Friday, July 18, 2008

Torture: Truth and Consequences

Stuart Taylor has a piece in the upcoming issue of Newsweek suggesting that President Bush pardon everyone in his administration who might be held liable for war crimes sometime in the future. (Well, he puts quote marks around war crimes because, you know, that's all it takes to cast doubt on their occurrence.) Actually, despite the scare quotes, Taylor quickly admits that war crimes have occurred, saying "dark deeds have been conducted in the name of the United States government in recent years: the gruesome, late-night circus at Abu Ghraib, the beating to death of captives in Afghanistan, and the officially sanctioned waterboarding and brutalization of high-value Qaeda prisoners."

Given that admission, one might imagine he would support the imposition of consequences for those in the government who violated nearly every statute on the books, both domestic and international, in regards to treatment of detainees. One would be wrong.

It's a bad idea. In fact, President George W. Bush ought to pardon any official from cabinet secretary on down who might plausibly face prosecution for interrogation methods approved by administration lawyers. (It would be unseemly for Bush to pardon Vice President Dick Cheney or himself, but the next president wouldn't allow them to be prosecuted anyway—galling as that may be to critics.)

Yes, a President pardoning himself would be a tad "unseemly." Stronger adjectives could certainly be used as well. Why would Taylor, who readily admits crimes have been committed, warn against prosecution, you ask?

The reason for pardons is simple: what this country needs most is a full and true accounting of what took place. The incoming president should convene a truth commission, with subpoena power, to explore every possible misdeed and derive lessons from it. But this should not be a criminal investigation, which would only force officials to hire lawyers and batten down the hatches.

Pardons would further a truth commission's most important goals: to uncover all important facts, identify innocent victims to be compensated, foster a serious conversation about what U.S. interrogation rules should be, recommend legal reforms, pave the way for appropriate apologies and restore America's good name. The goals should not include wrecking the lives of men and women who made grievous mistakes while doing dirty work—work they had been advised by administration lawyers was legal, and which they believed was necessary to prevent terrorist mass murder.

No telling how we would respond if we thought the administration was being less than forthcoming. Taylor's argument here is absurd on its face. For one thing, nearly all of the things he contends would come out of an obfuscation commission have already made their appearance. There has already been plenty of discussion of the administrations policies, the interrogation rules were already in place whether they were ignored or not, and apologies doesn't bring back lives and reputation. If it's America's good name he's after, it is highly doubtful that the families of the men who died as a result of US custody will be quick to forgive, nor will denizens of the Mideast who see the War on Terror as a 21st-Century Crusade (a term which Bush himself has applied to it, remarkably.) If Taylor is dying for apologies, his argument breaks down by considering prosecution and apologies - whatever they're worth - mutually exclusive.

Following Taylor's logic, if a man broke into his house, robbed him and harmed his family he would seek only an apology as retribution. Any attempt to prosecute the culprit would simply cause him to "batten down the hatches" and the whole truth might not come out.

If the last seven years have taught Taylor anything, it's that the way to find the truth is not through the administration. Repeatedly, the government has denied every accusation only to modify its stance once the truth became apparent. Why, then, would a truth commission prove any different? The facts regarding torture are readily available, and the question of their legality has been answered many times over.

So-called "truth commissions" are of course common practice of American governance, and undertaken precisely because they arrive completely devoid of consequences, allowing the perpetrators to return a couple administrations later to do it all over again. Many of those in the Bush administration are veterans of the Nixon administration, and despite the Church Commission's findings, have revitalized the lawless Presidency. No matter how many times support for dictatorial coups or funneling illegal arms through Enemies of the State are exposed, "truth commissions" ensure that those actions will continue. A slap on the hand would be deemed too harsh an outcome.

If it's America's reputation that Taylor is after, he would be wise to support the imposition of consequences. It is precisely this tactic of never admitting or altering wrongdoing that is responsible for that reputation in the first place. If he wants to improve America's standing, he could start by pushing for America to show the rest of the world that we don't think we're above the law. We toss bellicose rhetoric around the globe with reckless abandon at those who violate any rule or agreement, yet we expect the world to stand aside as we violate every statute on the books banning mistreatment of detainees. Or we demand that the private mercenaries we subsidize face no prosecution for the outright murder of unarmed Iraqis.

Asking the US to subject itself to the same rules it imposes on everyone else isn't anti-American. It's a rational expectation of fair practice. Setting up a committee to enumerate to the world all that we've done wrong and ensuring that nothing will be punished or change will only erode America's reputation further.


Tortured Logic, April 14
Down Is the New Up, April 25
Trickle-Down Responsibility, May 9

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