Sunday, April 19, 2009

Obama and torture: 1 for 2

The reaction to President Obama's decision to release the Department of Justice (specifically, the Office of Legal Counsel) memos that sanctioned torture to suspected terrorists detained by the United States has been lightning quick. As is predictable from the Washington pundit class, conservative critics have all but accused Obama of treason, while liberals normally supportive of Obama are pissed off by his decision, for the time being -- to borrow from Introduction to Psychotherapy -- to move on; there's nothing to be gained by authorizing the Obama Justice Department to prosecute Bush administration officials involved in creating and authorizing the various forms of torture administered to C.I.A.-held detainees.

My feeling, for now, on Obama's decision is mixed. I think Obama's decision to release the torture memos was an extremely brave political act, and one almost unprecedented by an American president. Yes, it involved the previous administration and, yes, no one reading the memos can be surprised by what's in them and, yes, the Bush administration, after some genuine investigative reporting beginning with Seymour Hersh's stories on the Abu Graib scandal, had already acknowledged that it did authorize C.I.A. interrogators to engage in what it euphemistically called "enhanced" techniques to elicit confessions and other information from "high-value" suspects. And, yes, Obama was getting ahead of what he knew a federal judge somewhere along the long would have required him to as the result of an ACLU lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act aimed at getting the torture memos released. All that said, Obama's decision to release the memos before the legal freight train hit him is an extraordinarily praiseworthy act as a political decision. American presidents generally don't do things that compromise the reputation of their predecessors or offer the bloodhounds in the entertainment media (Rush Limbaugh) or in the mainstream press (the WSJ editorial page; conservative columnists like Charles Krauthammer or Bill Kristol) a freebie. Of course, no reasonable person should take seriously anything that these county fair-level carnival barkers have to say. But ours is not a reflective nation nor one with the capacity for critical self-examination. So, while we demand that other nation's clean their closets of all secrets and put on trial government officials who engage in corrupt and barbaric acts (think post-Saddam Iraq), we engage in Olympic-level intellectual gymnastics to defend our lack of accountability and the possibility that we are not a perfect nation.

But I think Obama gave one so he could avoid putting the United States on trial before the whole world by strongly hinting that he will not authorize or encourage the Justice Department to open an investigation to determine whether to prosecute officials in the Bush administration, a prosecution that could well end up putting Bush, Cheney and many others in the line of fire. I simply cannot fathom why so many people in the Washington political-media aristocracy are so willing to shrug their shoulders at such unconscionable behavior, yet demand a full accounting of whether Bill Clinton sexually harassed a low-level state employee while he was a governor and then, as president, copped a couple of blow jobs from a White House intern. That's an inquiry more suited for the National Institutes of Mental Health than Congress or the Justice Department. Poor Edgar Alan Poe -- can you imagine the fun he would have had with this one?

Or Kafka.

To me, national security is not served by allowing government officials at any level and regardless of their political persuasion, to break the law with such impunity, especially a democracy that self-righteously lectures the whole world on freedom, individualism, the rule of law and the respect for rights. Washington's got Obama by the short hairs on this one. He knows full well that he cannot spend the first term of his presidency overseeing an investigation of the Bush administration, one that, before we forget, is ultimately the Attorney General's call, not the president's. The nation is too knee-deep in shit right now to do what should be done. That's too bad, because holding his own office, and by extension the United States, accountable for criminal behavior would be the best lesson that this former law professor could ever give.

You can read more about the torture memos (and actually see them) here.

No comments: