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Change We Can Believe In, IX

November 21, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Change we can believe in: Still looking forward

It’s not news that President Obama admonished us two years ago to look forward, not backward, with respect to the crimes actions of the previous administration. And it’s not surprising, as a result, that President Bush feels free to brag, in his new memoir, about approving torture. (“Damn right.”) What is news is the decision by the British government last Tuesday to pay millions of pounds in compensation to former Guantánamo Bay detainees. As reported in the Guardian,

Today’s payments will clear the way for an independent inquiry into British involvement in torture and the degree to which MI6 knowingly took information extracted by torture by the Americans.

[Conservative British Prime Minister David] Cameron announced in July he believed there was no alternative but to roll up the many existing civil claims against the government taken by the alleged victims of torture.

He said the settlement of the claims would allow an inquiry to be undertaken, chaired by Sir Peter Gibson, a former senior court of appeal judge and currently the statutory commissioner for the intelligence services. The inquiry, ranging over alleged British complicity in torture, is due to report by the end of next year.

Earlier this month former US president George Bush claimed that controversial interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding, had protected the UK from further terrorist attacks. Cameron rejected the comments.

Also in the news last week, London mayor and fellow Conservative Boris Johnson had a column in The Telegraph warning Bush not to cross the Atlantic on a book tour unless he wants to risk arrest for torture.

One moment he might be holding forth to a great perspiring tent at Hay-on-Wye. The next moment, click, some embarrassed member of the Welsh constabulary could walk on stage, place some handcuffs on the former leader of the Free World, and take him away to be charged. Of course, we are told this scenario is unlikely. Dubya is the former leader of a friendly power, with whom this country is determined to have good relations. But that is what torture-authorising Augusto Pinochet thought. And unlike Pinochet, Mr Bush is making no bones about what he has done.

Unless the 43rd president of the United States has been grievously misrepresented, he has admitted to authorising and sponsoring the use of torture. Asked whether he approved of “waterboarding” in three specific cases, he told his interviewer that “damn right” he did, and that this practice had saved lives in America and Britain. It is hard to overstate the enormity of this admission.

“Waterboarding” is a disgusting practice by which the victim is deliberately made to think that he is drowning. It is not some cunning new psych-ops technique conceived by the CIA. It has been used in the dungeons of dictators for centuries. It is not compatible either with the US constitution or the UN convention against torture. It is deemed to be torture in this country, and above all there is no evidence whatever that it has ever succeeded in doing what Mr Bush claimed. It does not work.

And then we have the jury’s decision this past Wednesday in the case of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, concluding the first civilian criminal trial of a former Guantánamo detainee. Ghailani was found guilty on one count of conspiracy in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, but not guilty of the other 284 charges. He will be sentenced to somewhere between 20 years and life.

Why was he not found guilty of the other charges? Almost certainly because Judge Lewis Kaplan barred the chief witness, whom the government learned about only through statements obtained from Ghailani while being tortured at a CIA black site. As David Cole explained two days ago in a New York Review blog post, “Ghailani reportedly also confessed to his role in the bombings during interrogations at the black site and at Guantánamo, but that confession also could not be used because of the CIA’s illegal tactics. The same result would have been obtained in a military trial, as involuntary confessions are inadmissible in both forums. The problem with the Ghailani case, in other words, was not the civilian versus military character of the courtroom, but the fact that the Bush administration tortured him.”

Cole concludes with an eloquent description of the price we pay for Obama’s policy of looking forward:

The Ghailani verdict is a kind of accountability. We are paying for the torture we chose to inflict. But it’s deeply unsatisfactory. The torturers—President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Attorney General John Ashcroft, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, and Justice Department lawyers John Yoo and Jay Bybee, to name just a few—are not held responsible. They remain free to travel the lecture circuit and publish books bragging about their crimes. It is the families of victims of the embassy bombings who must pay the price—in foregone justice—for the crimes the Bush administration perpetrated in its “war on terror.”

It turns out that looking forward, not back, will never resolve the torture legacy. Until we own up to and provide a reckoning for the moral and criminal wrongs committed by officials at the very highest levels of the former administration, the fact that we tortured will continue to fester—and cause problems for its successor. The prevailing view in Washington seems to be that we should move on, but such wrongs cannot be forgotten. Try as we might to ignore it, the fact that we tortured and did nothing about it will periodically raise its head—in a failed prosecution, a foreign court judgment, or a terrorist incident inspired by images from Abu Ghraib. And even when it does not manifest itself so dramatically, the fact that the president of the United States was able to order torture, boast about it in a best-selling book, and walk way scot-free will fuel a deep vein of worldwide resentment. Torture and its after-effects will be with us until we are willing to confront them head-on.

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Categories: Politics, Torture
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