9-11, Torture, And The Boston Marathon

Today,  less than a full day after the horrible terrorist bombing of the Boston Marathon (no link; it’s all just speculation and grief-porn at this point, plus it’s been all over the news – you can’t have missed it), the New York Times obtained a pre-release copy of a 577-page report from a non-partisan organization called the Constitution Project headed by former Bush administration Undersecretary of Homeland Security Asa Hutchinson, concerning the so-called “enhanced interrogation” methods employed at the behest of the Bush administration in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course, the timing of the report and the bombing in Boston are a coincidence. Yet it seems somehow appropriate that a damning report concluding that the last time the United States was exposed to a significant terrorist attack on our soil we allowed ourselves to respond by lowering ourselves to employing torture, comes on the heels of a very similar kind of test for the United States. According to the Times, the report concludes, unequivocally, that the United states tortured:

The sweeping, 577-page report says that while brutality has occurred in every American war, there never before had been “the kind of considered and detailed discussions that occurred after 9/11 directly involving a president and his top advisers on the wisdom, propriety and legality of inflicting pain and torment on some detainees in our custody.”

I debated for quite a while whether to make the last letter of my previous sentence an S or a D, whether torture is something we did, or something we might still do. In the end, I chose the D, even though it’s always possible future events may reveal me as having been not cynical enough. Because when it comes to something as detestable and immoral as torture, I have to be able to hope that this thorough, damning review from the Constitution Project will allow the debate to be refocused from whether what we did was torture onto a recognition that yes, we did torture — and are we really (or do we want to be) the kind of country that does such things, openly? I say that despite the miscalculation, overreach and perhaps even ill intent revealed in this report of a few of the decision-makers in the recent past, we are not that kind of country, and we do not want to be. We are better than that. I am. You are. We all are. For a long time in America, we used to think that two oceans, the longest undefended border with a friendly country in the world, and the biggest, baddest military in history made us immune from what is sadly a too-common experience in the rest of the world. 9/11 shattered that sense, and because it was new and unfamiliar and frightening to us, we allowed some of our leaders to make part of the deliberate national reaction to it an abhorrent set of acts: torture. Sadly, yesterday in Boston reminded us again, as nothing I can think of since 9/11 has, that even if our old sense of immunity from the world’s ills was ever true (which I doubt), it no longer is. Terrorism happens. Yet it seems to me that this time, something is different. Yesterday in Boston, as that now-familiar sense of surprise, confusion and sudden tragedy we all remember from 9/11 instantly overcame the crowd nearly as quickly as the smoke from the bombs themselves, we saw (as Patton Oswalt observed in his now-famous viral facebook post) dozens of people running toward – not away from – the carnage and destruction. To help. To bind wounds and stop bleeding and offer comfort and help find lost loved ones. Earlier finishers of the marathon who were suffering dehydration and were in the medical tents receiving intravenous fluids ripped the IVs out of their own arms to make room for the much more-grievously wounded from the bomb blasts. Heroism during tragedy isn’t new, nor is it uniquely American. There are plenty of stories of heroism and generosity from 9/11. But in the immediate aftermath of yesterday’s bombings, there seemed to be less of the 9/11 sense of panicky disbelief (both at the scene and in the general population watching via the media), of “how could this possibly happen,” and more of a sense of “oh my God, this happened — let’s go help.” Because we’re better than that. The change from post-9/11 to yesterday wasn’t limited to those in Boston, either. All over the Internet, notorious for its extreme, ill-considered and anonymous bashing, there was a sense of tension and loss…but also of restraint. Not everywhere, but it was noticeable, widespread. John Cole at Balloon Juice, a former conservative pseudo-warblogger in the wake of 9/11, urged his readers:

I refuse to be scared. You should too. I am going to sit here in my house and watch a show or two, then go to bed, and while I can commiserate with the wounded and dead and the horrible grief their loved ones must be experiencing, I am not going to spend the next couple weeks freaking out, because that is what the bombers and the war pigs want.

When President Obama addressed the nation and his speech did not contain the word “terrorism,” and some of his usual enemies started up with the talk that the President was weak, even as wounds were still being tended in Boston, that reaction was repudiated and shunned. Even amongst many of the people who continue to be among Obama’s most vocal opponents, it wasn’t business-as-usual. RedState’s founder Erick Erickson tweeted:

Sorry folks, I’m not interesting in beating up the President today. God bless him. He’s got his work cut out for him.

We’re learning. We’re remembering that we’re better than that. We’re better than the despicable means employed by violent cowards like Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Mohammed Atta and whoever did this yesterday to make us afraid or divide us or force us to do something they want…or maybe just make us like them. Here’s the thing, though: we’re also better than the worst of our own instincts and reactions, and that means we’re better than the equally despicable (not to mention ineffective) means of preventing future attack through authorizing the use of torture. If any good can come out of the confluence of such a tragedy as yesterday’s bombing and the revelation that the country we all love so much engaged in some of the worst acts possible, let it be that we continue to learn how to respond to such tragedies without losing our bearings, our sense of what makes us human — our souls, if you wish. As much despair as yesterday provided us all, much like 9/11 did, it also provided me that hope. I have to believe that as the findings of this report from the Constitution Project become conventional wisdom – that what the Bush Administration’s carefully-crafted legal rationalizations after 9/11 enabled (no, compelled) representatives of the United States of America to do on our behalf in both Iraq and Afghanistan falls within the definition of torture – that the debate we’ve had on whether “enhanced interrogation” was
legal, or was torture, or was justifiable, will be over. I have to believe we have all learned enough since 9/11 that the next time one of our leaders or influential figures says something like this:

We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in, and so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.

…their words will find no purchase. Their suggestions will be shunned and repudiated across the board, because enough people will remember, will have learned, that what such words really mean will end up here (from the Times’ story on the Constitution Project’s report):

The use of torture, the report concludes, has “no justification” and “damaged the standing of our nation, reduced our capacity to convey moral censure when necessary and potentially increased the danger to U.S. military personnel taken captive.” The task force found “no firm or persuasive evidence” that these interrogation methods produced valuable information that could not have been obtained by other means. While “a person subjected to torture might well divulge useful information,” much of the information obtained by force was not reliable, the report says.

We. Are. Better. Than. That.

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