FRED WOLFERMAN: Torturous: U.S. Should Not Subject Itself to an Inquisition
I think it's a great idea for Congress to investigate the authorization and use of torture by the previous administration. I think it should create a Torture Study Committee, hold daily hearings, hire lots of lawyers, and subpoena anybody it can think of.
This is not because I think it will accomplish anything useful, or because I think anyone deserves to be prosecuted, or even because I think what was done necessarily qualifies as torture, or that I care if it does.
No. What I like is the idea of Congress tying itself in knots for months or years, wallowing in sanctimony and creating a media circus. Whatever the outcome of any such hearings, the benefit to the country of keeping lawmakers distracted for an extended period would be immeasurable.
While it's at it, this committee ought to dig into John Adams' insistence on the Alien and Sedition Acts, Abraham Lincoln's suspension of Habeas Corpus, Woodrow Wilson's pursuit of the Espionage and Sedition Acts and FDR's internment camps for Americans of Japanese descent. It might want to throw in Andrew Jackson's treatment of the Indians, or Native Americans, if you prefer. Granted, there is no one left to prosecute in any of these cases, but there is an important principle involved: the right of Congress to second-guess the activities of previous administrations.
Everybody seems able to agree that torture is bad; they just can't define exactly what it is. As usual, I defer to my handy Oxford English Dictionary: "torture: the action or practice of inflicting severe pain as a punishment or forcible means of persuasion."
I don't find that very helpful. Take the most offensive suspect behavior for example: waterboarding. I bet it's very unpleasant. I bet I would cough up anything my tormentors wanted to hear in about three seconds. But is it torture?
The answer to that question requires a definitive decision by someone, and there will always be someone else who disagrees. At the time waterboarding was adopted as an acceptable practice by the CIA, it had been approved by all the Bush administration bigwigs, congressional supervisory committees, including now Co-President Pelosi, and a bunch of lawyers.
Maybe they were all wrong, or maybe they have changed their minds. That's fine; don't do it any more, but retroactive prosecution for a decision that was deemed acceptable when it was made is hardly the way to inspire tough decision-making by the public sector.
In the midst of the current flap, the president went out of his way to address CIA employees personally with a speech at headquarters in which he sequentially derogated them for past alleged torture practices, then told them what a great job they were doing. Is it any wonder the CIA is confused about its mission?
Torture has always been a practice defined by its time and place. Torquemada was a fine fellow in the eyes of the Reformation-plagued Catholic Church. Witch-burnings in Salem were accepted at the time. Christians versus lions was good sport. We are now appalled by these things, but in some parts of the world similar events continue.
If, as a nation, we are going to redefine torture as a legal concept and forbid it, that is certainly within our power, though enforcement in other jurisdictions may be problematical. We can argue long and hard about how much pain can be inflicted by what method before it constitutes torture, and whether or not information gained by such practices has any value; that is what got us where we are.
What we cannot do is persecute or prosecute people who acted in good faith defining and carrying out interrogation practices deemed necessary and appropriate under the circumstances of the time. If the present administration wants to change the rules in the middle of the game, it has the power to do so. That does not mean it should penalize the players who have left the field.
Fred Wolferman lives in Southern Pines. Contact him by e-mail at email@example.com.
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