Friday, January 23, 2009

Prosecute Torturers, Mr. President

In the wake of the inauguration there are several facts which need to be faced:
  • The United States has tortured prisoners.
  • Torture is unambiguously illegal and immoral.
  • Those who committed torture and especially those who authorized torture must be prosecuted to restore the rule of law.
This is not a peripheral issue. It is not safe to move into the future without making redress for the sins of our past. There is too much at stake here. Open criminality, particularly by those in authority, is a cancer on democracy. If we do not prosecute we are approving the criminal behavior of the Bush administration. Because we are all responsible for the actions of our elected officials our only course of action is to hold ourselves and our leaders responsible for these crimes or to abdicate our power.

I am very passionate about this topic. I am an active member of NRCAT, and No2Torture. I encourage you to be as well. I will write in more detail on this subject in the future, but today I am happy to point out that there are people making the argument for prosecution far more effectively than I can.

First of all, if you read only one piece on this subject read this. Scott Horton, the author of the article is an International Human Rights lawyer who has made legal issues around torture his primary specialty since the Vietnam War. He knows more about this subject than anyone, and he writes with more clarity and force than anyone. A taste:
Reasserting the rule of law is no simple matter. A new administration may—or may not—bring an end to open torture in the United States, but it will not bring an end to our knowledge and acceptance of what has already taken place. If the people wish to maintain sovereignty, they must also reclaim responsibility for the actions taken in their name. As of yet, they have not. Pursuing the Bush Administration for crimes long known to the public may amount to a kind of hypocrisy, but it is a necessary hypocrisy. The alternative, simply doing nothing, not only ratifies torture; it ratifies the failure of the people to control the actions of their government.
You can hear him debate the subject of prosecution and the manner with other experts on the topic in this great radio interview.

Much debate is indeed being had about the precise route to take, whether it be a Military Court, or an International War Crimes Tribunal, or a Truth and Reconciliation Commission... what is not really debatable is whether there is a crime to prosecute, and evidence sufficient to justify prosecution of specific individuals including the former President and Vice President. Bush and Cheney have both publicly confessed. Susan J. Crawford, the top Bush Administration official in charge of the cases at Guantanamo has recently explicitly labeled the treatment of Qahtani torture. The preponderance of evidence is enormous.

Keith Olbermann is dead right on this subject:

President Obama doesn't want to have to be the guy that does this dirty work (who would?). He knows it will be perceived by some as a partisan witch hunt, but the nation really can't afford to let this slip. Not and maintain any pretense of respect for the rule of law.


Eddie Louise said...

I respectfully disagree...

While the idea that the US tortured people makes me sick, it is also time to move forward.

Perhaps go after the people who make torture acceptable and holding them accountable to say to the world "We will not accept this behaviour ever again."

But to do a witch hunt does not solve the problem, heal anyone or erase the crime in the first place.

Eddie Louise said...

opps, this was Chip Michael, not Eddie Louise... didn't realise my wife was logged on.

Rob said...

I agree we all need to move on, but sometimes there is such an accumulkation of bad feeling (think South Africa, or post-war Germany) that some kind of expiation is required. I'm not suggesting Bush, Cheney etc are in that league of evildoers, but they have undeniably sullied the reputation of the USA around the world and, I suspect, tainted many ordinary Americans' pride in their own country. If Watergate was felt to require prosecutions, this surely does. As with Watergate, the outcome may be that those at the very top don't go to jail, but at least their guilt (or their innocence - that's what trials are for) will have been established once and for all.

And is it fair to describe such proceedings as a "witch hunt" when those concerned have admitted what they did or knew about? I don't think the victims at Salem went on record as saying "Well, yes, I did use magic to prevent that cow from giving milk, but it wasn't technically witchcraft because I'm not a follower of the Wiccan religion". Nor did the South Ronaldsay parents go on TV admitting that yes, they had sodomised their kids in a religious ritual but it wasn't a Satanic one. This is a dragnet, not a witch hunt.

Jodie said...

This will lead rapidly to the Bush gang. But as we have noticed in blogs and blog comments over the last few years, a trial of Bush and his gang would also put on trial all their supporters, many of whom still say he did what they wanted him to do.

Some choose to say they don't believe the evidence before them and that the Bush gang is not guilty. But I believe that is not healthy skepticism, rather it is denial in the face of cognitive dissonance. Convicting Bush would only push them further into their defensive corners.

My point is, a trial of the US or the Bush gang would cause division right now. There is no statute of limitations on war and torture crimes. As long as Obama does not issue a pardon, charges can be brought at any time.

I'd rather wait. Besides, Obama's election, the inaugural address, and the millions of cheering crowds booing Bush as he boarded his helicopter sent the world the message of what America thought of his administration and what he did. He's hurting.

On the other hand, I would like to see that kid from Marin County released from jail and his conviction overturned. The one they labeled the American Taliban. That is where we turned wrong instead of right. He went on a spiritual journey and got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was tortured too. He pleaded guilty to avoid a classic lynch mob.

I think we should start with him. Obama has opened the path with the changes in the Freedom of Information act. No2Torture should start a fund for his lawyers.

And then, once the truth about him comes out, the thing will gather steam on its own.

Doug Hagler said...

@ Chip

I dunno. I mean, if we shy away from holding people accountable for their actions because we want to move on, there's definitely a limit to that kind of reasoning. And I have a vested interest becuase I found the Bush admin so completely apalling on so many levels, I want to seem them pay for what they did...

@ Rob

...and I would absolutely lump them in with "evildoers", in that they consistently did evil for the whole time they were in power. They made us less healthy with increased toxins in the air and water and food, tortured people and lied about it, lied to get us into a war that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, they attacked the Constitution and acted to increase their own power at the expense of transparency and justice...I could go on, but if we're going to talk about "evildoers" in the world, then Bush and Cheney & Co. cannot possibly be ignored as belonging on that list.

Unless we define evildoer as something other than "doing a bunch of evil" (seemingly without any hint of remorse).

Aric Clark said...

@ Dad,

I think you make a mistake calling torture prosecutions a "witch hunt". Witch hunts are notable for the lack of real witches, and real witchcraft. They pursue people who are not guilty for a crime that never happened. This crime really happened and there really are people guilty of it.

I agree that punitive measures are not effective for healing. The point here isn't the healing of the torturers (though I'd love to see some separate consideration given to that line of thought), or even the healing of the victims of torture, which is probably impossible (and also merits separate consideration). The point of prosecution is the reestablishment of law and order in our democracy. If we do not pursue blatant criminality like this on the part of our chief executive, then we are establishing a certain precedent which will, in the long run I think, result in the dissolution of the republic.

In other words, it is not principally about giving Bush his due - it is about ensuring that every other criminal we've imprisoned doesn't go to jail KNOWING that our own president has gotten away with far worse, making a sham of the entire judicial process. The law is what is really on trial here. It has been put on trial by a president and his administration who decided to publicly violate it.


I realize there is no statute of limitations and you're right that any action now will cause some division. I don't think we can afford to sacrifice the primacy of law for the expedience of unity. Our unity is based on a common commitment to uphold the laws of our nation - because in a democracy they are OUR laws. If we don't uphold them (and as soon as possible) then we have already sacrificed the basis of our unity whatever apparent peace we project.

This is what Jeremiah is saying when he says "you cry peace! peace! when there is no peace." and what Jesus meant by saying "I come to bring a sword, not peace." They mean that true peace is based on justice. Where there is no justice there can be no peace, whether things give the appearance of peace or not.

We can't bury this. It will come back to haunt us. Old wounds always resurface.

Heather W. Reichgott said...

I agree that there needs to be some kind of calling to account.

Whether it looks more like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission or the Nuremberg War Trials is a separate question.

Jodie said...


You should find a way to post your last response directly to the White House or to the Attorney General. I think you have a strongly valid point.

But it would start a fight, and the fight would get very ugly very fast.

I honestly don't know which way this should go. I think of Argentina and how long it has taken them to come to terms with the excesses of the Junta of the 70s.

Or the attempts to bring Pinochet to trial.

If he people had shied away from the civil rights movement because it would cause division, Alabama would still have a constitution the outlawed black and white children playing together.

Doug Hagler said...

As an aside, Aric, the msnbc clip is about some sort of minor sports scandal, not torture...

Aric Clark said...

yeah, somehow I got a hold of a rotating series of MSNBC clips instead of just the Olbermann clip. I think it's fixed now.

Rob said...


I entirely agree that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz et al are evildoers. My uncertainty was merely whether the extent of their evil was as great as that of Hitler, Goering, Himmler, Goebbels and the like. I'd say not.

Doug Hagler said...

Oh, no no no no. Not at all. Not even close. Their was the somewhat more pedestrian evil of those who simply have no regard for others, and believe they should not be bound by the same rules that the rest of us try to live by (or at least must accept the consequences of breaking).

Which, I think, is Aric's point. If we do not prosecute them, then they were not in fact bound by the rules that we went our leaders to be bound by - the treaties of the United States, the Constitution, and so on. Then it begs the question - why, then, are those rules meaningful at all? The only reason to have a rule against torture is if you're going to enforce it. If you fail to do so, the rule is a figment of your imagination only.