US law. Because it is unspeakably, utterly, morally repugnant and dehumanizing for the victim, the torturer and the society that permits it or remains silent in the face of it.
The apologists for torture argue that it has saved (American) lives (without providing any evidence for this claim). It's far more likely that torture is actually counter-productive as an intelligence gathering tool and makes Americans much less safe.
But even if it "worked," torture would still be wrong. There is no clearer way to appreciate this fact than through the lens of humanity's highest moral principle, which is widely recognized by religious and humanist currents alike; the Golden Rule that says "Treat others the way you want to be treated." Who would ever, in a million years, want to be tortured?
The President's decision was wrong in many ways. By invoking what is essentially the Nuremberg defense (that the agents believed what they were doing was legal), Obama opened the door for future torture by setting the precedent of immunity. Without accountability there is no hope of justice and without consequences for criminal acts the law has no meaning. And by suggesting that the agents were torturing in good faith, Obama subtly endorsed the notion that it was in some sense justified.
Finally, this poisonous idea -- that violence works, that it is OK (when it is done by our side) -- is what we must overcome. Violence cannot be solved by more violence and violence will never make us safe. Nor is it courageous to be violent. Nonviolence demands far more strength and courage and challenges us to face our own internal violence at the same time that we struggle against the social violence afflicting humanity.
In February, 2008, New Humanists endorsed Barack Obama for President. At that time we said:
"Barack Obama ... clearly repudiates torture, has pledged to close Guantanamo and restore habeas corpus."
I wish I could report that Obama has kept these promises. He has made important steps on other fronts: calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons, putting forward a much fairer and more human budget, and completely changing the tone of foreign policy and governance.
But though Guantanamo is slated for closure, his administration continues the Bush policy of holding detainees without the right of habeas corpus at a prison in Bagram, Afghanistan. President Obama has repudiated torture in words; now he must do so through his actions.
It's the right thing to do.
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