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Moving Past Torture

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, January 27, 2009

"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." So goes an aphorism that needs to be applied to the current debate over whether those who authorized and used torture should be prosecuted. In the very different country called Sept. 11, 2001, the answer would be a resounding no.

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Back then, a Post poll gave George W. Bush an approval rating of 92 percent, which meant that almost no one thought he was on the wrong course. At the same time, questions about the viability of torture were very much in the air. Alan Dershowitz was suggesting the creation of torture warrants -- permission from a court to, in effect, break some bones.

Dershowitz, mind you, was not in favor of not in favor but argued that if torture was going to be done, it was best that it be done legally. In a similar vein, the thoughtful Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter mulled the legality, the morality and the efficacy of torture. In the end, Alter ruled it out -- although not sodium pentothal (truth serum) or offshoring terrorism suspects "to our less squeamish allies." In fact, the government was already sending suspects abroad to be interrogated.

Alter's essay created quite a stir -- and to his considerable surprise, a lot of whispered support from liberals. Around the same time, historian Jay Winik wrote about the usefulness of torture, how Philippine agents in 1995 got a certain Abdul Hakim Murad to reveal a plot to blow up 11 American airliners over the Pacific and send yet another plane, this one loaded with nerve gas, into CIA headquarters in Langley. After being beaten nearly to death, Murad was finally broken by the hollow threat to turn him over to Israel's Mossad.

The Philippine example was widely mentioned at the time, even by those who opposed the use of torture. The conventional wisdom that torture never works -- so counterintuitive as to be an absurdity -- was not yet doctrine. Neither for that matter was the belief that the coming war in Iraq was a moral and practical absurdity. Congress overwhelmingly voted for war and the American people overwhelmingly supported it.

That, though, was the other country called the Past. In the country called the Present, certain people are demanding that the torturers and their enablers be dragged across the time border and brought to justice. There are many practical difficulties involved, but the impetus is understandable: A nation that once posed to the world as lawful and civil turned out to be brutish and indifferent to international law. We tortured. So says the incoming attorney general, Eric Holder. We tortured. So says the person in charge of deciding such matters at Guantanamo. That question has been answered. Now comes another: What are we going to do about it?

President Obama's inclination, it seems, is to not do anything much. "I don't believe anybody is above the law," he recently said. "On the other hand, I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards."

This is a nifty formulation that ignores reality; to look forward, you need to know where you've been. In other words, if we do not find out precisely how our government came to waterboard at least three suspects and abuse others, we will not know how to ensure that the future doesn't wind up looking much like the past.

At the same time, we have to be respectful of those who were in that Sept. 11 frame of mind, who thought they were saving lives -- and maybe were -- and who, in any case, were doing what the nation and its leaders wanted. It is imperative that our intelligence agents not have to fear that a sincere effort will result in their being hauled before some congressional committee or a grand jury. We want the finest people in these jobs -- not time-stampers who take no chances.

The best suggestion for how to proceed comes from David Cole of Georgetown Law School. Writing in the Jan. 15 New York Review of Books, he proposed that either the president or Congress appoint a blue-ribbon commission, arm it with subpoena power, and turn it loose to find out what went wrong, what (if anything) went right and to report not only to Congress but to us. We were the ones, remember, who just wanted to be kept safe. So, it is important, as well as fair, not to punish those who did what we wanted done -- back when we lived, scared to death, in a place called the Past.

cohenr@washpost.com


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