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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 8/13/09

Time for the President to Take an Unequivocal Stand Against Torture Policies

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Message Barton Kunstler
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Torturers require mentors to teach them their craft. According to Amnesty International, today's torturers tend to be youths with few prospects. They are indoctrinated to believe that absolute social control is necessary to prevent "subversives" "" viewed as toxic, sub-human threats to "our way of life" "" from destroying society. As part of their training, future torturers are physically humiliated and psychologically broken; meanwhile, in poorer countries, they are accorded privileges "" cars, TVs "" they could never otherwise afford. Once they become utterly dependent on their handlers' approval and gifts, they gradually are weaned from witnessing violent interrogations to actually wielding the torturer's tools.

This begs an important question. The photo of a grinning Private Lynndie England holding a leash looped around the neck of an Abu Ghraib prisoner makes a great poster for the typical torturer, but what of those in the background "" her officers, the politicos, and White House staff "" who set the wheels in motion that culminated in the pitiful acts of young soldiers carrying out the final steps of a program sanctioned by many layers of authority above them?

Which brings us back to Attorney General Holder's possible investigation. At this point, it appears that Mr. Holder is planning to prosecute those CIA personnel who actually engaged in torture. Aside from the serious legal problems such a prosecution presents (lack of evidence, whether they were operating under orders, etc.), it truly misses the main point. For example, according to Greg Miller and Josh Meyer writing in August 9th's L.A. Times, "President Obama has repeatedly expressed reluctance to launch a criminal investigation of the interrogation program, but has left room for the prosecution of individuals who may have broken the law." In other words, the people who fdevised the torture policies and gave the go-ahead for torture, and those who supervised the interrogators, will get away scot-free. And the inevitable consequence of this approach is that the underlying political and societal forces that gave rise to the torture program, and the political machinery that was constructed to implement it, go largely unchallenged and unchanged.

The absurdity of such an approach is illustrated further in Miller and Meyer's article: the grounds for prosecution may revolve around whether water-boarding was used excessively, that is, whether a given individual was subjected to it beyond the number of times considered effective. Another issue surrounds the volume of water used, whether it was the slow, steady drip that is considered okay or whether it was applied in greater volume, i.e., dunking the person strapped to the board. Forgive me, but this sounds like a truly crazy approach. Will the prosecution of a few over-zealous CIA agents really close the book on this stain on our nation's history, a stain far more serious than the one Bill Clinton was hounded over? Will we be treated to the awful spectacle of lawyers arguing over how much water constitutes torture? Is it thirty drips a minute or 60? When does dripping become a steady flow? How many dunkings is excessive? Five? Ten? 83 or 183 (the actual count for two prisoners)?

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There is nothing wrong with prosecuting the hands-on perpetrators of torture. But it is meaningless if their superiors are not called to account. It also affects the lower-level personnel's defense, for they can't mount a fair defense without calling into question the orders or advisories they received from their superiors, and which their superiors received from their superiors, and so on up the line.

This is why President Obama is missing the point in the torture debate. Once the U.S. embraced torture, the full force of the torturer's psychology entered the national character. In effect, the Bush surrendered our nation to humanity's sickest impulses. It perverted the military that carried out the tortures, the policy-makers who turned the other cheek to avoid seeing what was in front of them, and the political process that allowed torture to continue. It made us all complicit because we all drew lines in terms of how far we would go to stop it. It is an expression of deeply disturbed social impulses which, if left unchecked and unaccounted for, cannot fail to surface again.

President Obama was elected by people disgusted at seeing our country, in our name, carry on unjust and unjustified wars and lowering itself to the level of other nations that condone torture. Thus, I would hope President Obama could say: There is no room for loopholes in our anti-torture policy. There is no longer any plausible reason for either myself or Secretary of State Clinton to deny U.N. investigators the right to examine Guantanamo, where recently released prisoners insist that torture continues. There is no room for an ambiguous, mealy-mouthed approach to the abhorrent practice of rendition and torture-by-proxy. There is no justification for, in effect, pardoning those who sanctioned and encouraged torture. There is nothing to be gained by withholding photos of torture victims. For our sake, as Americans, we need to see and finally understand the consequences of political corruption and citizen complacency.

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There is no moving forward without looking back, no reconciliation without a call to accounts. The election of President Obama has not rid our institutions "" or many of their personnel "" of the impulses that led them to torture. Once one crosses that dark threshold, it becomes much easier to backslide, to quietly re-implement a policy whose institutional mechanism and moral argument were never dismantled. President Obama was elected in large part because he represented a powerful moral urgency felt by the majority of Americans. It is vital for the future of this country and the President's political agenda that we do not continue to abide the terrible moral stain of the previous administration's indulgence in this most odious of human behaviors.

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Barton Kunstler, Ph.D. is a writer of fiction, essays, poetry, and plays. He is author of "The Hothouse Effect" (Amacom), a book describing the dynamics of highly creative groups and organizations. His play, "An Inquiry in Florence", was recently (more...)
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