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May 27, 2009

On torture-9: The "everybody knew about it" excuse

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

Let's continue with our look at the other excuses on the list put out by apologists.

Excuse 9: Top Democrats were told what was going on and approved of it so that makes it ok.

This is a truly curious argument, evidenced in the absurd fuss over what Nancy Pelosi was told about torture and when she was told it. Some Republican politicians are putting the Attorney General on notice that if he takes actions against the Bush torturers, they will force him to widen the investigation to take into account the fact that the illegal practice of the "rendition" of prisoners to countries that torture also took place during the Clinton administration.

Some opponents of torture investigations advance this argument as if it were a checkmate move, as if the possibility of involvement of Democrats in torture will shut up those seeking action against torturers. They don't seem to realize that there are many of us who don't give a damn if the people prosecuted for torture are Democrats or Republicans. This is why we want a full investigation and prosecution of torture practices wherever it may lead and whomever it may lead to. If it turns out that top figures in the Democratic Party were complicit, they should also be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. I myself strongly suspect that key Democratic leaders in both the House and the Senate were complicit in at least condoning torture policies and they should be exposed and tried as well.

Eric Posner, whom we saw yesterday argues that the Attorney General has the discretion not to prosecute torture (a claim that Glenn Greenwald dismisses as both 'frivolous' and 'lawless'), also argues that the bipartisan complicity on torture will be sufficient to prevent prosecution. In other words, that the Obama administration would be well-advised not to prosecute those who committed torture since it might embarrass members of his own party.

One can easily imagine the defense strategy, which will start by calling to the stand various Democratic senators and representatives who had been informed of the interrogation tactics and did not publicly object to them at the time. The testimony would surely be entertaining, as the politicians would be put in the impossible position of either admitting their moral complicity, which would make the entire trial look like a political show trial designed to punish Republicans but not Democrats, or looking like cowards who knew that the government was breaking the law but despite their oath to the Constitution were unwilling to do anything about it. Do Obama and Holder really want to put leaders of their own party in Congress in this position?

They obviously don't but they should. In any event, this is an irrelevant point to anyone who cares about the rule of law. Let us never lose sight of the fact that crimes against humanity, and torture is one, does not allow countries the discretion to not prosecute those suspected of committing them.

The Bush administration clearly took advantage of their ability to selectively brief Congressional leaders in secret about things like torture, knowing that this would make them complicit. What I don't understand is why people agree to be given classified briefings if they cannot do anything about things they hear that they find objectionable. The only reason I can think is that people, especially political leaders, seem to love to be told secrets, to feel that they are the holders of privileged information that the general public is not privy to. It gives them a sense of self-importance.

This underscores the pernicious effect of secrecy which is why the widespread use of background briefings and off-the-record interviews between politicians and journalists should be condemned, and why even politicians should never agree to be confidentially briefed on policies that they have no power to change. While agreeing to listen may make them feel important, they should realize that they are also being co-opted to tacitly support things they may not agree with.

Excuse 10: We need to focus on solving urgent problems like the financial and housing crisis and torture investigations will be divisive and distract us.

Does this excuse really need to be dignified by a response? Have we sunk so low, become so crass, that we trivialize and shunt aside deeply moral issues like torture that truly identify us as people, to focus only on money issues? Apart from the immorality of even making such a comparison, it is absurd to think that a nation as big as the US cannot handle more than one thing at a time.

POST SCRIPT: Obama's hypocrisy

While Obama gives uplifting speeches and says many of the right things about human rights and the rule of law, the fact is that his actions often don't match up to the rhetoric.

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Comments

Just because officials knew about torture and allowed it to happen doesn't mean its right. I am totally against torture and think it should be banned.

Posted by Mike on May 29, 2009 08:34 AM