Over the last decade, our willingness to engage in torture represents an ideologically heavy and ill-informed perspective on power that has made us less safe, less strong and less able to prosper in today’s world. Osama Bin Laden’s demise offers a great opportunity to turn the page and start anew.
Five years ago, we were at a low point in our constitution’s history. In 2006, the vote on military commissions (the torture bill) passed in the House and Senate. The political dilemma: oppose it on principle and open yourself up to “soft on defense” messaging vultures during election season, or vote for it and depress your human rights and religious base. For many voters, torture has been a bright line moral issue. After all, America’s founders risked everything so that individuals would have the right to trial and to be able to face their accusers. Torture turns the rule of law on its head. As it turns out, their virtuous insight makes tactical sense as well.
The Constitution is Not a Political Football
Last night’s first 2012 Republican debate illustrated that torture is not a partisan issue. Libertarians Ron Paul and Gary Johnson do not support it. Senator Lindsey Graham (R SC) has been a consistent critic. For years, most Congressional Democrats have held the line against “enhanced interrogation techniques,” the Bush Administration’s euphemism for torture. Some of them spoke out during the Bush years:
- Rep Ike Skelton (MO): “If you want to be tough on terrorists, pass a statute that will meet the scrutiny of the Supreme Court of our country.”
- Rep. Steve Israel (NY): “If I am asking young men and women to die for what we stand for, I want to stand for something.”
- Rep. Jerrold Nadler (NY): “We rebelled against King George for far less infringements.”
- Democratic Leader Pelosi (CA): “This bill does violence to the Constitution.”
- Democratic Whip Hoyer (MD): “This legislation, at bottom, is really more about who we are as a people than it is about those who seek to harm us.”
- Rep. Louise Slaughter (NY): “This bill sends a clear message to both our friends and our enemies about what kind of people we are. It shows them whether or not we are really willing to practice what we preach about freedom, democracy, and human dignity.”
- Rep. Barbara Lee (CA): “America has always been not only a nation, it has been an idea. And when we sacrifice that idea, it is a setback in this war of ideas.”
Torture is a Tactical Failure: Hypocrisy a Strategic Mistake
The world is a confidence game. US security increasingly depends on broad swaths of populations perceiving us, if not positvely, at least not so negatively that they act on it. This point was made clear to me a few years back during a conversation with an Army lawyer stationed in Afghanistan when the Abu Ghraib photos came out. These photos depicted U.S. troops humiliating and harming Iraqi prisoners.
My Army lawyer friend said he had to explain this to his Afghan colleagues and that he told them the American justice system would find the wrongdoers and punish them. At the same time, he said it was a terrible moment for everyone working on rule of law and criminal justice in Afghanistan. Keep in mind that these crucial functions of governance are prime counter-terrorism activities.
Repeatedly, the most compelling condemnation of torture comes from those who experience the negative blowback first hand: diplomatic, military and intelligence personnel.
For years, the Army has criticized the practice, pointing out the negative consequences like further radicalization, recruitment and the damaged image of the USA. Like my Army lawyer friend, these individuals experience the second and third order negative effects of American domestic political choices.
These recent statements and timelines should dispel the false rumor that torture had much to do with Bin Laden’s demise. What we need to focus on now is how to move beyond this debate in the United States so that we can regain our stature in the world.
Our best chance to influence the outcome of recent Arab revolutions is to improve the practice of democracy here in the USA:
1. Credibility in the eyes of the world will require confidence-building investments here at home. U.S. health, education and critical infrastructure has suffered because of under-investment. These are key indicators of strength.
2. The USA must reverse its course toward becoming a junk bond nation. The huge disparity of wealth (1% of the population controls 40% of the resources) has huge negative consequences. Why should other countries take a risk on us if we won’t invest in ourselves?
3. Our national security budget priorities must change. Defense spending should never have become the jobs program that it is today, divorced from strategic concepts and requirements. Every state must form a sustainable security task force for economic conversion.
4. The Navy Seals may have the sexy headlines, but the killing of Bin Laden came from a renewed dedication to non-lethal security measures like dedicated intelligence analysis, police work, intelligence sharing and improved U.S. image.
5. Reinvent governance for the new era. Power is redistributing the world over. The U.S. government, including Congress, is more open and transparent than ever. Yet transparency does not equal accountability. Can we rise to this occasion?
We have so many challenges before us as a nation that we must move along. Bin Laden is dead. Now let’s dispose of the torture debate along with him.
Photo from horizontal.integration via flickr