Democrats: Make torture a campaign issue and values a theme


Who will raise the radioactive issue—torture—and restore America’s soul?

To gauge by the rising din of issue-talk, the 2006-08 electoral Games have begun. Candidates running for Congressional seats have already taken a few laps; the presidential candidates approach the stadium. This time the Republicans are fielding the weaker team, weakened by their own excesses. The Democrats, sensing a chance to take back the Congress and White House, are energized.

But, while energized, Democrats have yet to enunciate a vision, an articulation of a New Day distinct from the Republican wreckage. “Had enough?” is a start, but it is a reactive message. “We’re in this together” usefully points us toward the common good, away from the Bush administration’s radical selfishness, yet a vision remains to be stroked in. What Democrats have enunciated are their issues, leading with the war in Iraq and including national security, corruption, healthcare, immigration, minimum wage, energy independence, global warming.

Crucial as each issue is, another one—containing the key to a vision—is glaringly absent. Moral in nature and in plain view for two full years, that issue—the ultimate values issue —is: America engaging in torture. Taking it on, in the context of our bedrock values and a bad war (Iraq), would be truly transformative—and winning.

Underscoring torture as campaign keystone are two recent developments. One is the Supreme Court’s Hamdan decision which cited the administration for its use of torture as well as military tribunals—a stunning rebuke from the judiciary to a lawless executive.

The other development is a concession from George Bush himself. On May 25, Mr. Bush admitted that Abu Ghraib, infamous torture site, is “the biggest mistake” of his war with Iraq, adding, “We’ve been paying for that for a long period of time.” While such admission is appreciated—one could say Mr. Bush was “flip-flopped” by History—by no means does it absolve the administration of the damage done to the country. And, telling omission, Mr. Bush did not thereupon close Abu Ghraib. We should assume our government’s torture policy remains in force and its apparatus is being bureaucratized.

Which brings us to the moral point: shame. More than policy error, America’s descent into torture has brought shame to the nation and to us, the demos of this democracy. Our good name has been, to use an archaic but weighty term, besmirched. It follows then that, as much as they are a referendum on Mr. Bush, the coming elections are a referendum on We the People. For the common good of restoring America’s soul, then, torture must be added to the mix and we citizens must join in the debate. Doing so, we not only might restore ourselves spiritually but redefine the country post-9/11, recast the national security debate, square ourselves with History, and reunite. Yet no Democrat has indicated willingness to address torture. Nor has any Republican —yet. But, think about it: What is the one issue about which the Bush administration has been forced to consider reversing itself? Answer: torture, with the McCain anti-torture bill and the Court’s Hamdan decision. That the President undercut the McCain bill with a signing statement, and that, as to the Court, the White House’s draft response is to rewrite the War Crimes Act—to insulate itself against prosecution for war crimes, i.e. torture—only reinforces the torture issue’s centrality.

Thus Mr. Bush’s “biggest mistake” is a priceless gift to Democrats. But it’s a gift that requires assembling. Will the Democrats assemble it? The signs are not good, so let us assemble it here.

A brief history of shame

Detailing our descent into shame is not necessary; the mere mention of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, “extraordinary rendition,” the secret prisons the CIA operates around the world suffices. (At least it suffices for 76% of Americans. A new Pew Global Attitudes survey discloses that 24% of the public have never heard of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo.)

What needs emphasizing here is the depth of shame felt at the grassroots. For many Americans, Democrat and Republican, life became morally fraught with our invasion of Iraq and morally dismal when the images of Abu Ghraib hit our consciousness, in April 2004. Recall our thunderous outcry? It bespoke a moral compass knocked off its axis. Where once America led the world in human rights, there’s…not…much…we…can…say… now. The ignominy is killing the American soul.

So-called “realists” point out that torture happens in all wars, that Americans have tortured in the past. To which the reply is: But not as American policy. And—crucially —unlike in earlier eras, when people learned after the fact, this time we know during the fact. Via the media, the ugly fact that America engages in torture is, literally, in the room with us. Meaning: our soul is killed anew every day. Having such knowledge, then, requires action. As writer Mark Danner notes, we have more than enough information; what we need now is to act. In moral language, we need to redeem ourselves. And the only venue where we can do that—where immoral policy can be changed—is the political.

Regrettably—shamefully—leadership in the Congress has been lacking, apart from Senator McCain, who rightly says of torture, “It’s not about them, it’s about us.” Even in the ’04 presidential campaign—campaigns being nothing but about us—we did not get to engage the issue. George Bush understandably never mentioned it, while John Kerry, perhaps fearing more Swift-boating of his Vietnam experience or being debunked as “righteous,” demurred. And the Republicans won, crowing about “values.” This, from the party that flung this great nation into the pit! To values-proud Democrats, this claim enrages.

Moreover, the military continues to shirk accountability, administration lawyers brew defenses for “extreme measures,” artists have turned sideshow entertainers, and where has the Church been? Unchampioned, the torture issue has rumbled around our landscape like one of Goya’s beasts, combated with no more potent weapons than letters to the editor, columns, political cartoons, even reduced to irony on Jon Stewart’s popular fake-news show.

All of which explains why citizen protest against torture seemingly has gone to ground: There have been no champions to fight the good fight.

Opportunity for rebirth

But now, with a new set of elections, opportunity knocks again. Enough with avoidance, demurral, un-funny irony, anguish. Time to face the beast in the public square.

Best way to do that? In campaigns that explicitly make values—the rebirth of—a theme, with torture the illustrative case of “not.”

How more powerfully could Democrats distinguish themselves from Republicans, also peel off moderate Republicans from the far-right? (For that matter, how more powerfully could the Republican party realign itself?) Torture as the ne plus ultra moral issue is the tactical silver bullet. Besides, there’s continuity to picking up the “values” banner the Republicans wave and removing the quote-marks. It will take, or make, statesmanship.

Imagine the talking points, the imagery: “Torture is not an American value,” “Bush admits Abu Ghraib ‘the biggest mistake,'” “Had enough of shame?” “Had enough of fear?”

Imagine in the upcoming Congressional races, candidates promising, if Democrats take back Congress, to re-energize the oversight function and to launch investigations. How can we wait any longer to begin fixing accountability, opening up the secret prisons, stanching the shame? Far from revenge or paralysis, as Republicans assert such investigations would mean, Democrats could proudly claim them as restoration of honor.

And imagine at a presidential debate in ’08 Bob Schieffer asking the candidates: “Do you support, as a formal instrument of American policy, the practice of torture? If so, why, when, what kind, and how much? If not, why not?” In the response to this multiform question lies our salvation.

To get to that glorious point we need a two-year debate, between now and ’08, conducted in the public square: the spadework to hoist ourselves out of the pit. Imagine it—into the microphone and on the record:

Values recovered. In the news for two years yet going unaddressed, torture’s reality can escape us. But highlighted in a campaign, its techniques—forced feeding, stress positions, sexual humiliation, water-boarding (i.e., drowning), cumulatively known by the weasel term “torture-lite”—would readily register as un-American.

In fact, because torture has been so assiduously avoided, when finally faced in the public square it would provide powerful torque by which to recommit to our very deepest values. This improves on the axiom that campaigns be not just anti but pro, by converting the explosive negative energy surrounding the torture issue into liftoff: An emphatic NO to torture converts into an emphatic YES to justice, due process, right to counsel, adherence to law not men—the list is long and soul-saving, life-loving not death-loving, and radiates in all directions from the Constitutional ones cited here. That YES could get America off “the wrong track,” where a big majority of Americans feel the country has strayed, and headed back to the right track—united, Democrats and moderate Republicans—meanwhile isolating those who are OK with torture.

National security debate recast. National security divorced from bedrock values, conducted by adventurists with too much technology, leads to bad wars and bad methods, as the Bush administration’s sorry record shows. Especially in this new age of terrorism, when fear can be manipulated, our values must govern. Restating who we are as a people and who we are not, and what we value and what we do not, would re-establish a values-fueled engine to our national security efforts—by clarifying what specifically it is we are fighting for and the means we will use and, importantly, not use in defending it.

So, into the microphones, let us hear those who support torture, whether lite, medium, well-done: Torture not being an American value, the burden of proof is on them. Likewise, let us hear experts’ testimony on torture’s inutility. Let us also review the premises by which we go to war, the gravest action a nation can take. Pre-emptive war and regime change, the premises driving this administration’s adventurism, reflect an arrogance that is in our national character but is not a value. That arrogance needs reining in, both because it produces disastrous policy and, apropos national security, profound insecurity. These policy disasters—the Iraq war, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and now with the Israeli-Hezbollah crisis the perception in the Arab world that America arms Israel to kill more Arabs—may cause Republicans to talk up the economy. But in this age of terror, national security is central, and tougher, smarter Democrats will stress that. Karl Rove characterized Republicans as “warriors” and Democrats as “diplomats” and “therapists,” a swipe at peacemaking and empathy. The question to ask on the campaign trail is, “Feel safe with these warriors?” Our best national security lies in a moral and political regeneration that inspires the world’s admiration, not its rage.

Social contract renewed. Like most moral questions, torture is at bottom about how we treat other human beings. Treating detainees more humanely reinforces its obverse: how we treat our fellow citizens, notably the poorest, the neglect of whom Hurricane Katrina made vivid and the championing of whom is a traditional Democratic theme.

Popular culture refocused. With the public square debating moral values, the notion of a moral line might be reintroduced into pop culture. All manner of over-the-line, anything- goes behaviors—sexualized, violent—has moved from the margins into the mainstream and now dominates our movies, TV, video games. Five years after 9/11, when elevation is desperately needed, pop culture is largely “stuck on stupid,” asking “Art you hot?” and, touching on foreign policy, “Should we bomb Iran next?,” a question that zoomed around the Internet. In a new low, Slate praised a new TV sitcom in which a character, dressing for a date, gets “Abu Ghraibed-up.” Popular culture—”of the people” and at one time expressing our highest hopes and dreams—needs refreshing from the public square.

…and a big contradiction resolved. Campaigning against torture would force the religious right, the Republican base, to deal with its profound internal contradiction: How can it square Christian charity with policies resulting in suffering and death, such as torture and capital punishment? This hypocrisy—meanness masquerading as “values,” the “God-fearing” versus the “godless”—has snarled debate and brought shame to the nation. It is a burden the truly conscientious can bear no longer. (By the same sacred token of human life, pro-choice advocates should continue rethinking the suffering that abortion inflicts.) The religious right must also be pressed on their selective application of the Golden Rule: How would they like it if another country tried to force regime change on America?

In sum, there is so much to be gained—a New Day, a new Grand Strategy, a cultural Renaissance—if, and only if, we beat back the beast of moral error. Why the avoidance?

The radioactive “problem”

Because it is impossible to ignore this beast in our landscape—Abu Ghraib’s “Hooded Man” is now iconic—it must be assumed that political calculation accounts for the continued avoidance. Indeed, when one raises the topic in political circles, the response one gets is, “They’re afraid of it.” But if this plea accomplishes anything, it is to establish that We the People are not afraid to address torture and that we yearn for resolution. Besides—no taunt intended and with an understanding of the restrictions of the political machine: It is time to get courage.

Imagined from the candidate’s point of view, the radioactive problem of torture likely breaks out in three main ways:

The imperative of a positive agenda. Torture is the most negative of negatives, how to turn it into a positive? See again the section “Values recovered” above, with special attention to the energy to be harnessed in the YES!

The risk of personal blowback. Making a moral argument, goes the too-well-founded fear, risks blowback on the candidate’s own moral character and history. Oh the stone-throwing at one who, presuming to be without sin, throws the first stone. But: If the stone thrown back is labeled “Torture,” it forces the malodorous burden of proof back on the original “sinner.” In effect, it’s a simple return of merchandise. Republicans, who talk of “taking responsibility”—a good thing all around—must be forced to take responsibility for torture. (The more often Democrats speak of responsibility, the better.) As for the Swift-boaters, telling is less potent than showing: Show the Abu Ghraib photos.

The perception of not supporting the troops. Returning vets speak contemptuously of the guards at Abu Ghraib as “the guys who lost the war for us.” That contempt is moral outrage. Use it to elevate the rules-abiding troops above the criminals. And, pointing to the Court’s Hamdan decision, Democrats can argue for cessation of our use of torture and a return to the Geneva Conventions’ protections as the best possible way to support our troops in case of capture.

Additionally, Democrats may shy from talking morality because of the peccadillos of Bill Clinton, former president and now party rock star. Republicans will point out it was Clinton who flung us into the earlier-described moral pit with the Monica Lewinsky affair. Concede the point, then note how statesmanlike Clinton has become.

And if Democrats don’t make torture an issue? Republicans will again wave the “values” banner and Democrats will again get excoriated for lacking them (or as the newly-coined locution goes, “punk’d”). If that happens—again—watch for a major exodus from the party. Already Republicans are wooing “values voters” with wedge issues like flag-burning, gay marriage, the Pledge of Allegiance—no mention of torture.

And surely Democrats see what’s coming at them in ’08: a train named McCain. At the moment McCain is wooing the far right, but in two years’ time he can move back to the center and point, with pride, to his anti-torture bill and to his biography when as prisoner-of-war in Vietnam he endured torture. He can also reclaim his “It’s-not-about-them-it’s- about-us” argument and carry it to We the People. Torture, then, is the hinge issue. Not to use it, not to use Bush’s “biggest mistake” against the Republicans and leave it to John McCain to pick up would be the Democrats’ own biggest mistake.

The One Big Thing

The values theme, then, is a winner. So is competence: Given the Bush administration’s catastrophic incompetence in occupying Iraq and responding to Hurricane Katrina, the hyper-competent American is feeling depressingly inept. Democrats—tougher, smarter, more ept—could go miles and miles with the competence theme.

But enough with political calculation! There remains The One Big Thing: our moral redemption. Abu Ghraib is this war’s moral stain, about which History will ask: Knowing of this atrocity, what did America do about it? The alleged massacres committed by American troops at Haditha and Mahmoudiya, this war’s echo of My Lai, are being investigated; but torture is still ducked.

Already conservative columnist Max Boot argues that winning trumps all. Claiming—way too hopefully—that Americans’ “verdict on the war will not turn on what happened at Abu Ghraib or Haditha,” he writes, “The Bush administration can weather the excesses of some soldiers; it cannot survive the perception that we are losing” [emphasis mine]. This “moral” argument, reflecting a might-makes-right philosophy, is breathtaking in its insult to We the People.

Like any people, we Americans need to feel we are good, decent. Right now, knowing we have joined the Gallery of Torturers, and launched a bad war, we do not. We cannot “weather the excesses” of torture; we must put a stop to them, return to law. For America, above all else, is about an ideal: Always we have believed we could improve ourselves, reform, reinvent. And the world at one time looked to America as a force for good. But if we stay in this moral pit, adopting torture as standard practice, we will have bowed to a fatalism that violates our essential can-do, reinventive character. We cannot be forced into that fatalism by default, without a fight. Democrats must make it.

Making that fight—correcting Mr. Bush’s “biggest mistake” of torture—would show both the world and ourselves that, when it makes a mistake, American democracy can self-correct, that we can rescue ourselves. It would show that the Superpower takes its responsibilities as seriously as its rights (and its might). Charting this path would take us, not back to innocence, but to political and moral maturity. And, no small thing, it would make for a different-sounding campaign—a blessing in itself. But, more importantly, it would confer a bracing sobriety in place of the prevailing snarkiness and ironic hollow laughter. (The laughter is hollow because irony, saying the opposite of what you feel, is a hollowing exercise.)

Granted, charting this path to moral regeneration will not be easy, not least because Americans are schizoid on things moral. We speak of the value of values, yet are quick to mock the “righteous” voice…until, that is, we hear it. When we hear the real thing, we respond, as we did when Martin Luther King, Jr. exhorted us to align our treatment of the Negro with the high principles of the Bible and our nation’s founding.

The stage is set again for such statesmanship. In the race for Congress and the White House, we need candidates who speak to us not just of plans, but with the “prophetic imagination”; who can convert the NO to torture into a YES to what is best about us—our values; and who will stand up now, in this 2006-08 electoral season, when a course correction is still possible, rather than apologize to the world later in our decline.

In closing, we circle back to the original question: Who will raise the radioactive issue—torture—and restore America’s soul?

To quote those valiant souls of United Flight 93 who, on September 11, 2001, sacrificed themselves for the American ideal and who would despair of our moral fall: “Let’s roll.”