Torture, witch hunts and the 9/11 nightmare – By JOHN IBBITSON
From Wednesday’s Globe and Mail
Barack Obama is trying to avoid a witch hunt of the previous administration, while still holding it accountable for authorizing the torture of suspected terrorists.
If something must be done, he prefers a commission of investigation, such as that struck after 9/11, to avoid excessive partisanship.
But congressional Democrats may well defy him. And veterans of the Bush White House are counterattacking, with former vice-president Dick Cheney demanding that, if the President is going to release memos detailing acts of torture, as he did last week, then he should also release memos showing the results of those interrogations.
“I know specifically of reports that I read, that I saw, that laid out what we learned through the interrogation process and what the consequences were for the country,” Mr. Cheney told Sean Hannity on Fox News.
This is a mess.
It’s a mess because controversies such as these can overwhelm the public agenda. And it’s a mess because, rather the acknowledging that the torture of suspected terrorists is a complex moral dilemma, most people simply apply reflexive prejudice – and arrive at false certainties.
So, just for a minute, let’s try to put this problem in context. Then we can all go back to ranting pro or con, as we please.
During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, which prevents the government from, among other things, arbitrarily detaining people deemed a threat to the state. “Are all the laws, but one, to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated?” he asked Congress.
Federal governments have violated civil rights in time of war ever since, with varying degrees of constitutional justification. Woodrow Wilson suspended freedom of speech during the First World War. Franklin Roosevelt forced Japanese Americans into internment camps during the Second World War.
After the attacks on New York and Washington, the Bush administration – sometimes with the assent of Congress, sometimes on its own volition – greatly expanded the federal government’s powers to investigate, detain and interrogate suspected terrorists.
This raises questions. Was the United States at war after Sept. 11, 2001? If so, who was it at war with? Is it at war now? If it’s not, when did the war end?
And if it was and still is at war, to what extent does that justify the suspension of civil liberties?
Mr. Obama said yesterday that, while the United States is “confronted with an enemy that doesn’t have scruples, that isn’t constrained by constitutions,” nonetheless, the torture memos “reflected, in my view, us losing our moral bearings.”
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