“ . . . but we tortured some folks.”
—President Barack Obama, Aug.1, 2014
OK, in the first place: “tortured some folks?” Really?
Was there not something annoyingly breezy in the president’s phrasing last week as he acknowledged the abuse of suspected terrorists in the wake of Sept. 11? Was there not something off-putting in the folksy familiarity of it?
“We tortured some folks.”
What’s next? “He raped a chick?” “They stabbed a dude?”
Granted, it’s a relatively minor point. But to whatever degree phrasing is a window into mindset, the president’s phrasing was jarring. It is, however, what he said next that we are gathered here to discuss.
Obama, speaking to reporters Friday, invoked the atmosphere after Sept. 11 to explain why the CIA, ahem, tortured some folks. He reminded us that we were all terrified that more attacks were imminent, and our national security people were under great pressure to prevent them. So while what they did was wrong, said Obama, “It’s important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had.”
In other words, we were all scared spitless, so it’s . . . understandable, if not precisely condonable, that the CIA behaved in ways that betrayed our national values. But the president is wrong.
In fairness to him, though, let’s stipulate a few things:• One: Obama has never wavered in calling the torture of suspected terrorists precisely what it was, nor in defining it as a betrayal of what America is supposed to stand for. He did so again last week. “We did some things that were contrary to our values,” he said.
• Two: Those things did not happen on Obama’s watch. It was George W. Bush’s administration that rationalized and justified the use of so-called “enhanced interrogation.” Bush made this mess. Obama is just the guy with the push broom.
• Three: Obama was trying to walk a political tightrope that was probably unwalkable. Anticipating declassification of a Senate report that is said to cast a harsh light on these tactics, he sought to signal disapproval of what the CIA did, yet not throw its personnel — who now, after all, work for him — under the proverbial bus. That wouldn’t be great for morale.
All that said, it was disappointing to hear the president invoke the frenzy of that era as a mitigating factor. By that logic, you could justify the internment of Japanese Americans in 1942, the McCarthy witch hunt of the 1950s or dozens of other sins against freedom strewn like scars across the face of American history. All were born of the same broken rationale: We were scared, so we did things we should not have done.
The thinking seems to be that sometimes fear makes our values too heavy to uphold. Actually, it is our capacity for fear that makes them more critical to uphold. And it is disingenuous to pretend the hysteria of the 9/11 era was such that anyone might have done the same thing.
Not only is that not true, but it also insults the moral courage of people like Sen. John McCain and Obama himself who did stand up and say, emphatically and at political risk, that this was unworthy of us. So it’s not that it was impossible to speak reason, but that the torturers refused to hear it.
They followed orders instead.
The president opposes the idea of prosecuting them for that and he’s right. That would cast a pall over American intelligence-gathering for generations forward.
But there is a lesson here that urgently needs learning, an accounting that ought not be ignored. With the best of intentions and the approval of a morally blinkered White House, the CIA vandalized American honor and all involved must be called on it. That isn’t sanctimony.