This is by no means an essay about politics. My political leanings have nothing to do with this. Nothing.
Today, the US Senate Intelligence Committee released a report detailing the activities of the Central Intelligence Agency’s post-9/11 torture program. Actually what the Committee released was a summary of its actual report. The summary was 528 pages long. The report itself is more than 6,000 pages long.
I’m trying to decide if I have six thousand pages’ worth of details in my whole life. Verbose as I may be.
Five years of investigation have yielded a report that condemns CIA personnel who ran the torture program during the George W. Bush presidential administration. (That program has been called the “enhanced interrogation program” by many; but in one of his columns (to be found at esquire.com/blogs/politics/) today, political writer Charlie Pierce wrote, “[a]nyone who still calls this ‘enhanced interrogation’ is an idiot and a coward and I have no time for them.” He’s right, and that phrase will not be used here, not that I’d planned on it.)
True, the CIA has a reputation for carrying out intelligence endeavors without checking in with any of the actual branches of American government; but it was specifically authorized to carry out this program by Justice Department lawyers David Addington and John Yoo, among others.
“[T]he Justice Department drafted memos providing the brutal program with a veneer of legality,” said the Senate report. And by this time, many articles and books have been written which identify the people within the Bush administration who fully supported the various legal memoranda which were created to justify all this genuine awfulness, this inhuman activity to be carried out by humans against other humans.
On the one hand, during the Nuremburg trials after World War II, no quarter was given to Nazi personnel who claimed to be “merely following orders”. Sorry, said the prosecutors; that doesn’t cut it. That won’t get you off the hook. Perhaps we can’t know what kind of pressure was exerted upon Nazis who ranked anywhere below Hitler (it may have been difficult to just resign), or upon American intelligence personnel who were authorized to do this, this, and this to prisoners in order to interrogate them fully.
As Charlie Pierce also noted today, there are plenty of CIA agents who have been properly excoriated for what they actually did, but who may also be feeling thrown under the bus somewhat – at the very least because the people, the leaders, whose orders they were carrying out appear to have largely escaped the Senate Intelligence Committee’s ire, at least within their report. Many CIA personnel are done; meanwhile, their superiors of that time are still being interviewed on CNN, are still giving speeches, and astonishingly are still being asked for their opinions about what American foreign policy should be and how it should be carried out.
Great. Thanks to them, the United States of America has ceded the moral high ground in international relations for a good long while.
There are a number of writers, whose work I have read in the last 48 hours, who suggest that all this was not merely done “in our name” … which is bad enough … but that it was done by us, the United States of America, and we all bear responsibility.
Sorry, but I reject this idea. I didn’t authorize such miserable things, and you likely didn’t. My friends wouldn’t have, and I bet your friends wouldn’t have either. Most decently-adjusted people wouldn’t.
Sound a little naïve? Perhaps.
But beyond such lofty, American-history-class thoughts as “our representative government has failed us”, and “if we can only muster 30 percent turnout in an election, then we get the government we deserve”, and such … I can’t think of a single person that I know personally, in any of my spheres of life – family, personal, professional – who would consider any of the torture techniques of the Bush years as remotely okay, never mind actually participate in them.
I’m willing to bet that even some of the people who jump on the Internet and post genuinely awful comments in the comment sections … even some of the people who make chest-thumping noises about taking people they don’t agree with and doing horrible things to them just because they believe something different … even some of the Ted Nugents of the world … … if push came to shove, I’d still bet that the vast, vast, VAST majority of those people would still physically buckle if given the instruction to actually commit the acts that the Senate report detailed, themselves, with their own hands.
(I know, I know, there are all those intriguing science experiments wherein people were instructed to administer electric shocks to other people who gave wrong quiz answers and those shock-administering people’s behavior seemed to suggest that the veneer of civilization can be thin indeed. My delicate mind would prefer that those didn’t exist, this moment. And the book Lord of the Flies, as well.)
I’ve written previously in this space about empathy, or the lack thereof. There are those, assuredly, who do lack. But I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of American citizens still possess some … enough, at least, to recoil from orders like those that the CIA agents were given. I’d be willing to hope so, at least. Again, this probably brands me as naïve.
The people in the higher echelons of the Bush Administration – knowing that they wouldn’t ever have to be the ones to use their own hands in this effort – didn’t flinch. They figuratively pulled the trigger. According to a lot of articles and books that I’ve read in the past few years, they did so enthusiastically.
Which brings me to yesterday’s New York Times editorial page.
In it, there’s an op-ed piece (found at nytimes.com/2014/12/09/opinion/pardon-bush-and-those-who-tortured.html?_r=0) by Anthony D. Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union; an essay which makes a remarkable suggestion (for an ACLU leader; and for anyone who has been supportive of any effort to prosecute the bastards):
“Before President George W. Bush left office, a group of conservatives lobbied the White House to grant pardons to the officials who had planned and authorized the United States torture program. My organization, the American Civil Liberties Union, found the proposal repugnant. Along with eight other human rights groups, we sent a letter to Mr. Bush arguing that granting pardons would undermine the rule of law and prevent Americans from learning what had been done in their names.
“But with the impending release of the report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, I have come to think that President Obama should issue pardons, after all — because it may be the only way to establish, once and for all, that torture is illegal.”
The way to establish this, Mr. Romero said, is indeed to pardon these people for authorizing and ordering the torture. After all, the only way anyone can merit a pardon … is if they’ve committed a crime, yes?
Clever, these natives.
I am hugely conflicted about this idea.
At first, I recoiled as much as Mr. Romero did. A pardon, to some, might imply exoneration … might suppose a lifting of guilt … and, in extreme interpretations, might even suggest forgiveness.
No. No, damn it.
The current President, whom I admire, and who upon his inauguration immediately instructed the CIA to knock off the torture … nonetheless feared political fallout too greatly to put into action the means of holding the proper people accountable for the policies they justified and the orders they gave. And now, for many (although not all) of these people, the statute of limitations has run out. That’s one of the things that I can not appreciate Mr. Obama for. Maybe there were backroom Beltway highest-levels-of-government so-secret-even-the-Prez-knows-little-of-them reasons why it was a fool’s errand to even think that such holding-accountable would ever happen. I’m not a conspiracy theorist; but my God, there are days …
He hasn’t – or, all right, we haven’t – even been able to properly try and convict the Addingtons and Yoos and Rumsfelds and Rices yet. A pardon could give them the idea that they’ve dodged the biggest bullet of their lives. Unless they don’t require that idea. Unless, as former Vice President Dick Cheney takes every possible televised opportunity to insist, they feel that if they had it to do all over again they’d not change a thing because it was justified and correct and right and so am I.
This interpretation of a pardon strikes me, at least, as unfair: because those who might be pardoned don’t deserve this peace of mind – not after what they put other people through. Not just the other people who were on the receiving end of the torture, but the other people who went to fight wars (utilizing intelligence, gathered from tortured prisoners, which has been shown to be inaccurate and useless and therefore actively unhelpful to them), and to die, and to leave behind families to grieve and never get their loved ones back (or just return physically and psychologically damaged) and wonder what in the hell it was any good for.
Then I got thinking … maybe, just maybe the pardon really would do what President Obama has not: label these people, unequivocally, once and for all, as criminals. “An explicit pardon would lay down a marker, signaling to those considering torture in the future that they could be prosecuted,” wrote Mr. Romero.
And after all, the only way anyone can merit a pardon … is if they’ve committed a crime, yes?
The jury inside my head is still out.
But what makes me certain that at the end of this particular figurative day, the label of “criminal” needs to be assigned, and made to stick, is this:
Former President George W. Bush approved these measures. Captain goes down with the ship. Fish rots from the head. Name your aphorism; it’s all there.
“Nations would be terrified if they knew by what small men they are in reality ruled.” -Charles de Gaulle
Oh! …That’s a good one, too.
In his remarkable book, “Bush on the Couch”, professor of clinical psychology Dr. Justin A. Frank created a psychoanalyst’s profile of Mr. Bush, tracing his character from childhood through presidency. He utilized a startling amount of circumstantial evidence to identify and analyze Bush’s patterns of thought, action, and communication.
Two of Frank’s cited anecdotes stand out, to me:
First, this. In May 2000, New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof quoted Bush’s childhood friend Terry Throckmorton: “’We were terrible to animals,’ recalled Mr. Throckmorton, laughing. A dip behind the Bush home turned into a small lake after a good rain, and thousands of frogs would come out. ‘Everybody would get BB guns and shoot them,’ Mr. Throckmorton said. ‘Or we’d put firecrackers in the frogs and throw them and blow them up.’”
As Baltimore Sun reporter Miriam Miedzian subsequently wrote in September 2000: “So when he was a kid, George W. enjoyed putting firecrackers into frogs, throwing them in the air, and then watching them blow up. Should this be cause for alarm? How relevant is a man’s childhood behavior to what he is like as an adult? And in this case, to what he would be like as president of the United States?” Dr. Frank lays out why he thinks it’s very relevant indeed.
And second, this. Dr. Frank references commentator Tucker Carlson’s interview with then-Texas Governor Bush about how his state’s Board of Pardons had arrived at the determination of the clemency plea of convicted murderer Karla Faye Tucker. During the interview, Bush alluded to a TV interview which Tucker had given to Larry King. Carlson wrote:
“In the weeks before the execution, Bush says, ‘A number of protesters came to Austin to demand clemency for Karla Faye Tucker.’
‘Did you meet with any of them?’ I ask.
Bush whips around and stares at me. “No, I didn’t meet with any of them,” he snaps, as though I’ve just asked the dumbest, most offensive question ever posed. “I didn’t meet with Larry King either when he came down for [the interview]. I watched his interview with [Karla Faye] Tucker, though. He asked her real difficult questions like, ‘What would you say to Governor Bush?’”
“What was her answer?” I wonder.
“‘Please,’” Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, “’don’t kill me.’”
I must look shocked — ridiculing the pleas of a condemned prisoner who has since been executed seems odd and cruel — because he immediately stops smirking.”
The former President was interviewed this past Sunday on CNN, as news of the Senate torture report’s impending release was spreading. He said this:
“We’re fortunate to have men and women who work hard at the CIA serving on our behalf. These are patriots, and whatever the report says, if it diminishes their contributions to our country, it is way off base.”
Their contributions to this country, Mr. Bush, were both inhumane acts on a personal level and also disastrous acts on a foreign-policy level, on an international-relations level, and on a less-intellectually-driven, patriotic-music-laden “what this great nation stands for” level.
And since you (and your Administration colleagues) gave the orders, gave the okay, pulled the trigger … that means that those contributions are your contributions.
And if you think that this means that, via the commutative property, you are a patriot? …
I beg your pardon.