Obama’s “Never Again” on Torture Means “Lots More, Soon”
posted at 2:42 pm on April 18, 2009 by CK MacLeod
The Obama Administration’s release of the so-called “torture memos” this week occasioned much discussion (as well as its unhinged semblance) in all ten dimensions of the blogosphere and the media, and, also, of course, at the very highest level:
At a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past. Our national greatness is embedded in America’s ability to right its course in concert with our core values, and to move forward with confidence. That is why we must resist the forces that divide us, and instead come together on behalf of our common future. The United States is a nation of laws. My Administration will always act in accordance with those laws, and with an unshakeable commitment to our ideals. That is why we have released these memos, and that is why we have taken steps to ensure that the actions described within them never take place again.
Thus spake Obamathustra. Warning: Any attempt to tease substance from this gloopy confection of hokum and twaddle may put your teaser at risk – but most of us know this by now, don’t we? Many of us here, I suspect, already realized a good year or so ago that it rarely pays to listen to Barack Obama very closely.
No one knows this better than his fans: If you’re one of them, the less that you bother with whatever he actually says or does, the less you have to carry along as you jump on your high hobby horse. It therefore almost goes without saying that Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Sullivan were rather delighted with the above Obamian emanation and even more with the release of White House Office of Legal Counsel documents that it accompanied.
With customary sobriety and thoughtful reticence, Greenwald summarized the memos as follows: “They are unbelievably ugly and grotesque and conclusively demonstrate the sadistic criminality that consumed our government.” Sullivan was also quite restrained: “If you want to know how democracies die, read these memos.”
At a far other pole of the ‘sphere, Abe Greenwald at Contentions found a basis for satire. Referring to a CIA interrogator’s request to pressure insectophobic terrorist Abu Zubaydah with a harmless caterpillar, Greenwald exclaims, “Does the sadism of Dick Cheney know no bounds!” The post closes on a tender note, envisioning a future in which “after much national soul searching, we will look at the caterpillar not as an instrument of torture, but as a future butterfly once again.” Greenwald’s submission led to a 100+ comment thread – a high percentage of the responses from spittley mini-Sullivans taking advantage of Contentions’ open registration to condemn all those who dared to chuckle. That would be the equivalent of a 2,000-post thread at a high-traffic blog like HotAir.
It was left to former CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, neither of whom were in those positions during the period covered by the memos, to give their direct and entirely unfunny pushback in a widely read WSJ op-ed. Under the title “The President Ties His Own Hands on Terror,” and under the argumentative sub-title “the point of interrogation is intelligence, not confession,” they quietly and forcefully make a case not so much in favor of the particular interrogation methods, but against the President’s morally self-serving but otherwise pointless posturing.
The effect of this disclosure on the morale and effectiveness of many in the intelligence community is not hard to predict. Those charged with the responsibility of gathering potentially lifesaving information from unwilling captives are now told essentially that any legal opinion they get as to the lawfulness of their activity is only as durable as political fashion permits. … Beyond that, anyone in government who seeks an opinion from the OLC as to the propriety of any action, or who authors an opinion for the OLC, is on notice henceforth that such a request for advice, and the advice itself, is now more likely than before to be subject after the fact to public and partisan criticism. It is hard to see how that will promote candor either from those who should be encouraged to ask for advice before they act, or from those who must give it.
Referring to the work of author Jack Goldsmith, Hayden and Mukasey observe the dysfunctional “cycles of aggression and timidity” that melodramatic bloggers like Sullivan and Greenwald, in refusing to confront, instead serve to exemplify and in their own small way help to perpetuate: “Politicians pressure the intelligence community to push to the legal limit, and then cast accusations when aggressiveness goes out of style, thereby encouraging risk aversion, and then, as occurred in the wake of 9/11, criticizing the intelligence community for feckless timidity.” If that’s too abstract for you, Rush Limbaugh gave the succinct political precis (quoted from memory): “The next time there’s an attack, Barack Obama will own it.”
My own translation: There will likely be acts of terror against the US again; some day war will again be brought to our shores. At that time, perhaps after a period of lethal hesitation and confusion, the moral preening of Barack Obama, Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan, and the endless legions of internet trolls and bloggers, will be set aside, perhaps by Obama himself; if not, then by some unlucky successor. The files holding the OLC opinions will be opened and updated, and the methodologies will be, where possible, extended, intensified, and modernized.
As whatever crisis looms or grows, the longer we wait, the more violently we will likely end up breaking (and need to break) with our impossible and inutile self-restraint. At some point, if all goes well, we’ll later undergo yet another period of self-exorcism, self-distancing, self-terror, and moral pretense – until the next crisis forces us to admit again that we’re all too human: Overcompensation in one direction will follow overcompensation in the other. In the bloody and smoking ruins of some major American landmark, much less a whole American city, much less of a reign of terror, much less a threatened complete breakdown of law and order, leaders who refuse to act exactly as cruelly, even inhumanely, as the times seem to require, and probably a little more so, will be swept aside and consigned to infamy.
To the likes of Sullivan and Greenwald-gauche, Bush, Cheney, Yoo, and the other World Enemies of Big Obrother and his righteous word-warriors already transformed the United States into a “terror state.” To me, what they seem to have done is painstakingly search for solutions of the uncertain moment: What seemed to be good enough to have a chance to work, and not a jot of unnecessary pain or danger more. In short, they met spectacular terror, and the threat of unlimited follow-ons, with precision-guided terror, adjusted pragmatically, terminated at the earliest opportunity. Unintended but inevitable collateral effects, including a certain contagious moral corrosion (Abu Ghraib, perhaps), were limited, but still quite painful.
It’s a mature standard, as imperfect and difficult and as superficially contradictory to our “core values” as any wartime exigency – and it’s what we’ll probably try next time, too. It’s the kind of compromise Barack Obama and all the rest of us are accepting right now, and that no one has yet been able to avoid this side of New Jerusalem: the embrace of the lesser evil against the greater, as messy as the world is messy – shooting teenagers rather than risk death to one American hostage; bombing a compound full of women and children in hopes of getting a high value target; continuing to render prisoners to unsqeamish regimes, while looking away and washing our hands; and so on, and so on. Our government of “laws not men” is the product and tool of living and breathing men and women, all of whom will face experiences in their lives far worse than any particular “torture” visited on Zubaydah & Co., all of whom already live – right now, today – with the reality of our government, now under Obama, doing and threatening far worse things to far less certainly guilty people, to certainly innocent people, for the sake of some perceived greater good. It’s in this context that we must read the torture memos, never forgetting that the writers were seeking a means that we – or most of us – could live with, to an end that we – almost all of us – demanded.
If unilateral disarmament against mass terror means that we become victims of it, we will do whatever seems necessary, quite likely will do a lot more than is strictly necessary, to put a stop to it. Assuming we succeed, we’ll then adopt something like the Bush OLC and CIA’s approach going forward, and rightly congratulate ourselves for our restraint. In the meantime, Obama’s “never again,” which Sullivan repeats and praises, already reads as “more, now” – just where we’re not choosing to look. Only the same kind of willful blindness can stop us from reading it further as “lots more, and worse, and probably sooner than you think.”