As Andrew Sullivan says: “Yes, of course it was torture.”
That’s the conclusion of a new, bipartisan commission report (full report here) on U.S. detention policies and practices in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The conclusion is nothing new, although some of the details may be; it’s been clear for years that, to put it bluntly, the national security policy of the George W. Bush administration was composed in part of war crimes and that high officials, probably including the president himself, may be criminally liable.
I’ve thought for some time that what matters — at least for those of us who find these facts appalling — is finding a way to revive the traditional U.S. consensus against torture. How to achieve that goal, however, is not at all clear.
I’ve argued — against many torture opponents — that a Truth Commission, combined with blanket pardons and generous expressions of understanding for those who were responsible, as odious as what they did was, is actually the best way to proceed. That is, the best chance to persuade key Bush administration figures to say that what they did was, in fact, torture and that it should never happen again is for torture opponents to treat it as a grave but understandable error in the context of a zealous effort to keep the nation safe in a suddenly uncertain world. I’m not saying, mind you, that torture was excusable, given the circumstances.
See, too, what Sullivan suggests:
What matters – and the law is crystal clear about this – is that torture and anything even close to torture be prosecuted aggressively. This is true especially when a government is claiming urgent national security in defense of its own crimes. The laws specifically rule out any defense on those grounds. So either we are a republic governed by the rule of law or we are not. Yes, there is discretion as to whether to prosecute any crime. But war crimes are the gravest on the books and have no statute of limitations. Prosecuting them is integral to adherence to Geneva, which itself is integral to the maintenance of the rule of law and of Western civilization itself. Either we set up a Truth Commission and find a way to pardon the war criminals, while establishing their guilt – which would at least give a brief nod to the rule of law. Or we have to take this report and the Senate Intelligence Committee’s findings as a basis for legal action for war crimes.
The most important thing here is that ignoring the past is a recipe for future disaster — as Sullivan says, “There is no way forward without this going back. And there is no way past this but through it.”
And the single person who could make the biggest difference here is George W. Bush. As I said, torture opponents should be willing to be as generous as possible over motives, but at the end of the day what matters is what happened. If Bush acknowledged that the United States engaged in torture on his watch, it really might change public opinion among rank-and-file Republicans, and that in turn could really change the calculations of current and future Republican politicians. Granted, those politicians should be held responsible for their own positions, but the goal of torture opponents needs to be changing their incentives.
Because if we wind up with one party opposing torture and one party supporting it — and we’re dangerously close to that situation today, or perhaps already in that situation — then it is certain that the United States will torture again.