Monday, 13 July 2009

Torture is the Rule, Justice the Exception. America Should be Exceptional

It's worth taking a few moments to read the thoughts of (the outstanding blogger) Hilzoy on the question of prosecutions for torture under the Bush Administration. Here's the core argument:

People around the world are not under any illusions about whether or not we tortured people. They know that we did, and that fact has already, and rightly, done enormous damage to our image.

What they don't know is whether we are prepared to do anything about it. Do we just lecture other people about their shortcomings, or are we ready to face up to our own? Most of the people I've met abroad assume that we will do nothing. They don't think this because of any particular dislike of the United States; they just assume that that is the way things work. If we do not hold anyone to account for any of the crimes that were committed under the last administration, they will not be surprised.

If we do hold people to account, on the other hand, that will make an impression.
I think that's a good point - and an important one.

Torture has been a tool of the powerful for millenia, and is still routine practice in much of the world. Although it's not an effective tool for securing reliable and usable intelligence, it's a great way to extract false confessions or other information to confirm what the torturer already believes to be true. For this reason, the powerful are always reluctant to give it up - everyone likes to have their assumptions "proven" correct.

But over the past few centuries, Western society has slowly but surely been building a philosophy of government that, nominally at least, respects the rights of the individual citizen enough to make torture morally and ethically repugnant. At least, that is, within our own borders.

It's worth remembering that in many respects America has not even come close (has not even tried) to living up to these ideals in our relations overseas - thus for many countries their main experience of the US is CIA supported Coups to overturn their democratically elected leaders, or our tendancy to speak stirring words about the evils of torture whilst handing over our prisoners to their dictatorial rulers to be tortured for us.

So, understandably, much of the world is not too impressed when America talks about its values and ideals - they've never seen us living up to them.

If they saw a former US President and Vice President get a fair and impartial trial and potentially even be convicted for torturing Muslim detainees, that would be a pretty high profile example of standing by our principles, come hell or high water.

BUT: in terms of public perceptions overseas and credibility here at home, any such investigation and prosecution must be handled at arms length by the administration. After all, if Obama agressively pursues criminal investigation of a former administration that could look like just another example of lese majeste - the new power in town showing his muscle by beating up on the defeated party.

No, it should be handled calmly, without rushing, ideally by appointing a genuinely independant prosecutor who will operate outside of the administration's purview. Meanwhile, Obama can get on with the work of the nation without distraction.

And it turns out that this is exactly what is likely to happen.