Our former law professor, Noble Peace Laureate, President recently spoke about the torture committed by CIA and other government operatives after 9/11: “ … we did some things that were wrong [and] we tortured some folks. We did some things that were contrary to our values.” CIA and military personnel tortured people because they were afraid and under “enormous pressure” to prevent further attacks on the country. It was this fear that caused them to abuse, torture, rape, sodomize, and kill prisoners of war.
The President can’t use the lame excuse that fear drove some people to violate the law and torture “folks.” The Geneva Convention Against Torture, to which the Untied States is a signatory, is absolutely clear on this matter. Article Two, Section One reads: “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability of any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification for torture.”
It seems crystal clear, and one might think a Harvard Law School graduate would get that right. Those who accept the President’s argument that fear made people torture others, should then be expected to understand the fear that drove North Vietnamese to torture American pilots – including Senator John McCain – as a result of years of trauma from relentless and criminal U.S. bombing over years that killed hundreds of thousands of people, and left millions refugees.
At his August 1st press conference, President Obama also stated: “… it’s important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those [CIA] folks had.” Apparently, Americans who opposed the Afghan and Iraq wars, and the torture and massacres that were essential to them, haven’t shown the proper empathy for CIA and military personnel who placed electrodes on men’s testicles and raped women. The President’s criticism was directed at those who opposed the Bush-Cheney torture regime, and the illegal and immoral wars against those two poor countries – that left millions dead, wounded and refugees.
Since Obama is a Nobel Peace Laureate, perhaps we can speculate on how a previous honoree, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (one of Obama’s heroes) would have responded to thousands of pages of documented evidence on torture, and our recent – and continuing wars. In January 2013, Obama placed his hand on Dr. King’s personal Bible when he took the oath of office for the second time. At that moment, “I have a drone” replaced “I have a dream.” This was an outrageous assault on King’s memory, by a war-mongering president who has ordered the slaughter of people around the world – in stunning contrast to one who gave his life in the struggle against racism, militarism and economic exploitation.
King, who spoke the following words during his magnificent oration opposing the American War in Vietnam on April 4, 1967, would be leading those condemning Obama’s pathetic and vile defense of torture and murder. And he certainly would not castigate those who condemned torture by calling them “sanctimonious.”
“I could … never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos … without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government.”
What King concluded about U.S. aggression in Vietnam could be said of Afghanistan and Iraq: “It should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read ‘Vietnam.’”
The torture and crimes that occurred after 9/11, therefore, were not contrary to American values: they followed logically from a long and dishonorable tradition.
Obama’s claim that torture and other war crimes are a violation of our values is simply untrue. Real “values” are expressed by what people do, not what they say – especially powerful political officials. A brief look at American history will reveal that the recent incidents of torture do not violate our values; they are as American as Apple Pie. It began with genocidal wars against First Americans that continued for nearly 300 years to the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890.
That massacre was supported by none other than L. Frank Baum, author of the much-beloved Wizard of Oz, then editor of the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, who stated: “The whites, by law of conquest, by civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians…. [We] had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up … and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.”
Torture and violence were also visited upon Filipinos during the American imperial war in the early 20th century; Vietnamese, highlighted by the most-publicized atrocity of that war at My Lai in 1968, and the deaths of some 3.8 million people; Guatemalans, Nicaraguans, and Salvadorans, with hundreds of thousands killed in the 1970s and ‘80s; and at Bagram, Afghanistan; Abu Ghraib, Iraq; and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The list of crimes is endless.
The torture and crimes that occurred after 9/11, therefore, were not contrary to American values: they followed logically from a long and dishonorable tradition. The sooner we confront this history, and the torture that has been done in our name – often with our knowledge and blessing – the sooner we can begin the genuine task of bringing justice to the victims, and just punishment to their torturers and the officials who gave the orders.
The lesson of the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials after World War Two was that torture and other war crimes could not be excused because one was “following orders” laid down by superiors; and these superiors could not gain immunity because of their powerful positions. If presidents, secretaries of state, national security advisers – and their lawyers and CIA practitioners of torture, cannot be brought to the Nuremberg dock for their crimes, then justice is a dead word that should be stricken from our language.
John Marciano, Professor Emeritus, SUNY Cortland, was Chair of the Tompkins County (NY) Human Rights Commission (1991-96).