Alberto Mora was one of the speakers at Swarthmore’s commencement this spring. He gave a short, terse and I thought powerful speech about the decisions he had made as General Counsel for the U.S. Navy and about the consequences of the sanctioned use of cruelty and torture by the United States government.
Mora touched lightly but poignantly on one point that has been on my own mind a lot in the last year. As we look back on the last eight years with the hope of some different dispensation and leadership in the years to come, there is one development that haunts me more than any other.
If you had asked me in 1998 what I thought the consequences would be if the United States government was revealed in public to have officially sanctioned torture in its own secret as well as public detention facilities as well as through rendition of detainees to regimes employing torture, and that this sanction started from the Oval Office and was methodically reinforced throughout the executive branch, I would have said that this revelation would be an enormous scandal with catastrophic political consequences for any sitting President.
In the past, U.S. officials have assumed the same thing. It’s clear that from time to time from the 1950s onward, both intelligence and military officials in the U.S. government have employed torture, illegal detention, and similar tactics against agents of other governments, armed insurgents or against non-state actors. But there has always been considerable care taken to keep such actions secret, to not challenge their illegality, and to assume that if these actions were revealed, those who took them or sanctioned them would and probably should face legal and political consequences. Top levels of the executive branch were insulated from these activities, at times by cynical design, but mostly because there was a broad consensus that such actions should not be official, sanctioned or legal, not be policy.
In 1998, I would have told you that there would be an enormous political uproar in the case of the sanctioning of torture because I assumed that the American people and most of their political leaders would not stand for such a policy. I would have assumed that any political support for such a policy would be relatively small, perhaps no more than a quarter of the voting population at best.
I’m very unhappy about a lot of the developments of the last eight years. Nothing makes me unhappier than the discovery of how very wrong I was in my assumption about the political consequences of the systematic authorization of torture. I should have sensed where the wind was blowing when I came across clear “trial balloons” like Mark Bowden’s 2003 celebration of torture as a crisply professional activity. (Bowden’s later pathetic response to Abu Ghraib: those guys were bumbling amateurs, as long as you professionalize cruel interrogations, you won’t get pyramids of naked detainees and the like.) Bowden is a good reporter and a pleasant guy: when he agreed to flack shamelessly for torture, it was a sign that the moral consensus I assumed was present was in fact absent, that many seemingly decent people were going to endorse torturing detainees in the war on terror, with indifference to the standards being used to determine whether or not those detainees even had important information or were guilty of anything in particular.
Every successive day since 2003 has revealed just how thorough and explicit the commitment of the American political and military leadership has been to torture and illegal detention, even if there are those like Mora who strenuously opposed this shift in policy. The Administration is responsible for a great deal, but when it comes to the systematic endorsement of cruelty and torture by our government, the guilt is a lot more distributed because the popular support for such a policy has been a lot more widespread. If you want a sign of how far the yardposts have been moved, look at how carefully John McCain has had to maneuver on the subject of torture so as to not offend his political base, despite his own alleged opposition to Administration policy.
Whatever comes next, however much of the damage can be repaired (by whomever the next national leadership might be), this change will make me sad for the rest of my life. There’s no easy retreat from knowing that a lot of the people around you are willing to sanction torture and are indifferent about the guilt or innocence of those subjected to it.