“We’re fortunate to have men and women who work hard at the CIA serving on our behalf. These are patriots and whatever the report says, if it diminishes their contributions to our country, it is way off base.”
— Former President George W. Bush,
anticipating the release of a Senate report
on the use of torture by the CIA
“Whoever outside the United States commits or attempts to commit torture shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both, and if death results to any person from conduct prohibited by this subsection, shall be punished by death or imprisoned for any term of years or for life.”
Quibble all you want, but we tortured people, probably a lot of them, brutally and over a long period of time. Some of those we tortured were probably completely innocent, and we probably killed a few in the process, although the soon-to-be released report from the Senate Intelligence Committee will provide more details on all that and more.
And again, quibble all you want about the clear language of the law above or about the supposed rationales for indulging in torture. It all comes down to the fact that we tortured because we were scared. We let the terrorists win. We lacked the courage of our convictions, and we let them frighten us into abandoning what we knew to be right, even though the threat that we faced and continue to face from terrorists is far less grave than the threat we faced during World War II or even the Cold War.
We let ourselves be frightened into shaming ourselves, our country and its traditions, and even worse, our leaders were willing, eager co-conspirators in that fear-mongering. Rather than reassure us, they dialed the fear upward because that gave them more freedom to do what they wanted, up to and including a disastrous invasion of Iraq.
A lot of people are going to be angry about the release of the Senate report, and it is likely to cause us a lot of problems overseas. That’s deeply unfortunate, but the problem isn’t the revelation that such behavior occurred. The problem is that the behavior occurred in the first place. The revelation is just the beginning of taking responsibility for it.
We have a choice and always have a choice: We can merely pretend to be the shining city on the hill that Ronald Reagan used to describe us as, and we can get angry at those who dare to expose that as pretense. Or we can actually try to live up to that goal, and to get angry at those who cause us to fall short and try to do better. In that regard, the most reassuring aspect of this entire scandal is that maybe, in the end and through stubborn leadership from Sen. Dianne Feinstein and others, we will indeed acknowledge the truth of most of what happened. That’s a start.
We’re also going to learn that the outrages at Abu Ghraib, which President Bush publicly denounced at the time as “abhorrent” and claimed do “not represent the America that I know,” did in fact represent the America that he knew. In fact, those outrages were almost trivial compared to the practices that his administration secretly condoned and even advocated, often over the principled objections of military officials.
It’s important to remember that we sent 11 low-ranking enlisted personnel to prison for what happened at Abu Ghraib. While Bush still celebrates those who did far worse as patriots and heroes, we used those 11 as scapegoats, citing their punishment as proof that Americans did not practice or tolerate such evil. No one of high rank was prosecuted. Years later, no doubt bothered by that discrepancy, the high-ranking U.S. military officer assigned to investigate the Abu Ghraib scandal would come clean, publicly accusing the U.S. government of implementing “a systematic regime of torture.”
“Our national honor is stained by the indignity and inhumane treatment these men received from their captors,” Major Gen. Antonio Taguba wrote, concluding that “the only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”
That was in 2008, and it is only now, six years later, that we are getting anything close to a public accounting of what happened.
However — and despite the clear language in the law above — I continue to argue against prosecution of those who carried out or authorized such torture. We all knew, or at least had grounds to know, that agents of the U.S. government were engaging in and abetting torture in our name, yet through those years, we as a nation allowed it to continue anyway. There was no great groundswell of outrage against it. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzalez — yes, they each played major roles, but the nation as a whole was complicit, and I think it would be wrong to now attempt to purge our collective conscience by identifying and punishing another group of scapegoats, no matter how responsible they may be.
As Taguba noted, this will be a stain on our national honor, and it ought to be. We chickened out, that’s just the truth. When the test came, we chickened out.