Today is Barack Obama’s second inauguration day. Four years ago, I sat in a McDonald’s watching it online and wrote this. Today, I’m in a bagel shop (or at least I was when I started this), but I’m not watching. I’m not celebrating. And I’m not hopeful.
Those of you who know me may have noticed that I was pretty quiet during the election, not just on the blog, but everywhere. The simple fact is, that while he was orders of magnitude better than Mitt Romney, I simply couldn’t bring myself to support Obama. So I didn’t go out and knock on doors. I didn’t pass on much in the way of political information.
I didn’t even vote.
Here’s the bald simple truth: Obama’s political career should have ended in disgrace today. He shouldn’t have even been the Democratic nominee. His and his administration’s failures in policy and action are too numerous to give but a partial list of here, and range from disappointing and astonishing to comical. But ultimately, my decision was made by his failure to close the Guantanamo detention camp, and his failure to conclusively put and end to the United States’ use of torture, and to prosecute those individuals who committed it and those who ordered it.
Let me make my position on torture absolutely clear: it is an abomination. There is no place for it in society. There is no excuse for it, no matter how important the information, or how desperate the circumstances.
This is not a point on which reasonable people can disagree. This is, as far as I’m concerned, a litmus test that you have to pass to be eligible for “reasonable person” status. If you believe torture has a use in intelligence gathering or interrogation, or in the policies and practices of the United States, you have failed at some fundamental level to actually be a civilized human being.
This is not about taking an “I’m better than you are” position. I understand the temptation. If the only issue was what I felt was deserved, there are a handful of people who I would quite happily spend weeks doing horrible things to, not even to gain information, but because of the horrible things they have done to people important to me. If I someone or something I cared deeply about were in imminent danger, I do not doubt that I would be willing in that moment to do just about anything to try and fix that. The impulses for violence, for revenge, and for desperate action in defense of what we love, are in all of us to one extent or another. But that doesn’t make it right.
Certainly, many of the attacks against our country have been horrifying in both scope and tactics, and compared to them torture may not seem to be as significant, or might even seem justified. We have to be better than that. We have to be better than our enemies. Better at making war when the situation calls for it, yes. But better at peace and justice as well. We have to trust that our ideals are strong enough to hold up to things that test them; that information is not worth torturing people until we hear what we want to hear; that placing a zealot on trial and laying the facts out for all the world to see is better than letting them rot in a hole for the rest of their lives; that letting a madman spout his hate on the witness stand is better than shooting him in the dark and dumping him at sea. Because otherwise, what the hell are we fighting for?
Even if you could somehow excuse the inhumane treatment for the sake of information, it’s simply not effective. Information gained from torture is unreliable at best and often outright lies told either to deliberately mislead or to simply end the pain at the hands of an interrogator who won’t believe the truth. Evidence obtained under torture is not admissible in court (a fact that probably explains the failure to transfer detainees from Guantanamo to the civilian court system). It is illegal under the laws of the United States (where in saner days, precedent held that “the torturer has become, like the pirate and the slave trader before him, hostis humani generis, an enemy of all mankind.”) It is illegal under the Geneva conventions, and the UN Conventions Against Torture (of which the US is a signatory) which eliminates the fig leaf of cover generated by decreeing captives not affiliated with a state as ineligible for protection under the Geneva Conventions. Indeed, in the past “enhanced interrogation techniques” as they are called these days were considered war crimes, and the US prosecuted those who performed them.
Which brings this from an idealistic point to a practical one. Our use of torture and our failure to prosecute it erodes protections for our soldiers and citizens should they fall in to enemy hands. We have no moral standing to object to techniques that we have used, often with the flimsiest of evidence, on anyone who happened to fall into our custody.
It is my firm belief that George W Bush, along with other members of his administration, as well as members of the intelligence services and military that followed their orders, are guilty of war crimes, by the standards we ourselves set and followed in saner days. At a minimum, by failing to prosecute these crimes, President Obama failed to execute his oath of office to enforce the laws and treaty obligations of the United States. He is not alone in this. The Attorney General, either on his own or on orders from the President, did the same. Politicians from both sides have, even while railing against the use of torture have advocated sweeping the whole thing under the rug. (I hope that in days to come, McCain’s position that these were people “admirably dedicated to protecting the American people from harm” will take its place alongside “just following orders” as one of the most morally and intellectually bankrupt things ever said.) But it was the I-beam that broke the camel’s back, as it were.
And I know, there’s a strong argument against my refusal to vote, laid out by my friend Chris Bird here, but which boils down to “Mitt Romney was about eleventy billion orders of magnitude worse,” and I agree with it. And I tried, I tried hard, to make that be enough.
But there comes a point where even the lesser evil is too much to bear. I couldn’t put aside my disgust at the actions and inaction of the last four years for long enough to vote for four more years of them. So I did the best I could under the circumstances, and I stayed quiet, rather than spread my discontent. And, at the end of the evening, I shared this view. But I’m hoping I can get through the next four years without feeling like I should put my ITMFA shirt back on.
I’m still disgusted by the refusal of our elected officials to confront the horror of what was done in our name, and the way large portions of it seem to continue to this day, from warrantless wiretapping of US citizens to holding people we know to be innocent in prison camps. I fear for my country, for what we are becoming and what we might do.
Even more, I am afraid of the way so many people are willing to ignore it. Do they not care? Worse, do they agree with it? Do they watch “Zero Dark Thirty” and cheer the lies that open the movie rather than be ashamed and disgusted by them? Do they not care that foreigners and US citizens alike are being imprisoned, tortured, and even killed because of their associations with people or groups the US Government doesn’t like, or because they might back up their rhetoric with action at some point?
My fear for my country is increasingly becoming fear of my country, and that’s the scariest thing of all.
Note: This post is informed by public events as well as discussions I have had with individuals. If you see fragments of some of our conversations in this post, do not assume that my conclusions or judgments are aimed at you without further clarification.