Thomas de Zengotita
Contributing Editor at Harper’s Magazine
MAY 6, 2009
Mark Danner continues to serve us as the best source out there on the issue of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” But his latest piece for the NYRB goes beyond informing us. It offers the most compelling argument I know of against Obama’s “let’s look forward not backwards” position. I have always wanted a day of reckoning for Bush officials who were behind the torture policy, of course, but I’ve been a bit squishy about it. Until now.
Squishy why? Well, first of all, as so many on the traditional left have come to realize – it’s hard to oppose Obama with sustained energy. It’s easy to register disagreement, but you can’t really go after him; he means so much to so many disenfranchised and discouraged people. A more specific source of squishiness? When Obama called for “reflection, not retribution” before those cheering CIA employees I understood why he felt he needed to do that. At the same time, I had to admit that I do want retribution. Not so much against the grunts who did the deeds, but against, say, Rumsfeld? Hell yeah.
That realization distracted me, made it more difficult to think it through as a policy question. Not at the level of moral outrage but in practical terms, at the level of – would a formal investigation be good or bad for the Obama administration in particular and the country in general? I used to shy away from that question precisely because of moral outrage. Without actually putting it into words I was thinking “these bad men ought to be accountable regardless of the broader consequences, justice must be blind,” etc. At the same time, I was rooting for Obama overall and he obviously didn’t want this, so the net effect was – squishy.
Danner set me straight. He explains why a formal investigation would be good for Obama and good for the country. He focuses on another question I have always shied away from, to wit: did torture “work?” As in, did it yield intelligence that helped foil another attack? Why did I shy away from that question? Same moral outrage reason. That torture policy was wrong whether it happened to “work” or not in some particular case. But this issue is at the heart of the Cheney position and Danner shows how carefully and cleverly he is putting it out there. First the claim that the torture did work followed by a call for the release of mysterious classified documents that he says will back him up. The fact that FoxNews pops up first on a google search for this story only buttresses Danner’s point.
Cheney and Fox (and Friends) are setting us up. They are gambling that another attack on American soil, perhaps a very serious one, is highly likely in the next few years. Are they hoping for it? I’ll report, you decide. But in any case, they are right. It is highly likely. And if and when it happens, then Cheney and Fox (and Friends) are going to be in a position to lead a Rightist Renaissance based on the claim that Obama Democrats have been soft on terror whereas, after 9/11, Bush and Company were tough on terror – and so prevented attacks. Movement conservatives and the Republican Party will be redeemed at a stroke.
Unless a full investigation of the whole torture issue yields a credible official conclusion, graven in the historical record, a conclusion that says: torture did not in fact yield any information that prevented another attack. That has to become the conventional wisdom before there’s another attack – or it will be game over.
Danner provides solid reasons for believing that torture did not “work,” that there is no evidence for Cheney’s claim (what else is new?). But he also argues convincingly that, as long as there is no official conclusion to that effect, this groundless claim will continue to be reported on by journalists mindlessly committed to telling “both sides” of a story so long as it remains in play. It will be out there as a possibility. And then, when the shit hits the fan, it will be too late.
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