Posted by Raphael J. Sonenshein
“After years of disclosures by government investigations, media accounts, and reports from human rights organizations, there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”
These chilling words, written by retired General Antonio Taguba, who had conducted the first official investigation of the Abu Ghraib scandal, were placed before the American people on June 18. The story of torture as US government policy is one of the most shameful episodes in American history, but it is likely to disappear in the heat of the presidential election campaign.
Neither party wants to talk about torture. Republicans have begun to understand that they face profound moral and legal problems from countenancing torture. Democrats are scared of appearing weak on terror. (I expect a nice run of comments below suggesting that by renouncing torture as government policy I am “doing Hizbollah’s work.”)
A murky history serves all purposes.
But of course we always knew. We knew in the way that we know something without quite acknowledging it to ourselves.
The government and the media protected our sensitivities by softening the words. But we could sense through the foggy language – “enhanced or harsh interrogation techniques” “prisoner abuse” – that the reality was torture. Even when it was revealed this year that a committee of top Bush administration officials went to Guantanamo to supervise torture, and when the president acknowledged that he knew of and approved of this committee’s work, we were still told by the president a few days later that it was all the responsibility of a few errant soldiers.
Spokespersons muddied the debate with fictional “doomsday scenarios” in which heroic interrogators, 24-like, drew critical information from monstrous terrorists. We were told that plots had been broken up, even when the evidence of these plots evaporated upon close inspection. This week, we heard the arrogant testimony of Vice President Cheney’s “legal” advisor, David Addington, and the author of the torture memo, John Yoo, smirking in front of a House committee. It was hard to watch Yoo refusing to say that the president lacks the authority to bury a person alive or to torture a child in front of a suspect’s parent. It was clear that neither was much afraid of being held to account, especially by Congress.
Finally, though, we have to ask: who are these people? How did a small band of fanatics get themselves into position to so pervert America’s ideals? How did they run roughshod over the protests of those in the military and law enforcement communities who protested, much more than Congress did? Do these people bear some responsibility for their actions for which they should be held to account? Do we?
There is something about torture that is profoundly hostile to Jewish tradition. To me, torture has always gone hand in hand with superstition, the Dark Ages, ignorance, absolute authority, terror, and intolerance. I see the rack, straining horses, and the other tools of official torture. I always associate torture with the Inquisition, which in the old phrase, was not good for the Jews.
It was the Enlightenment, the rise of reason and the belief in constitutional authority that created a more tolerant atmosphere for Jews and for many others. Torture is incompatible with that tradition.
No nation more deeply absorbed the Enlightenment than America. It is in our Constitution, with its protections for liberties and our separation of powers. The 8th amendment enshrines it. It is in the tradition started by George Washington in the Revolution, who ordered that even though the British had badly mistreated American prisoners, all British prisoners were to be treated justly. I don’t remember anybody calling George weak on terror, even against the British who would have hanged him had they caught him. No people committed graver sins against humanity than the Germans in World War II, but the USA treated German soldiers with the greatest of humanity.
How did our definition of strength so deteriorate from Washington and Roosevelt to the Bush crowd? How did humane treatment by the powerful come to be seen as weak, and bullying those who are in our physical control come to be seen as strong?
We’ll find our way back because two centuries of tradition is much stronger than we imagine. But let’s begin with a real word, and give up the comforting euphemisms. The word is torture.
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June 19, 2008 | 2:45 pm
Posted by Raphael J. Sonenshein
It looks like Congressional Democrats are going to cave in to the Bush administration, this time on telecom immunity for illegal surveillance of Americans. Maybe public opposition will stop the roll over. Maybe this is a drama that will end better than it is going right now. But I wouldn’t bank on it.
You may recall that we found out a few years ago that several telecom companies had agreed to help the administration illegally wiretap Americans. Numerous lawsuits have been filed to hold them accountable.
The telecoms, big campaign donors, joined with the administration to try to bully Congress into granting them retroactive immunity for actions that they have never fully disclosed. And media reports now suggest that the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate are going to pass the bill the White House wants. It will have a fig leaf to hide how pathetic the Congressional resistance was. If the companies can show a written document that the president or his representatives said it was all legal, then the lawsuits will be dismissed. I can’t wait until another illegal action by somebody else is justified by such a letter.
It is not impossible that the media reports themselves are part of a White House strategy to build momentum for a legislative victory. But I am not optimistic.
It was embarrassing watching the Lakers roll over for the Celtics in Game 6 of the NBA finals. But at least the Celtics were a much better team. I think one needs to explore the outer realms of psychology to understand how, in an election year that greatly favors the Democrats, with Republicans demoralized, the Democratic party would give in to a president whose latest approval rating is 24%. All I can imagine is that this party has been beaten down so much on national security for so many years, that they simply have lost the capacity to resist. I would also not underestimate the impact of telecom campaign donations.
If anybody on Capital Hill were watching the presidential race, they might notice that John McCain is closely tied to the telecoms, and that Barack Obama opposes this deal. By caving in now, they are doing McCain’s work for him, taking a potentially embarrassing issue off the election table.
It’s particularly disheartening that in a week that saw clear evidence that the administration guided and inspired the program of torture that may well constitute war crimes, the Democrats in Congress may see fit to cave in. I wonder how the White House will see this. Democrats love to imagine that Republicans will not attack them on national security if only they get everything they want. More likely, the White House will feel contemptuous and even more emboldened to do whatever it wants in its waning days.
The thing about courage is that it has great consequences all over the map. Obama is attacking McCain on terrorism and war issues, rather than quivering in fear of Republican attacks. If Congress has any hope of keeping the White House from using its final days for dangerous excursions into the further reaches of global warfare, a little courage would go a long way.
June 8, 2008 | 11:13 am
Posted by Raphael J. Sonenshein
Now that Hillary Clinton has issued her long-awaited and full-throated endorsement of Barack Obama, the extended first phase of the 2008 race is over. There is a slight feeling of anti-climax as we wind up for the big one. On the Democratic side, the semi-finals were monstrously difficult, while the Republican division was relatively quiet.
But it won’t be long before we realize that for the first time in months, there are only two candidates, not three.
The post-mortems on Hillary’s campaign are already pouring in, and I don’t intend to join the crowd. Just as in sports, winning doesn’t mean you did everything perfectly and losing doesn’t mean you did everything wrong. Hillary’s juggernaut, designed for years to win in 2008, was derailed by a better campaign that could not have been anticipated in advance. Had Obama not run, and had he not found the soft spots in the Clinton machine – the boiling rage in the party about the Iraq war, the value of caucus states in accumulating delegates, the new ways to raise money online in small amounts – then all the things we call weaknesses would have been seen as strengths.
Great candidacies by African Americans tend to come from the reform wing of the Democratic party. That’s how Tom Bradley came up in Los Angeles. Like Obama, he took a reform model that is often bloodless, and linked it to African Americans to create a winning combination. It’s hard to see it coming, because time after time the reform candidate for the Democratic nomination loses without a working class base. Few anticipate just how powerful African American candidates can be when linked up to broader reform coalitions.
Changing a political party is a bloody business. When the Clintons came up in 1992, they took a party that was on the left and pulled it to the center. There are people still angry about that shift. The Clintons proved that in the 90s, with Republican ideas in the ascendancy, that was the way to win.
What changed in 2008 was that the national loathing of President Bush, far more intense and deep than the voter rejection of his father in 1992, gave a chance for a more aggressive, bolder, more national Democratic party than the Clintons had designed. If this becomes a winning strategy, it will create a new Democratic party linking presidential and congressional campaigns (including through Obama’s fundraising success) that hasn’t been seen since the 1960s.
I’ve been saying all along that the Democratic race would be over just after June 3. All right, so I was off by a few days, but I was close. It’s not really completely over, because of the buzz about whether Clinton should be on the ticket as VP. I think that’s doubtful, but it will consume more time. The Clintons are always going to make campaign news, and I expect Bill to offer unsolicited and unhelpful advice to Obama in public. I also expect Hillary to be very active and very supportive. She will not disappear.
For all the anger in the Democratic campaign, the primary race was more helpful than hurtful. There were no serious ideological disagreements between the two candidates. Rather, it was a conflict of personas and styles.
An open seat allows more scope for primary hurt than an ideological insurgency against an incumbent president of one’s own party (e.g., McCarthy against Johnson in 1968, Reagan against Ford in 1976, Kennedy against Carter in 1980, Buchanan against Bush in 1992). Those are almost always fatal.
Indeed, McCain has been hurt by the weakness of the Republican field, and by his ability to stay out of the line of political fire in the primaries. He seems genuinely shocked to be attacked by the Obama campaign, and his famous temper seems ready to blow at any time. He would have been better off hearing about this stuff from his fellow Republicans first.
Obama now has the chance to directly reach out to constituencies that were in a close dialogue with Clinton: women, Jews, Latinos, working class whites. Clinton doesn’t own these constituencies, but she got there before Obama. She generated a remarkable vocabulary for speaking to them, and showed Obama the way. Now he gets a chance to introduce himself to them once again.
So….let the games begin!
June 1, 2008 | 12:02 pm
Posted by Raphael Sonenshein
Democrats have trouble winning presidential elections. One reason is that they have difficulty keeping the campaign focused on their issues. Polls show that this year especially the issues favor the Democrats, with the big ones, the Iraq war and the economy deeply in the Democrats’ favor.
But campaigns are not stately debates about issues. They are also battles over what the debate will be about. The politics of distraction can be very powerful, and Democrats have struggled with it for years. Consider how John Edwards found his campaign derailed because he had an expensive haircut. John Kerry had to deal with false attacks on his war record.
Right now, the biggest distraction for Obama is Hillary Clinton’s quixotic campaign. Even though she has no chance to win the nomination, she keeps going (at least for a few more days). Media coverage of the fairly ridiculous case for Florida and Michigan being seated at the Democratic convention distracted from Obama’s attack on John McCain for flubbing how many troops we have in Iraq.
Of course, the biggest distraction for Obama has been the Rev. Wright controversy. And since this is a real issue, he has had to deal directly with it at some length. While he has dealt fairly effectively with the story, and this week quit the church, this distraction may always be there as a kind of low-level illness. But there will be more, and the Republicans are artful at working the media to keep them alive. A good example is the misstatement Obama made about his uncle liberating a Nazi death camp. He had the wrong camp, and corrected it. It made headlines.
In order to keep the distractions from messing up your campaign, you have to speak loudly, clearly, and firmly. You have to say things that are more interesting than your haircut, or the latest distraction. And you have to say them over and over again. You can’t get caught up in the distractions. Deal with them, and move on quickly. So far, Obama is showing some skill at this, as he has directed his attacks at McCain, and not at Clinton. That’s a way of saying, without saying, that the nomination race has been over for a while. He turned McCain’s distraction of challenging him to go to Iraq into an attack on McCain’s lack of knowledge about Iraq despite his several trips there.
I expect a cascade of distractions from here on. They are like marbles on the floor, or nails in the roadway. They will keep coming. If one doesn’t work, another one will come up. They will come by viral email. They will come on radio talk shows. They will be presented on the evening news. Some will be true, if pointless. Some will be plainly false.
Obama’s road to the White House is not paved with thoughtful debates, although there will be some. It’s paved with marbles and nails. His task will be to keep our eyes on the road.