Resetting our moral compass with a torture commission
How absolutely apt—and to some of us, no surprise—that the torture issue has become the defining issue of this moment in post-9/11 America, early in the Obama presidency. Thanks to the conscientious public, to human-rights organizations, and to influential voices in the media, torture—the demand for an accounting of America’s use of it since 9/11—remains prominent on the national agenda and shows no signs of going away.
And now, with Attorney General Eric Holder reportedly considering criminal prosecution, the torture issue gathers even more force.
And no wonder—for this elemental reason: Torture is a moral issue. And moral issues, being about the rightness and wrongness of things, don’t go away. They must be confronted, if wrong is to be converted to right. If swept aside, they become the python under the carpet, forever haunting and—this is the thing about moral issues—alive.
Criminal prosecution—to mete out justice and accountability—is one way to confront the python. But to reset our moral compass, something America desperately needs to do, another path—the investigative commission—is superior to the adversarial courtroom.
In the media storm to come, these two options will likely be set up as an either/or choice: either prosecution or a “truth” commission. But is there any reason why the choice can’t be both/and? For justice and a moral reset, why can’t we pursue both paths?
In this context, President Obama’s initial preference to leave the torture issue alone, not to look backward but go forward, becomes increasingly untenable. The president is playing moral chess, as he must: As chief executive he cannot be seen as the avenger on his predecessor. But having put himself forth as a moral voice—in the campaign, he promised if elected to stop torture; in his first full day in office, he delivered—Obama can allow himself to be “nudged” by public demand, and now by his attorney general.
As to a commission, the model of course is the 9/11 Commission, independent and nonpartisan, universally lauded both for the history and recommendations it mapped out and for its judicious proceedings. As noted in its report, the commission understood at the outset it was “looking backward in order to look forward,” with the hope that a backward look would make America “wiser.” Similarly, a first task for a Commission on Torture would be to chart the history of America’s descent to torture—how we departed from the rule of law, the United Nations Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions and how, with Obama’s executive order banning torture, we returned to law.
Of necessity, terminology would be clarified—the subject is not “enhanced interrogation” but torture—and methods reviewed, including waterboarding and “walling,” the technique whereby a detainee’s head is rammed against a wall. No doubt in the bright sunlight of a public forum and no doubt if the American soldier (Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl) now held captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan is tortured or killed, there would be fewer voices arguing that torture “works” (though former Vice President Dick Cheney, advocate-at-large, no doubt would volunteer). At long last, the utility versus morality argument would be joined, with testimony taken from decision-makers who approved torture, as well as moral thinkers, ethicists, theologians, historians, diplomats and the conscientious public.
As important as it is to set down history and argument though, what we do with the knowledge gained is even more important. Looking backward will make us wiser only if we use our new knowledge wisely.
Perhaps the wisest use would be to reset our moral compass. With the torture issue thrashed out in the public square, a Commission on Torture could serve as a prompt for a moral reset of whole swaths of the American scene—including, notably, groups notionally ethics-based:
- Doctors and psychologists assisted in torture sessions. How could members of the healing professions consent to participate?
- Lawyers for the Bush administration concocted legal justifications for torture. How did the Department of Justice become the Department of Expediency? (Some lawyers working in national security assert a Commission on Torture would have a “chilling effect” on their actions, to which one can only say: Good, any notions of bending the law to immoral ends should be chilled.)
- Churchgoers approve torture in greater percentages than non-churchgoers, by 54 to 42 percent, according to a recent study of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. For the love of God, how could this be possible? (The National Religious Coalition against Torture, NRCAT, asks this and other questions.)
- Artists by and large have been silent on America’s descent into torture. How could putative humanists not speak out? Moral artists need to fight their way forward.
Will we redeem ourselves, root and branch? The world is watching, for America is the world’s showcase democracy. In descending to torture, we erred; in truth, the moral line was fudged long ago, before the Bush era. We need—finally—to get right. And getting right, recovering America’s good name, is not a “distraction,” as the Obama White House must know.
My grandmother, a great moral teacher, often said, “The only way out is through.” Best way through—to redemption—is an investigative commission. Both the moment and the momentum are with us. Let us proceed.
Carla Seaquist’s book, “Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character,” will be published by Morgan-Guidinger Press this month. She lives in Gig Harbor.