Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

As the Senate report on the CIA’s interrogation program comes closer to publication, truths are finally being extracted – not from suspected terrorists, but from publishers and politicians.

The New York Times announced last Thursday that the paper will finally drop the euphemism “enhanced interrogation” in favor of “torture” to describe “incidents in which we know for sure that interrogators inflicted pain on a prisoner in an effort to get information.”

That puts the Times only a week behind President Obama, who conceded the debate himself at a press conference, when he admitted, “We tortured some folks.” He quickly followed this admission with a warning not to draw the wrong lessons from the abuses:

I understand why it happened. I think it’s important when we look back to recall how afraid people were after the Twin Towers fell and the Pentagon had been hit and the plane in Pennsylvania had fallen, and people did not know whether more attacks were imminent, and there was enormous pressure on our law enforcement and our national security teams to try to deal with this. And it’s important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had. And a lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots.

It’s no coincidence that Obama uses “folks” to refer both to the people tortured and the people doing the torturing. Both uses are distancing and anonymous. There’s no mention of the individuals who were made to undergo simulated drowning (some over a hundred times) or the specific people who signed off on these procedures.

People in both groups have names. And neither group can be accurately treated as a mere matter of historical debate. The torturers have a present, stretching into a future – they walk about, free from legal and social penalties. The victims of tortures have a different present – many of them still incarcerated, some undergoing further agonies – restrained, with feeding tubes forced down their noses, procedures which the United Nations has labeled torture, and which prompted a Navy nurse to refuse to participate in force feeding). 

Nevertheless, Obama’s rhetoric consigns them firmly to the past, impossible to interact with. Only a little tweaking is needed to imagine Barabas’s protest from The Jew of Malta in Obama’s mouth: “Torture? But that was in another country; and besides the wench is dead.”

Forced by the facts to talk in terms of “torture,” Obama still managed to keep obfuscating the issue in his statement. The specific weasel words change, but the sentiment remains the same. If Obama means to reassure us that torture was a hard, but necessary choice, he still shouldn’t be warning us about the danger of sanctimony.

Sanctimony is what we feel about other folks’ sins – people who are far enough away for us to scoff at. But the abuses that Obama has finally correctly described as torture weren’t committed by anyone far enough away to allow us to feel a Pharisaical pride that we are not like these tax collectors and torturers.

These crimes against international law and human dignity were committed in the last ten years by Americans operating under the protection and direction of our government. We’re hardly discussing the sins of the father being visited on even the first generation, let alone the third and fourth.

If Obama were honest, he’d say, “It’s important for us not to feel too guilty in retrospect about what we did.” In order to deal justly with our abuses, we need to stop pretending we’re debating what will happen to other folks as the result of their crimes. As time passes, we grow guiltier for not making amends, not more and more innocent, as the initial crime fades into the past.

The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was passed forty-two years after the internment of Japanese citizens for which it made formal apology and reparations. The “comfort women” forced into sexual slavery by Japan during World War II had to wait until 1992 to receive any kind of apology from Japan.

If the United States continues to acknowledge only the facts of our abuses, and not our culpability, hiding behind claims of hard choices and extremities, American citizens will have no cause for sanctimony. But the rest of the world will.

Leah Libresco writes at Unequally Yoked.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles