Devotion-to-principle is best tested under pressure, whether on a personal or national scale. Do we rise to the occasion, or sacrifice what we stand-for in favor of some expedient? Moral leadership and actions are easy in the hypothetical case; they are much harder when character is actually in-play.
So, now we have to absorb the meaning of the Senate Report on Torture. Hopefully, the process that most Americans will go through begins with 'Horrified' and ends with 'Resolve' ? a commitment that this will not ever happen again in our names. The CIA, however ? the Agency that MOST needs to learn these lessons ? seems to be going through Five Stages of Woe in a desperate attempt to learn nothing. Their arguments go something like these:
First: "these (agents) are Good People." Those words were actually attributed to the former Prez, under whose tenure these abuses occurred. They were uttered as part of a pre-emptive strike, days before the report itself issued. I had almost forgotten the mediocrity of his analytical powers. Many CIA personnel ? even the vast majority of them -- ARE Good People, including some who were required to actually carry-out the torture.
But two points need to be made here: Good People sometimes do bad things, particularly when they operate within weak ethical systems. The fact that no one intervened is an indictment of the Groupthink mindset that enabled this catastrophe. Also, 'just following orders' is a time-worn and -dishonored defense. It doesn't work to absolve anyone. Those facilitators, up and all the way down the chain of command, are going to have to find some way to live with what they've done. It's a long, soul-wrenchingly difficult process.
Second: To the extent the Report is even true, it was necessary to get good information, under ticking time-bomb conditions. (I'm paraphrasing here.)
Yes, we were/are under stress, anger and grief. And that is precisely when it's critically important to have systems in place to resist our/everybody's basest instincts. Otherwise, we sink to the level of our attackers, whom we characterize as brutal, cowardly barbarians. Are we better than that? Only if we act the part.
Further, the claim that 'good information was gained' was thoroughly debunked in the Report. One of the CIA's ongoing courses of misconduct was to try to maintain this illusion. Only trouble is: it.just.ain't.true. Indeed, the Agency itself, in saner circumstances, had earlier rejected the use of torture as ineffective and even counter-productive ? leading their agents down rabbit holes opened by torturees who will say anything to make it stop. They should have listened to their own advice and disavowed these discredited brutalities.
Third: It's too dangerous to air this filthy laundry: it puts our interests and our people at-risk. These revelations are so horrible, the argument goes, that Americans will now be newly subjected to them. There's also a belittling claim that Any alternatives would have been coddling those fellow human beings in our custody.
This approach is mere deflection ? a diverting mirror in the smoke-and-mirrors playbook. As the departing Intelligence Committee Chair, our own Senator DiFi said, and she's right: "there is no good time to bring this out, but we must." The evil is in the several-year conspiracy of torture, cover-up lies and deceit ? it is NOT in the plot's revelation. Sometimes, dark humor is brilliantly instructive ? in that regard, Andy Borowitz' latest take on this absurdity is recommended reading.
Any direct reprisals from this report will also be brief ? captors will do what they'll do ? without taking direction from failed tactical programs of the CIA. Somebody, somewhere may indeed get a rectal infusion because we administered them, but mankind's abilities to devise humiliations and inflict suffering are nearly infinite. I truly doubt that torturers gained much insight or inspiration from this Report (And I could have died a happy man without ever knowing about rectal infusions).
Fourth: "well, if you take all the captives all over the world, we're still better than average." This was heard on PBS from a former CIA flack and apologist ? delivered with a completely straight face. It attempts to provide context in a race to the bottom of human depravity.
Really? Is that a claim which, if true, would be explanatory or proud? "USA! We're Number About Average!" Is this the standard of world moral leadership to which America aspires? The world is a cruel and inhumane place, yes indeed ? which argues Better leadership, not worse. Those who fear slippery slope-itude elsewhere might want to ponder this well-greased angle ? how far down ought we to go -- and when, or how, will we stop?
And finally (I hope): "we knew all this already ? the Report really isn't very significant." I call this the Officer Barbrady defense, as heard from someone else on KQED's Forum yesterday. It attempts to call this old news, and hardly worthy of serious citizens' sustained attention.
Calling this situation anything like 'business as usual' is a scary thing. It's not so. It keeps company with the incidents like the My Lai massacre and internment of Japanese Americans in our national conscience, in terms of its tragic flagrance. It needs to be studied, and processed, and learned from, and practiced at a baseline policy level ? not swept out with yesterday's scraps. This 'insignificance' claim also begs the question of why the Agency worked so strenuously, and illegally, to compromise the fact-finding process, and head-off the eventual publication of these findings. Methinks they doth protest way too much.
All these tactics are predictable, I suppose. Acknowledging truth, accepting accountability and taking serious steps to ensure that We the People will never again to be so shamed in front of the world by our official representatives, is an arduous process. It's made worse by clinging to Any of the stages of woe.
The best thing I've see written on this topic comes from David Cole, writing "Taking Responsibility for Torture", in The New Yorker. I wish I could claim it, or improve it, but I can at least reproduce it for your reflection:
"The report's central lesson is that when government officials abandon the obligation to treat human beings with dignity, that decision will corrode all that follows. Jeremy Waldron, a professor at N.Y.U. Law School, has argued that the prohibition on torture is absolute because it is central to the idea of the rule of law. The Senate report is a vivid confirmation of that insight. The C.I.A.'s decision to use torture tainted everything it did in connection with the program. What began as an effort to find out the truth about terrorist threats led to the C.I.A. repeatedly lying to cover up its own wrongs.
The report's depiction of the agency's abuses and deceptions unquestionably does the American public a great service. As Senator John McCain noted in a floor statement after the report's release, "'Our enemies act without conscience. We must not. This executive summary ? makes clear that acting without conscience isn't necessary, it isn't even helpful, in winning this strange and long war we're fighting. We should be grateful to have that truth affirmed.'"
Let the great uncomfortable, and necessary national soul-searching begin.