RSS
President Obama's despicable whitewashing of torture
His even-handed shtick wears very badly applied to absolute evil
 
Sorry, Obama, but there are no excuses for war crimes.
Sorry, Obama, but there are no excuses for war crimes. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Out of the horror of World War II came one of the great achievements in all of human history: the Geneva Convention of 1949. It was a statement from humanity to itself that, in the aftermath of the bloodiest war in history, some decency might still be rescued. Despite the millions of senseless dead, despite all the mass murder and genocide and terror bombing, despite all the filth and hypocrisy and witless incompetence, the Convention states these things shall be held inviolate in war:

  • Wounded and sick soldiers shall be treated humanely, and medical facilities shall be off-limits to attack.

  • The same shall be true of wounded, sick, or shipwrecked sailors, and humanitarian ships.

  • Prisoners of war shall be treated humanely.

  • Noncombatants shall be treated humanely.

In 1988, President Reagan signed into law a treaty adding another stipulation to the list:

  • Torture shall be absolutely forbidden.

Reagan was no saint. His foreign policy caused tens of thousands of pointless deaths in Nicaragua alone. But he worked hard to get this treaty passed, and it is to my mind his greatest achievement. It added a bright star to the narrative of human progress.

During a press conference last Friday, President Obama confirmed that the United States has officially thrown that star into the dirt and stamped on it repeatedly, for reasons of incompetence and cowardice.

Said Obama:

With respect to the larger point of the RDI report itself, even before I came into office I was very clear that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 we did some things that were wrong. We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks. We did some things that were contrary to our values.

I understand why it happened. I think it's important when we look back to recall how afraid people were after the Twin Towers fell and the Pentagon had been hit and the plane in Pennsylvania had fallen, and people did not know whether more attacks were imminent, and there was enormous pressure on our law enforcement and our national security teams to try to deal with this. And it's important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had. And a lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots.

Let's compare that to the text of the Convention Against Torture:

No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.

Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of President Obama (aside from his unflappable, even cadence) is the way he instinctively tries to understand and legitimize both sides of every debate. When well applied, as it was during his famous speech on race during the 2008 campaign, it adds needed nuance and complexity to difficult subjects.

Torture, on the other hand, is a simple subject that has little nuance or complexity. It is an absolute evil that has no place or function in a civilized, decent society. It is illegal under United States law. Only a complete idiot would try to use it to gather intelligence. Its only effective uses are thoroughly totalitarian: to intimidate, punish, and extract false confessions.

President Obama's on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other shtick amounts to nothing but vile political cowardice when applied to torture. It's also, unsurprisingly, grossly misleading. The Bush torture program was not some panicked misstep in the weeks after 9/11; it was a coordinated effort continued up through 2004 at least, and probably beyond.

And even if it weren't, what a pathetic excuse 9/11 makes. There is no "unless you are really scared" carve-out in the Convention. 9/11 was a horrifying crime, no doubt, but it simply does not stand comparison even with our Civil War, let alone history's worst events like the Battle of Stalingrad. A terrorist attack does not justify shredding the most sacred touchstones of liberal democracy and taking up techniques pioneered by the Gestapo.

All this makes that word "sanctimonious" absolutely infuriating. These "patriots" did not have "tough jobs," Mr. President; they committed war crimes on orders from practically the entire top echelon of the previous presidential administration. They violated the United States Constitution, grievously harmed the security of the nation, and pillaged the best, most unambiguously good part of the legacy of President Reagan. (War crimes, I might add, which were pitifully, ridiculously ineffective at obtaining anything whatsoever of positive value.)

But since his administration has refused to prosecute those war crimes, it seems clear that Obama has been made thoroughly complicit in them. Earlier in the press conference Obama reiterated that he has "full confidence" in CIA director John Brennan, who is in hot water for spying on his Senate overseers (another outrageous crime) as they worked on a scathing report about the CIA's torture program. Until there is a serious reckoning, I suspect the evil of torture will similarly taint all future presidents.

 
Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at TheWeek.com. His work has appeared in the Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the Washington Post.

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week