Easier to get forgiveness

E.D. Kain ponders torture:

There are lines a free society simply cannot cross, even in order to protect its security, and if it does choose to cross them well then it ought to do so with the full force of the law at its back, in public. If it has to be done under the cold cloak of secrecy, then perhaps we shouldn’t be doing it at all.

Why didn’t Vice President Dick Cheney and the rest of the Bush Administration go the route that Kain prefers? Why didn’t they invite a public debate by openly proposing the legalization of torture? (Before they had actually begun to torture.)

The answer is found in the aphorism, “Sometimes it’s easier to get forgiveness than to get permission.”

Americans would never have approved the legalization of torture in the cold light of day. Not even in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. But once torture was a fait accompli — after the information had come out in a slow trickle over five or six years — that’s different.

It’s surprising what one’s conscience can adjust to.

Establishment media figures think we should just bury the whole sorry episode. Peggy Noonan, for example:  “Some things in life need to be mysterious. […] Sometimes you need to just keep walking.”

Likewise, leading politicians. John McCain is a staunch opponent of torture, but here he is echoing Noonan:  “We’ve got to move on.”

Sweep it under the rug. What’s done is done; what’s past is past. It’s water under the bridge. Even President Obama is fond of saying that America should look forward, not back.

And so Dick Cheney, John Yoo, Jay ByBee and other torture architects stand to be forgiven for a gross violation of America’s historic values:

As I said in China this spring, there is no place for abuse in what must be considered the family of man. There is no place for torture and arbitrary detention. […] I explained to President Jiang how the roots of American rule of law go back more than 700 years, to the signing of the Magna Carta. The foundation of American values, therefore, is not a passing priority or a temporary trend.

Newt Gingrich in 1997, back when Republicans still opposed torture

Cheney, Bybee, Yoo — and Bush himself — may yet get forgiveness. But they never could have gotten permission:  that’s why they acted “under the cold cloak of secrecy.”


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. aaron
    Apr 29, 2009 @ 20:07:24

    Forgive my confusion, but are you simply offering an explanation for why they acted in secret, or are you also saying you agree with Obama et al that the United States should not prosecute the perpetrators who violated its laws, and should ignore its obligations under treaties?


  2. Stephen
    Apr 30, 2009 @ 00:40:11

    I’m pointing out the shameless cynicism of Dick Cheney and the other architects of torture.

    Ideally, those architects would be prosecuted in a court of law. That would be my preference. I believe in the rule of law: i.e., no one (not even the President) is above the law.

    However, I don’t view prosecution as absolutely essential, the way that many (particularly lawyers) on the left do. There is more than one way to hold a person accountable. For a politician to know that he is going to go down in infamy in the history books is a significant form of accountability.

    Think of Richard Nixon: he was pardoned, but profoundly depressed by the knowledge that his reputation was in ruins. There is scarcely any other fate so traumatic for a politician.

    Therefore Obama has already gone a long way toward holding the architects accountable merely by releasing the torture memos for public consumption.


  3. billarends
    May 01, 2009 @ 13:07:04

    What is interesting about this is that the whole reasoning for the torture is justification to an extent, the desperate attempt to legitimatize the war on terror.

    Historically we dropped torture for such reasons, as it was questionably productive. In the 17th century France and many other countries used a form of torture called “question préalable” (torture prior to execution) and aimed at making the convicted criminal confess, in a weak attempt to vindicate the judicial system when the judgment wasn’t beyond a doubt. A tortured confessions value even then was subordinate to the facts. Why did the Bush administration use it? The answer is for the same old lame reason counties did in the 17th century to vindicate a weak decision.

    Had torture actually produced Osama Bin Laden or even one really important terrorist, then they could claim some vindication. Which never happened.


  4. Stephen
    May 02, 2009 @ 12:08:22

    “Why did the Bush administration use [torture]? … To vindicate a weak decision.”

    So it seems. There is some evidence that torture was used to produce a false “confession” of a connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda — thus “strengthening” the Administration’s argument for the U.S. invasion of Iraq.


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