We need a truth commission

The problem with torture

It feels strange to have to say this because it seems so obvious but torture is bad. Call it whatever you want – say ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ or whatever – it is still bad. Very, very, very bad. Saying this reminds me of an organization I heard about today (no joke, on NPR) called “People Opposed to Homicide.” Being in DC I have heard of all sorts of associations and whatnot, there is a “Pet Owner Association,” for example, but is there a “People Who Love Murder” group out there? I doubt it.

The idea of moral absolutes can be very tempting. With them you have lots of areas that are black and white rather than grey. My world has only a few of these. I oppose the death penalty. I won’t go into the thousand or so reasons but while making my life easier is NOT one of them (I mean intellectually, it does. Should person X get the death penalty? I don’t care if they are the Green River Killer, Pol Pot, anyone who organized the Rwandan genocide or whoever, the answer is no. I don’t have to think about it anymore.

On face value, the issue of torture is another moral absolute for me. The United States of America should not torture people. Never. Never times ten to the millionth power. We are not the United States of Jack Bauer.


  1. We undermine all the good we do and represent and create nasty precedent at the same time. We are the ‘good guys’ remember? We trot ourselves out as the beacon of freedom and justice and democracy. We are a force of good and light in the world. A force like this does not torture people. We set an example for everyone else. If we can torture people when we like, so can anyone else. Robert Mugabe is doing bad things to his people? If we let this go he can hold his head up high and say “You know, I was worried about our national security and didn’t know what to do and then I heard about what President George W. Bush did to people he thought we threats and said to myself, now there’s an idea.” And, yes I think that is possible.
  2. It doesn’t work. VP Cheney, who spent most his time in office in I think a cave or some other place has said that the methods they used provided useful information that protected us from more terrorist attacks like 9/11. Now I cannot prove this is not true but what he didn’t say was that this was the only way to get that same – or maybe better – information. Many, many experts in this have said that torture is not a good way to elicit information because a, some people will admit to anything they think their interrogators want to hear to make it stop (count me in that category) or b, the terrorist groups who would have this vital information prepare to be tortured. Al Qaeda tells its members to expect it if captured. PS to all the “24” fans out there, the military actually sent people to LA to ask its producers to stop showing Jack Bauer torture people to save the say. They said it was hurting morale because soldiers were asking “why can’t we do the things they do on TV?” No, I am not kidding.
  3. We don’t torture others to protect ourselves. Let’s not kid ourselves here. We didn’t sign the Geneva Convention because of altruism; we did it because, as Joe Biden put in a Senate Foreign Relations hearing, we don’t want our captured soldiers to be tortured. (ok, I paraphrased)
  4. If we can do it to others, we can do it to ourselves. This is not a thought I came up with, it was what Phillip Zelikow wrote in a memo to Condi Rice when he was one of her advisors. He reiterated the point this week and said that once we use national security as a reason to do this against enemy combatants we risk giving our government the right to do it to citizens. Given that the Obama administration may try to reverse a Supreme Court decision that requires police to stop questioning a suspect when they ask for or have a lawyer until that person is present, I am not sure Mr. Zelikow wasn’t on to something.

The more complicated question is what do we do now? Here is where my moral absolute fails me and my world becomes grey again. This question needs more thought but I have time.

President Obama cannot initiate any actions against the people who made this policy. Neither can Congress. To do so would just add partisan crap to an already sensitive subject. Any attempts by the Democrats to do this would just feed the never ending cycle of political retribution that began with Watergate (and if you think I am the only one that thinks this, ask around). This cannot be about political payback.

We need a truth commission modeled after the 9/11 Commission and similar to those held in Rwanda and South Africa. We need to take the politics out of it and put the justice back in. Seriously, it’s the best thing for everyone.

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