I began writing this blog entry on Monday, April 20, but wouldn't you know it, my boss actually expected me to do some work. The week progressed from busy to busier, so I'm just finishing it up today. Hey, this idea was fresh on Monday.
My sister likes to tease me by pointing out when I state the obvious. Well here I go, I'm about to state the obvious--waterboarding is torture. According to the headlines in the news, the CIA used waterboarding 266 times in interrogating two (2) suspects. That's right folks, just two suspects.
According to a 2005 Justice Department legal memorandum, Abu Zubaydah, an alleged Al Qaeda operative, was subjected to waterboarding 83 times, and the C.I.A. used waterboarding 183 times in March 2003 against Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-described planner of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Before anyone gets all excited and starts screaming, "They were terrorists! Don't you love your country! They don't deserve any better!" Yes, they are human beings that may have committed acts of terrorism. Yes, I love my country, but that doesn't mean that I'm blind to its flaws. Because I love my country, I believe that we deserve better.
I grew up in the 1950s, during the Cold War. I vaguely recall discussion in the news of the Gulag and Siberia and Russians. I didn't understand what any of it was about but I do remember when I was older, watching some movie that was about brave men who escaped from some prison in Siberia where they had been subjected to torture. The escapees were the heroes; the torturers were the bad guys.
I remember when this country wore the white hats and aspired to be the good guys. We weren't always perfect, but we tried to uphold ideas of right and of justice, sort of like Camelot, without the king or the round table. What happened to us? It's easy enough to blame George W. Bush, but that's not fair or accurate. He didn't elect himself--twice. I understood our anger after 9/11 but anger is like acid, it eats away at your reason until you are consumed with notions of do unto others before they do unto you, a total corruption of the tenets of the God that everyone from Miss America to Grammy award winners thanks for making it all possible.
Our new attorney general, Eric Holder, stated definitively that waterboarding is torture and President Obama has put an end to its use as an acceptable interrogation technique. However, some of my fellow Americans are upset that the president released the memos that confirmed what we already knew, that the CIA used torture to interrogate prisoners. Republican Congressman Peter Hoekstra wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the Obama Administration should be investigated for releasing the torture memos, joining the chorus of Republicans accusing the president of putting the nation at risk by releasing the torture memos.
The funny thing about having ethical standards and applying the principles of justice is that it's easy to do when everything is going well. It's no real test of your ethical nature to do the right thing when there are no challenges to be overcome. Let's take a simple example. You are an ethical person who believes that stealing is wrong. However, you've recently lost your job. You're facing foreclosure and you have a family to care for. On your way back from a job interview that didn't go very well. you witness an accident. A Wells Fargo truck loaded with cash crashes into a guard rail, flips, and there is money all over the highway. It's not your money, but other people are leaping out of their cars and gathering up piles of bills. What do you do? Is stealing suddenly acceptable? Should you grab your share? Or do you uphold your principles and not participate in all the money grabbing fun?
When this country was attacked on 9/11, adhering to our principles, to our ethical standards was our biggest test and I think that we failed miserably. We had an opportunity to rise above the hurt and anger and demonstrate that we would not abandon our struggles to maintain justice, to uphold right, even in the face of this devastating attack. I'm no Pollyanna, and I don't believe that pre-9/11 America was a paragon of virtue, but I do think that we aspired to be better than our baser impulses, tried to walk the high road even though we sometimes failed. After 9/11, we quit even trying. We not only tortured people, we justified it and now, we'd rather pretend that it didn't even happen. The motto for a lot of people is, "Let's not talk about it."
That's stupid. The past cannot be unwritten by pretending that it didn't happen. I'm glad that President Obama has dragged our nasty behavior out into the light; however, now he faces quite a dilemma. People were tortured in violation of our own laws and the Geneva Convention; shouldn't somebody be punished?
There's the rub, who do we punish? The CIA agents were told by then Attorney General John Ashcroft that their interrogation techniques were within the law. Former national Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice gave approval for CIA operatives to use waterboarding on prisoners. President Bush apparently believed that we were acting within the law. He was fully aware of the techniques being used to gain information, as was Dick Cheney. Can we hold the CIA agents accountable without also holding the lawyers, Bush, and Cheney responsible? What precedent will it set if the current administration were to prosecute CIA operatives who acted with the full approval of the previous administration? Is it fair to hold the foot soldiers responsible for carrying out policy that was set at the top level. What about Congress? There were memos , meetings, and presentations about what was being done to detainees. Are there members of Congress who should be indicted?
Sorry, but I don't have any answers, just a whole bunch of questions, annoying isn't it? I do have a prediction. There will be no trials of anyone because to pursue charges against anyone would require pursing charges against them all and that's not going to happen. I'm not even sure if it should, because I think that ultimately the guilt is shared by all the people in America who turned their backs on justice in pursuit of vengeance. Perhaps the best that we can do is to acknowledge our collective fall from grace and commit to regaining that high road again where we strive to "...hold these truths to be self-evident..." that all humankind is created equal.