President Obama has so far refused to look back at the previous administration’s use of torture, but David Cole says: “on this issue, we cannot move forward without looking back. Unless we acknowledge that what the United States did was not just a bad idea, but illegal, we risk treating torture as simply another policy option.”
Cole presents some of the reasons the administration is unwilling to grasp the issue and argues that Britain’s new prime minister, David Cameron, has taken a lead worth following.
The Justice Department is investigating allegations of torture at the CIA’s secret prisons — but is considering only the actions of interrogators who are reported to have exceeded the brutality authorized by the Justice Department and Bush’s Cabinet. Why are the underlings being investigated, but not those who set the illegal scheme in motion?
The answer is politics. A torture investigation that could implicate the former president and vice president would be too divisive, some say. It would consume the nation’s attention and divert us from addressing other urgent problems, such as health care, the economy, global warming and immigration.
But there is an even larger political obstacle: fear. The Democratic administration is afraid of appearing more concerned about the rights of terrorism suspects than about the security of the nation. Cheney and his supporters have already accused the administration of not being tough enough on terrorists; Democrats fear that a torture inquiry might play into critics’ hands.
There is another element at work here which is the moral relativism that underpins American views on violence.
Why would a society that widely supports the death penalty regard torture as unacceptable? From the American perspective, it’s OK to poison someone, electrocute them, hang them, shoot them (though not decapitate them), with the sole condition that a reasonably sound legal process is followed.
Torture might be illegal, but it’s not clear that it conflicts with the values that Americans live by, especially those applied to people who, in the popular imagination, deserve to suffer.