The Torture Questions

It seems to this observer that the four questions being raised about torture have clear answers. Only the experts and commentators are arguing about them. The public is not. The political leaders ought to lead, not speculate as to what the public desires, and do the right thing.

1. Torture is Illegal and Immoral. The practices should be stopped and condemned. This is the case. Let’s forget the what-if-your-child-were-kidnapped scenarios. They do not help set public policy, ever. The administration has taken the correct position by outlawing torture as an “investigative” technique.

2. Do Not Cover Up The Facts. The facts should be made public, here as in almost all matters of public policy. That the Obama administration is doing.

3. Find Out The Full Story. Appropriate investigations should be made, by oversight committees of Congress, and by the Department of Justice. We do not k now all the facts, and judgments should be withheld until we do. Those investigations have begun. Let’s see what happens. The people in charge are at work already. There is no need for special investigations unless the regular agencies fail to perform their functions.

4. Who and If to Prosecute. Whether anyone should be prosecuted — low-level grunts, high-level policymakers, lawyers — and which ones, should await disclosure of all the facts. How can we properly decide before then, except on personal and political grounds, which shouldn’t be the basis of prosecutions?

Important to all these questions should be the following key, overriding perspective. What the country thought during the passions prevailing after Sept. 11 is not the best basis for policymaking. We didn’t know what was happening immediately, so rationalizing our conduct on panic, as well as on incomplete and wrong data, is not the best basis for policymaking. The facts should be made public, here as in almost all matters of public policy.

In the wake of the historic Dec. 7 day of infamy, we interned Japanese-American citizens, for which we later apologized and compensated them. It may be understandable why we did so, but it was not a proud part of our national history. Our antiterrorism policies soon after Sept. 11 may or may not be comparable. We need to determine that now. But the thinking that we should remember the fears we all felt then and the need for appropriate action to assure domestic peace is not the same as saying those feelings justify anything we did, however well-motivated.

Acting honorably is easy in times of peace and tranquility, and difficult in times of fear and provocation. But our national personality is defined by our behavior in those latter times.


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