As America debates whether Bush administration officials violated laws in circumventing our long-standing ban on torture, it's time for each of us to consider an individual moral stance on prisoner abuse. The biggest question of all, however, might be this: Were the 9/11 perpetrators actually able to change your values?
Before 9/11, we all agreed to maintain a legal ban on physical and psychological extremes in detainee interrogation such as waterboarding. We hoped to be the shining example of morality the world looked up to, leading the way in crafting international treaties and human rights standards to discourage barbaric persuasion tactics seen throughout history. We not only condemned and prosecuted those proven to have committed such atrocities, we tried and executed soldiers who committed acts of waterboarding. Torturing has never polled well in America.
After years of suppression, our shameful open secret went "official" and we saw for the first time which civilians plunked their names down to be the first to say 9/11 changed their principles. Not me.
Against our expectations, these officials made extreme interrogation a 'state secret' after 9/11. Select members of Congress including the ironically named Speaker Pelosi were briefed on the turnaround, but it was, as far as we all knew, still illegal. We now know prisoners were even waterboarded before permission to do so was approved.
Looking at the timing, it's apparent Bush was literally trying to beat proof of a Saddam-9/11 link out of detainees because the trail was going cold fast. When the American people learned what had been done in our name, it was accompanied by the bold claim waterboarding had saved Los Angeles from a time-sensitive terrorist plot, an assertion more reminiscent of a fictional TV storyline than anything interrogation experts had ever before seen in practice or scientific study. It's as if the folks producing 24 for Fox were colluding with the White House to persuade US viewers such a "ticking bomb" scenario was plausible.
But without even calculating how many waterboarding sessions have produced useful information, we need to first decide whether we as a people approve of turning back the human rights clock to stoop to the level of the war criminals we executed. This is a serious 9/11 question - if the terrorists subverted your ethics, did they win?
Overriding State Dept., Senate Armed Sevices Committee, CIA, FBI and Pentagon objections, Bush's civilian leadership rammed the new get-tough philosophies through, only to be proven inferior in the field. Maintaining strict adherence to the Army Field Manual guidelines on prisoner treatment, General Petraeus achieved security and stability in Mosul by repairing infrastructure, holding local elections and restoring civic services while the rest of Iraq languished. Petraeus is said to have dismantled any platoon tainted by detainee abuse, specifically because it recruited in fantastic numbers for the enemy.
The wider "surge" strategy succeeded later in reducing violence by essentially paying our enemies not to attack us while asking clerical leaders for cooperation. This 180 degree turnaround confirms the pay-for-peace strategy could have worked years earlier. Having spent over $22,000 so far for every man, woman and child in Iraq, we could have won the country over quickly had we upheld traditional American anti-torture principles and used the money to improve the life of Iraqis instead of parading around in tanks and trucks. For many, it's hard to accept our tax dollars are being handed over to our former attackers right now, but this is what's working.
I heard Sean Hannity on his radio show one day musing about the example Jesus Christ set for forgiveness of his enemies. Sean acknowledged that he understood Christ's message of pacifism and perfection, but with a nervous chuckle, he blustered "believe me, I'm not there yet". Hannity knows he fails to live up to the moral lesson of the Greatest Story Ever Told, but by saying "yet", Mr. Hannity admitted he knew deep in his heart he will one day change this.
More recently, Sean Hannity vowed he would personally raise money for the torture memo lawyers if they were charged, threatening Americans he would clog up the system by calling for investigations such as the Tony Rezko scandal. Irate that Obama changed his initial stance on "looking forward", Hannity believes Obama and Eric Holder were only responding to public pressure and had consulted "focus groups" to decide torture must be investigated.
Realizing it's the American people driving this call for accountability, Hannity then said something striking. He insisted America would face a national security disaster! Railing against Obama's willingness to admit previous US arrogance and engage Iran and Venezuela, Hannity somehow linked the notion that America's new cooperative stance would make us more likely to be attacked.
Hannity was noticeably sore the President would allow AG Holder to probe the affairs of a predecessor who "did all he could" in "good faith" to ensure America would be safe from further attack. Hannity was programming listeners to back Bush's legacy of detainee abuse around the office cooler, offering America is more safe when we are feared and despised than we are when we are diplomatically engaged.
Personally, I don't buy it. We've been tied up for eight years in asymmetrical conflicts that should have been precision detective operations conducted with the cooperation of the Arab world and extremely patient deep cover plants. We needed to quietly root out the tiny cadre of underground thugs who hid out in Hamburg, Morocco, Florida, New Jersey and elsewhere. Instead, we sent thousands of well-meaning American GIs into "hornet's nests" with targets on their backs.
After 9/11, Bush ignored venerable Mid East experts who knew the attacks were designed to draw us in to costly military endeavors overseas. Bin Laden himself said later it was his intention to bleed dry the US economy by dragging out asymmetrical conflict as long as possible, the same formula used in speeding the collapse of the USSR.
As we close the book on the Bush era, we need to consider our own complicity in the problems our generation will be handing our children. The foreign deficit begun in the late 70s almost doubled under Bush. We cannot hope to correct this easily because the interest has been growing while our infrastructure has been allowed to deteriorate and our economic rivals have pulled ahead in technology, transportation and energy efficiency.
But one thing we can make right is teaching our sons, daughters and grandchildren about the difference between our tradition of decency and the bitter, desperate savages that attacked us on 9/11, after they were incorrectly taught the blasphemous lie that God condones violence.