Friday, January 16, 2009

Holding Barack Obama’s Feet to the Fire

Out of fear, America wages war, allows torture, we allow violations of our laws and our values, and we allow the President of the United States and others to circumvent the fundamental tenets of the U.S. Constitution. To act out in anger, out of fear, is not a courageous act; it’s a cowardly act and a sign of weakness. To act out in hate and anger, because of fear, is a serious flaw in our personal and national character. On the other hand, fear is a natural and necessary human response, but when it is not an understood controlled behavior it becomes a determent by not acting at all, or it’s a determent when we do not act in an appropriate way, so, instead of fear being a warning to use caution -- a heads-up -- our behavior turns to anger and hate.

Because of our fears, instead of being outraged that a violation of our American values has taken place, it has become apparent that Americans will allow human life to be violable, allow violations against the sanctity of life, and will tolerate crimes against humanity and civil liberties. We allow the torture of another human, and look for ways of excusing ourselves from that fact by a redefinition of something that does not need redefinition, and by putting torture in the context of complex legal definitions. We redefine and put in legalese the sin of torture as aggressive interrogation technique, or extraordinary rendition to obfuscate or make oblique -- words that cloud what is really taking place -- the handing-off of a human being to another state to be tortured on our behalf.

Disturbing as it is, the Stanley Milgram experiments of close to fifty years ago, and the more recent study by Jerry Burger of Santa Clara University in California, have shown that most of us would torture others if ordered to do so. (1) These studies revealed that most people would obediently deliver painful electrical shocks to others if encouraged to do so by someone in authority, even though it conflicted with their personal conscience. We therefore must reject any directive, by anyone, until we take the time to logically consider and critically think-through the mandates of people in authority or those in-charge, or anyone else, no matter who they are – even if it is the President of the U.S. We must always heed our personal and collective conscience.

Barack Obama has said repeatedly that he will reject torture without exception or equivocation; that he will restore the Rule of Law by closing Guantanamo and restoring habeas corpus; and provide our intelligence and law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to track down terrorists without undermining our Constitution or civil liberties.

However, recently, his transition team interlocutors have said the program should be investigated. According to the Wall Street Journal, a current government official familiar with the transition, interviewed by that paper, said, "Obama may decide he wants to keep the road open in certain cases for the CIA to use techniques not approved by the military, but with much greater oversight.”

I am appalled at the thought that continuance of the United States torture policy would even be contemplated by anyone under any circumstance. I will be absolutely outraged and deeply disappointed if President-elect Obama does anything other than to outright reject torture without exception or equivocation. It would be an absolutely unacceptable circumstance. It certainly would not reflect change.

If this should occur, I would expect all those Americans who voted for him to do exactly what he said in his campaign rhetoric: “I will listen to you, especially when we disagree. And, above all, I will ask you to join in the work of remaking this nation, the only way it's been done in America for 221 years….” Accordingly, it then would be every American’s responsibility to “… join in the work” and tell him that continuance of a policy allowing torture or rendition is not what we expect of him or our government.

It’s reprehensible that the United States would hand-over to another country a prisoner for interrogation in order to circumvent policy and law prohibiting torture, and for that country to perform violations on our behalf against another human being that America by statute cannot do, but otherwise it would do if allowed. It’s absolutely unacceptable for America to circumvent our obligation to protect human rights and the civil liberties of anyone regardless of reason or what that person may or may not have done even if they are “the worst of the worst.”

We must set the moral example of probity. If we tolerate and allow torture, then “how can we object when our servicemen and women… [or others] are captured and subjected to the same techniques? How can we complain? Where is our moral authority to complain? Well, we may have lost it." The simple fact of the matter is that America has lost its moral compass. We have rejected probity out of our fears.

President-elect Barack Obama has proclaimed:

“I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantanamo, and I will follow through on that. I have said repeatedly that America doesn’t torture, and I’m going to make sure that we don’t torture. Those are part and parcel of an effort to regain America’s moral stature in the world.”

"The secret authorization of brutal interrogations is an outrageous betrayal of our core values, and a grave danger to our security. We must do whatever it takes to track down and capture or kill terrorists, but torture is not a part of the answer - it is a fundamental part of the problem with this administration's approach. Torture is how you create enemies, not how you defeat them. Torture is how you get bad information, not good intelligence. Torture is how you set back America's standing in the world, not how you strengthen it. It's time to tell the world that America rejects torture without exception or equivocation. It's time to stop telling the American people one thing in public while doing something else in the shadows. No more secret authorization of methods like simulated drowning. When I am president America will once again be the country that stands up to these deplorable tactics. When I am president we won't work in secret to avoid honoring our laws and Constitution, we will be straight with the American people and true to our values.”

To use an idiom which alludes to an ancient test of courage, we must hold Barack Obama’s “feet to the fire” on these proclamations.