Friday, April 17, 2009

torture memos

Apologies in advance for including disturbing photos with this post. Don't scroll down if you have a weak stomach. (You can click on other entries to the left if you want to skip this one.)

But it's a disturbing fucking topic, and frankly, I think it's a bit too easy to intellectualize and compartmentalize the word 'torture' without fully understanding what it means. Not that you or I or anyone who hasn't undergone torture will ever fully understand what it means. But closing our eyes to it, literally, is another cheap way out to me, another way to absolve ourselves of its frankly gruesome reality.

I’m sure by now everyone has heard about the Bush-era torture memos that were just released, and Obama being either praised or vilified for releasing them. (As Howard Rodman points out in Huffington Post, he did something “which is now thought of as optional for high officials...he obeyed the law” by releasing the documents after an ACLU lawsuit.)

And if you’ve been paying attention, you’ve heard that Obama is playing down any possibility of bringing the perpetrators of these acts--acts that were performed in our name--to justice. The logic seems to be that, since there were legal opinions written that justified these acts, the torturers shouldn’t be prosecuted, since they thought they were obeying the law. (‘Just following orders’ anyone?)

But Obama’s stance has the hair-splitting political calculation that demonstrates to me what drove some of his opponents insane during the campaign: by essentially exonerating the torturers, he has exonerated everyone. You would have a really hard time prosecuting a lawyer who merely wrote an opinion as part of his job, however heinous that opinion was, unless he did the waterboarding himself. So, in his haste to have us look forward, not back, Obama is essentially saying, just let it go. Move on, people. Nothing to see here.

Well, bullshit. I’m sure the political tenor of Wingnuttia these days has something to do with the decision to play it this way--Obama doesn’t want to give them fuel for their nutty, delicious fires by opening a criminal investigation on Bush officials. On the other hand, while moving forward is indeed an essential part of the make-up of the United States, doing so without examining our mistakes fully and exacting a price for them is not possible. (See Olbermann’s special comment on this from last night.)

Not only that, Obama has painted himself into a logically untenable, if politically safe position here: Torture is wrong, he says. It is illegal. We have changed the directives to make this clear. We won’t do it under this administration. However, we also won’t prosecute those who have done it in the past, those who have committed clearly illegal acts.

Huh? You can’t have it both ways. You can’t take the pious high ground and proclaim (which I agree with) that torture is an illegal, inhumane, inhuman and ultimately self-defeating and useless practice, and then refuse to do anything about those who have done it, no matter how many legal opinions have been written supporting it.

And what I find most disturbing about this stance is that, when you think about it, isn’t Obama taking an eerily similar position to presidential usurpers of Constitutional powers we are all-too familiar with from our (very) recent past? By saying, 'I as president choose not to prosecute illegal acts,' is Obama not placing himself above the law much as Bush and Nixon did?

A final note: what I found most disturbing about the memos themselves was the clinical, almost instruction-manual tone they took. The word 'Nazi' gets thrown around a lot, and far too cavalierly, but, sorry, these documents are something you could see as having come out of Nazi Germany, for their precision, their dispassionate nature, and their utter cold inhumanity.

This is not us. This is not America. And by placing both the torturers and the architects of torture safely out of the way of prosecution, Obama is essentially laying out a blueprint for how future presidents can basically do anything they want without fear of consequences:

Lawyer writes memo. Operatives perform as memo states. Future president says: for operatives, acts were legal. And lawyers didn’t actually commit any crime, therefore:

Sweep under rug. Rinse, repeat.

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