In response to a New York Times article on whether or not those in the Bush administration responsible for torture should be pardoned, a commenter named Randy F. offered this suggestion:
“how about we give them medals for making hard decisions during a time of war – we were attacked, remember?”
What Randy F. may be forgetting is that we were attacked at Bunker Hill in 1775, at Fort Sumter in 1861, and Pearl Harbor in 1941. Yet neither General Washington nor President Lincoln nor Franklin Roosevelt suggested that we sanction torture because “we were attacked.”
In fact, our enemies, the British, burned Washington DC to the ground in 1814, and the Soviet Union threatened to annihilate us with nuclear weapons during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, yet none of these existential threats to our nation led us to play the “We were attacked, so let's authorize torture” card.
Unfortunately, there are quite a few Americans who agree with Randy F., claiming either that what our government did was not torture, or that torture under the circumstances was justified. Vice President Cheney, during a Fox News interview, argued that, “We did exactly what needed to be done in order to catch those who were guilty on 9/11 and prevent a further attack,” adding, “We were successful on both parts.” He characterized the recently released report on CIA torture as “full of crap.”
Why are people like Cheney ready to throw out normal standards of decency in the face of threats far less ominous than many we have faced in the past? Is it unprecedented fear or self-serving arrogance that has brought about this new American attitude?
It is true that we were the only major power of World War II that did not suffer horrendous destruction from enemy bombing of civilian targets, so perhaps we have been singularly naïve in a way that has heightened our reactions. The shock of seeing thousands of civilians killed in terrorist attacks in the heart of two of our major cities made us suddenly mindful of our vulnerability. Perhaps Britons, Germans or Japanese would have been less shocked at such tragic losses, given their memories of World War II.
But would any American leaders have sanctioned torture in 2001, or is there something about people like Cheney that made them more likely to do so? It is true that the former Vice sometimes exhibits an attitude of,“If this doesn’t affect someone I know, then it’s not my problem.”
For example, though he is harshly conservative on almost every issue, he took a stand in favor of gay rights when faced with his daughter’s lesbianism. Republican Senator Rob Portman underwent an identical adjustment in attitude. In 2013 he suddenly declared his support for gay marriage, attributing this change to his son coming out as gay.
Similarly, John McCain, the one Republican forcefully speaking out against torture, is famous for having endured torture in Hanoi. Would he be more like Cheney and other fellow Republicans on this issue if he himself had not been brutalized during his captivity? In any case, I salute McCain for his outspoken and eloquent denunciation of torture on the Senate floor.
Whatever it was that made some of our leaders give thumbs up to torture, I hope the release of this report helps return us to our old way of thinking, the way of Washington, Madison, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Kennedy. We were unquestionably a better country when our leaders considered it profoundly immoral to waterboard, to rectally hydrate, to torture to death through hypothermia, and so on.
And what to do about our shameful past on this issue? Honestly, I have no hope for Dick Cheney, but I would be mightily impressed if George W. Bush were to step forward, admit that we engaged in these grossly immoral acts, and apologize for them.