19 April 2009

A rose is a rose...

This one started life as an email, responding to distress of US friends over Obama's decision, a few days back along, not to prosecute torturers for actions committed in the past under legal advice. If the title seems strange, it was taken from the email subject line used by the first friend to comment: "Seems so clear that torture is torture, ... and immoral behavior still immoral."

I'm not naming any of those friends. Better to be paranoid than careless.

Nobody is more evangelically opposed to torture than I. But, while disappointed that torturers will go unpunished in this case, I'm not surprised – and, overall, encouraged by Obama's decisions.

I never believed that a new president could make much difference. I was pleased by the election of Obama, but thought all the unrealistic hope piled upon him would break his back. Now I have to revise my opinion slightly ... he is doing more than I thought possible, even if it is only a tiny amount.

While I would very much like to see past torturers brought to book, there is something much more important to me: ensuring that future torturers are prevented from plying their sickening trade. If I have to choose between those two aims, I have no hesitation in trading away the first to buy the second ... and that seems to be what Obama has done. In order to get out into the open the information which he needs in order to at least tackle the future, he has given a partial amnesty to the past. I say "partial" because his words leave carefully open the possibility of pursuing those who ordered or justified torture by others.

This is not a new idea and, quite apart from immediate practical politics, it has a long term value. South Africa's bloodless transition from apartheid horror to democratic state, however shaky, was made possible by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which uncovered and recognised abuses while firmly looking to a future without them rather than revenge for them.

Its creation was the result of a thorough review of previous mechanisms worldwide, taking into account their shortcomings and best practices. Also, the views and expectations of the South African civil society were taken into consideration, thereby conveying a sense of ownership. It was designed to initiate a process of reconciliation in order to unify the country after decades of racial and ethnic segregation. It considered that “the telling of the truth about gross human rights violations, as viewed from the different perspectives, facilitates the process of understanding our [South Africa’s] divided pasts, whilst the public acknowledgement of untold suffering and injustice helps to restore the dignity of victims and afford perpetrators the opportunity to come to terms with their own past.” The coming to terms with the past was seen as fundamental to promotion of national reconciliation and for building a new South Africa.[1]

One of the most dangerous fallacies around in the US today, particularly amongst Democrats and other liberals, is the idea that the evils to be confronted originated within the previous eight years. They did not. In particular, torture by the CIA or its collaborators abroad goes back to the very beginning of the organisation. People were being tortured in the interests of US foreign policy, often on a much larger scale, under every administration before Bush. The only thing that changed under Bush was public perception of and attitude to that fact. The public under Bush suddenly became willing to recognise what was being done in their name, and feel uncomfortable about it. As another friend commented, "And we became just as guilty once we knew what was going on and did little more than sit around with our mouths hanging open."[2]

Pretending that it was all down to Bush, or to the Neocons, or whoever, allows the underpinning obscenity to continue comfortably unchanged. What matters is to accept that the rot is there, forget about pinning blame for the past, and change the future.

To try and go after past torturers, however much I want to see it, would be an unachievably huge task. Obama is not, despite the apparent belief of his followers and detractors, either god or devil ; he is one human being who, apparently, seriously intends to try and make a contribution to turning around the huge inertia of a superpower. He is dealing in the art of the possible to maximise what he can do in the short period while he has his hands on the levers of power. If he can bring about an irreversible reduction in the amount of torture which happens in the future, we will have more for which to thank him than if he stages a series of retrospective show trials.

  1. Paavani Reddy, "Truth and Reconciliation Commissions: Instruments for Ending Impunity and Building Lasting Peace", in United Nations Chronicle, 2004, issue 4 (April), p.19.
  2. My usual disclaimer: I am not under any illusion that the US is alone in this; most liberal democracies play dirty behind the scenes on the foreign policy stage. The US is simply the biggest and most powerful liberal democracy – and the present subject.


Dr. C said...

I appreciate the perspective from across the pond. The points are well taken. However, I think there is a qualitative difference between the Bush torture memos and what went before. The mere existence of the memos themselves, memos where torture was discussed and approved at the very highest levels, I think is unprecedented. If not, and there are memos like this from every administration, then bring them forth and let America have its catharsis.

Felix Grant said...

You're right, of course; if there are such memos from previous administrations, I don't know of them.

I suppose their existence could be argued either way (brazen or honest) but they produce chilling echoes of totalitarian bureaucracies over here.