Why we can't just move on

If you're tired of hearing about torture -- memos and reports and disputes about waterboarding and so on -- you should be. As Mark Danner explains in his New York Review of Books article "The Red Cross Torture Report: What it Means":

...the broader discussion of torture is by now in its essential outlines nearly five years old, and has become, in its predictably reenacted outrage and defiant denials from various parties, something like a shadow play.

News of the "black sites" first appeared prominently in the press -- on the front page of The Washington Post -- in December 2002. A year and a half later, after the publication and broadcast of the Abu Ghraib photographs -- the one moment in the last half-dozen years when the torture story, thanks to the lurid images, became "televisual" -- a great wave of leaks swept into public view hundreds of pages of "secret" documents about torture and the Bush administration's decision-making regarding it. There have been many important "revelations" since, but none of them has changed the essential fact: by no later than the summer of 2004, the American people had before them the basic narrative of how the elected and appointed officials of their government decided to torture prisoners and how they went about it.

So why are we still talking about it? First, because of the enormous cost of the Bush Administration's policies -- the policies that were supposed to be keeping us safe and advancing democracy throughout the world:

Torture has undermined the United States' reputation for respecting and following the law and thus has crippled its political influence. By torturing, the United States has wounded itself and helped its enemies in what is in the end an inherently political war -- a war, that is, in which the critical target to be conquered is the allegiances and attitudes of young Muslims. And by torturing prisoners, many of whom were implicated in committing great crimes against Americans, the United States has made it impossible to render justice on those criminals, instead sentencing them -- and the country itself -- to an endless limbo of injustice.

And second, because official news outlets, even in the face of a report as stark as the one Danner unpacks here -- and in his earlier article, "U.S. Torture: Voices from the Black Sites" -- still defer to Bush Administration officials' claims that the U.S. never tortured, and the "enhanced interrogation techniques" they authorized were vital to our safety.

It is a testament as much to the peculiarities of the American press -- to its "stenographic function" and its institutional unwillingness to report as fact anything disputed, however implausibly, by a high official -- that the former vice-president's insistence that these interrogations were undertaken "legally" and "in accordance with our constitutional practices and principles" continues to be reported without contradiction, and that President Bush's oft-repeated assertion that "the United States does not torture" is still respectfully quoted and, in many quarters, taken seriously. That they are so reported is a political fact, and a powerful one. It makes it possible to contend that, however adamant the arguments of the lawyers "on either side," the very fact of their disagreement makes the legality of these procedures a matter of partisan political allegiance, not of law.

This is the situation that Dick Cheney et al. are exploiting now that they are out of office. When Cheney goes on television to insist darkly, "If it hadn't been for what we did....then we would have been attacked again," he can simultaneously insist that we take his word for it, because backing up his claims would require releasing information crucial to America's safety. As Danner notes, "Cheney's story is made not of facts but of the myths that replace them when facts remain secret: myths that are fueled by allusions to a dark world of secrets that cannot be revealed."

That's why Obama's decision to release the "torture memos" is an important step, in the country's best interests. And that's why suggestions that he's somehow hurting America by airing the facts are naked political ploys -- even if you find them on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.

If you're trying to follow along with the latest revelations, Andrew Sullivan posted a roundup earlier today of reactions from around the Internet -- and offered his own take here. But I haven't found any analysis more helpful than Danner's article, with its candid reporting on what the Red Cross found in 2007, and his explanation for why it's vital to air the facts, ugly as they are. As Christians, of course, we ought to oppose torture simply because it's morally repugnant. But Danner argues that it's vital in the political arena to answer the question of whether torture "works" (as Cheney insists it has).

Investigating what kind of intelligence torture actually yielded is not a popular task: those who oppose torture do not like to admit that it might, in any way, have "worked"; those who support its use don't like to admit that it might not have. It is a regrettable but undeniable fact that torture's illegality, or the political harm it may do to the country's reputation, is not sufficient to discourage the willingness of many Americans to countenance it. However one might prefer that this be an argument about legality or morality, it is also an argument about national security and, in the end, about politics. However much one agrees with President Obama that Cheney's "notion" that "somehow...we can't reconcile our core values, our Constitution, our belief that we don't torture, with our national security interests," [sic: words missing] the fact is that many people continue to believe the contrary, and this group includes the former president and vice-president of the United States and many senior officials who served them....The only way to defuse the political volatility of torture and to remove it from the center of the "politics of fear" is to replace its lingering mystique, owed mostly to secrecy, with authoritative and convincing information about how it was really used and what it really achieved. That this has not yet happened is the reason why, despite the innumerable reports and studies and revelations that have given us a rich and vivid picture of the Bush administration's policies of torture, we as a society have barely advanced along this path. We have not so far managed, despite all the investigations, to produce a bipartisan, broadly credible, and politically decisive effort, and pronounce authoritatively on whether or not these activities accomplished anything at all in their stated and still asserted purpose: to protect the security interests of the country.

The article makes for grim weekend reading. But it is well worth your time.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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