Fri. May 22, 2009
The Semantics of Our Torture Debate
Portions of our debate about torture have been almost entirely semantic. Even when we can agree on what actions were taken, we cannot agree on what to call them. Was it actually torture, or was it an “enhanced interrogation technique.” When Bush said “we don’t torture,” what the hell did he mean, when we were waterboarding a couple of guys dozens and dozens of times?
We debate these semantics and keep getting diverted from the basic issue. Probably on purpose.
Diversion One: But wait, don’t spend too much time worrying about the semantics of “what do we call this,” that’s not the proper measurement. Let’s talk about whether it was effective.
Diversion Two: But wait, that’s not important either, the real crux of the matter is what did Nancy Pelosi know, and when did she know it?
Diversion Three: And if we’re going to close Gitmo, do those hundreds of terrorists really have to move into that foreclosed house in the cul-de-sac around the corner? I find that somewhat scary…
After years of no motion, the past few weeks have brought a lot of fast talk, culminating in Thursday’s “dueling speeches” from President Obama and former VP Dick Cheney. I watched all of the President’s speech, and watched Cheney’s until I was overcome by the urge to shoot myself in the face to make it stop. And I once again feel the need to address publicly muddied issues that seem crystal clear to me.
Diversion One. When I wrote The Torture Debate, Part 5150, I responded to the idea that torture yielded information, and therefore the argument should be “are these techniques effective?”:
I hear that robbing a bank yields cash. I hear that rape yields some sick satisfaction for one of the parties involved. Yet these acts are considered both repugnant and illegal, despite the apparent yields. Go figure.
Diversion Two. I want to establish up front, I’ve never thought much of Nancy Pelosi. Or any of the Senators or Representatives who allegedly lead their party in Congress. Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell; all seem pretty useless to me.
When Pelosi did her public tap dance about what she knew and when, topping it off with accusations against the CIA, here’s what I heard…
“I was informed. I was not briefed.” Perhaps this semantic difference helps you parse your personal filing system, but down here in the public, we see those as pretty much the same thing.
“I was told what they were considering, not what they were doing.” If someone tells me they are considering doing something, I assume it is because they might actually want/need to do it. If someone tells me “I am considering kicking you in the nuts,” you’ll see me physically react as if they were actually going to do it. Again, Pelosi is parsing a semantic difference so finely that it sounds like a weasel-worthy excuse.
“They misled Congress.” Ah, yes, Ye Olde “they lied to me, so it doesn’t matter what I knew or when I knew it.” There is a long history of Congress claiming it has been misled by those charged with informing it. There are times it has proven to be true. I have no idea if this is one of those times, but as “The Final Excuse” in the string issuing from Pelosi’s mouth, it rings especially hollow.
So, Pelosi’s performance was atrocious, without a doubt. But here’s the point missed by most in this debate. When you are a ranking member on the Intelligence Committee, and you are “briefed” (or “informed” … whatever) by the CIA about either what they are doing or what they are planning, they have not come to you for approval.
They have not come to you for a vote, or official consent. They are just informing you. And, in turn, you cannot tell a soul what you now know. Sure, I guess you can write a strong letter to the President. But over the past 8 years, that man was someone who would add signing statements to laws Congress passed that essentially meant “I’m going to do what I deem necessary regardless of this law.” So what impact would a strong letter from Pelosi have had? Well, I guess she could have held it up at her press conference to say “yes, I knew, and I complained.” But other than covering her ass, it would have had no impact.
Her knowledge, whenever it occurred, would not have changed a thing. She never had that power, no matter what she was told or when. Which makes her “performance” all the sadder.
Diversion Three: The approximately 250 detainees who will be moving into your neighborhood. Not! The scare-mongers speak as if these detainees will be set loose into the US, like a felon released from prison on parole. The truth is that the public would be at no more risk from these detainees than they are from Charles Manson. Or Eric Rudolph. Or Ted Kazinski. Or any number of convicted murderers and rapists in their own home state, who are in high security custody.
In fact, if you think about it, the ones who will be placed at the most risk are those “terrorists” who might be released into general prison populations. How long do you think they would last in that environment? Who exactly is it that should be scared of this … if you pause ten seconds to actually think about it.
But pausing for thought would just make too much sense. And there isn’t a whole lot of that to be found. That’s why Rove and Cheney are able to make the ridiculous claim that Obama and the Democrats want to “criminalize the policy choices” of the previous administration.
This is not about criminalizing a policy dispute! This is about potential violations of decades old international law, the Geneva Convention, as well as US law. When you make policy choices that knowingly violate the law, yes, you have opened yourself to criminal prosecution, by your own actions.
You say “policy choice,” I say “war crime.” We just don’t seem to live in the same reality any more. Just look at the similar cases of the torture memos and that of the torture photos. The release of both is mandated by court ruling, in cases filed long before Obama was even the Democratic nominee.
Obama decided to obey the court ruling to let the memos out, and was castigated by the right and congratulated by the left for doing so. Then Obama decided to further fight the court ruling to let the photos out, and was castigated by the left and congratulated by the right for doing so. Meanwhile, Cheney says there are other documents he’d like to see released … but just the two that allegedly support his position.
Not only is it a “no win” situation, it’s a gross distortion. People act as if the problem, the offense, is paper memos or photographic prints. The problem, the offense, is the historical acts they represent and depict. And hiding paper or pixels does not change those offensive acts or that history.
History. That has been the last refuge of folks like Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Bush. They firmly state that, when all is known, history will be the ultimate judge of their actions. They seem quite comfortable with that. And, credit where it is due, Bush and Rumsfeld have largely avoided the spotlight since leaving office. Cheney, not so much. He’s been keeping his thumb on the scales of history quite heavily in the past few months.
And despite Obama’s professed preference to avoid investigations and/or prosecutions, it seems that this argument isn’t going away. It’s just getting more grossly distorted.
I’ve become convinced the best way to resolve this is via a very narrowly constructed Truth Commission. Emphasis on “Truth.” After all, who can argue with wanting to know the truth? And in my opinion it would only work with two major stipulations.
One, the commission should not just be “independent,” it should be complete outsiders. No one who has ever held elective office. Choose from a pool of some retired military officers (no generals, maybe some NCO’s instead), retired judges, public defenders, doctors, clergy, cowboys, Indian chiefs, etc. Decidedly non-Beltway types.
Two, there would be no prosecutions for information revealed to the commission. You could compel people to testify via subpoena, you would give them blanket immunity in exchange for full disclosure under oath. The only potential charge would be perjury, if it is revealed that even with complete amnesty, they failed to tell the whole truth.
The goal would be The Whole Truth, a final report that was not politicized or diverted by either the authors, or the potential outcome. A final report that lays it all out.
So that you know, and I know, and the world knows … exactly what was done in our name. We have that right.