"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Change we can believe in
Paging John Hinderaker, John Hinderaker to the white courtesy phone please....

Ending torture should be painless

I don't expect the Obama presidency to be an endless parade of magic sparkling ponies and cake for all and I never have, but there are certain minimum expectations that must be met and this does not bode well:

Obama advisers: No charges likely vs interrogators
Nov. 17,

- Barack Obama's incoming administration is unlikely to bring criminal charges
against government officials who authorized or engaged in harsh interrogations
of suspected terrorists during the George W. Bush presidency. Obama, who has
criticized the use of torture, is being urged by some constitutional scholars
and human rights groups to investigate possible war crimes by the Bush
administration. Two Obama advisers said there's little - if any - chance that
the incoming president's Justice Department will go after anyone involved in
authorizing or carrying out interrogations that provoked worldwide

The article goes on to say that even if the Obama administration wants to investigate and prosecute those responsible for torture, the whole question may be rendered moot by a stroke of the presidential pardon-signing pen by the Torturer in Chief, George W. Bush. I fully expect Bush will spend the last month of his term fighting writers cramp as he pardons just about everyone he's ever worked with. So, no, no one is likely to end up in jail, but that doesn't mean that the Obama administration shouldn't be trying to send them there.

Like I said, there are certain minimums expectation that must be met if Obama is going to have a successful presidency. By successful I don't just mean managing to get through four years without turning large portions of the planet into radioactive glass, having Texas secede from the Union, boiling the Great Lakes or having gas prices climb over $10 a gallon -- I mean delivering some of that change we can believe in. One of those expectations is that he live up to his promise of ending the use of torture by the United States.

Most political issues are not as black and white as politicians make them out to be on the campaign trail, that's one of the reasons politics is the art of compromise. Torture is not like farm subsidies or school vouchers or even abortion -- it is not something on which reasonable people can disagree, it is just plain wrong. Torture is what the bad guys do that makes them bad guys.

Leaving aside the clear and obvious moral argument, consider the practical aspects. The experts agree torture does not work because information gained through torture is unrealiable. People being tortured will tell their interrogators whatever they think the guy with the pliars and the blowtorch wants to hear. Enough waterboarding and you'd could make Dick Cheney say that not only did he plan 9/11, but that he flew all four of the planes himself. Leave a prisoner in a stress position long enough and he will eventually confess to killing not only the Kennedy brothers, but McKinley and Lincoln as well. And spare me the ticking bomb scenarios and Star Trek quotes about the "needs of the many outweighing the need of the few." Real life is not an adventure novel and "24" is not a documentary. Torture will make anyone talk, but it also makes anything they say all but useless.

The reprehensible actions of the United States at Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram and an unknown number of secret prisons around the world have done more damage to the nation's reputation and standing in the world than a dozen ill-conceived invasions.

It may well be that Bush will pardon anyone remotely connected with anything untoward that occurred in the last eight years, but history and the world court of public opinion will judge him for it. If Obama decides to let bygones be bygones and not seek to prosecute those involved to the fullest extent of the law, then he will be seen as complicit and the reputation of the United States as a violator of human rights, as a torturer and oppressor, will be cemented. Bush will go down in history as the first U.S. president to endorse torture, but Obama has a choice of going down in history either as the guy who put a stop to it or as a "good German."

Politically, Obama has nothing to lose and everything to gain by pursuing prosecutions. He gets to look good on the world stage for doing the right thing and at the same time stick it to his political opponents. All he has to do is announce that he will be pursuing the matter to the fullest extent of the law and then the ball is in Bush's court. Bush can either preemptively pardon everyone from Dick Cheney on down to the lowliest CIA contractor-- in which case he goes down in history as being on the side of torture--or he can leave his friends to twist in the wind, in which case we get to watch Cheney, Rumsfeld, Gonzales and a parade of lesser shitbirds get frogmarched off to prison and possibly even Dubya himself in the dock. My money is on the pardons, I'll even give 10 to 1.

There is no downside to this for Obama. He can use the bully pulpit he has to frame any discussion of the issue in terms of "You are either with us, or with the torturers." The only people who are going to oppose him are the 15 to 20 percent of the population who still think the sun shines out of Dubya's ass and consider Obama a muslim terrorist in the first place. Those people lost the election and deserve to be driven into the political wilderness pemanently.

Of course, the cynic in me says that if Dubya is delusional enough to think that the country is behind him and approves of what he did and he decides to take his chances and not pardon everyone, Obama will probably do it for him for the sake of "putting the past behind us" and "bridging the partisan divide" -- At which point the last of the lights in that "shining city on the hill" will go out and the Canadian immigration authorities will have to double their printing order for residency visa application forms.

This is not just about Obama's place in the polls or the history books, this is about the future of the office of the president. If Obama wants anyone any where in the world to ever believe anything the president of the United States says ever again, this is the one thing he has to keep his word on. Other promises, like ending the Iraq war or establishing universal health care or fixing the economy, might not be fulfilled due to circumstances beyond the president's control, but ending torture is something he can do January 21, 2009, -- before lunch. All it will take is an executive cease-and-desist order and a phone call to the Justice department telling them to throw the book at anyone who breaks the well established rules.

Progressive, liberals, lefties and sane people everywhere need to make a lot of noise about this and steer the Obama adminstration away from squandering its moral capital and authority for the sake of reaching across the aisle to appease a group that will stab them in the back the first chance it gets. Forgive the barrage of cliches, but we need to draw a line in the sand and hold Obama's feet to the fire and remind him to dance with the one that brought him. He and his people must be told that banning torture is not negotiable and that unless the administration is seen to make an effort to prosecute those responsible for such appalling deeds, such a ban will be seen as not only meaningless by hypocritcal by the international community.