The Other Face of Political Violence


Charles P. Pierce - Esquire

Likely lost amid all lachrymose coverage of the act of political violence in Boston yesterday [15 Apr 2013] will be the release of a magisterial, non-partisan report concerning the decade of political violence organized and executed by the American government, and concerning the subsequent shameful abandonment by the current administration of its affirmative moral obligation to let the American people know fully what had been done in their name, and too often with their tacit and overt consent, and the degree to which we are all complicit in outright extrajudicial barbarism.

The sweeping, 577-page report says that while brutality has occurred in every American war, there never before had been “the kind of considered and detailed discussions that occurred after 9/11 directly involving a president and his top advisers on the wisdom, propriety and legality of inflicting pain and torment on some detainees in our custody.” The study, by an 11-member panel convened by theConstitution Project, a legal research and advocacy group, is to be released on Tuesday morning.

The United States of America tortured people. It tortured a lot of people. It lied about torturing people. It lied about torturing a lot of people. It tortured on its own, and it subcontracted the job to countries with more experience at it, since the United States never had made torture a policy before. Within the government, the theory and practiced of torture was discussed by a bunch of bloodthirsty legal aesthetes the banality of whom would have shocked Hannah Arendt. Godwin be damned, these were people who acted like tiny Heydrichs at their own personal Wannsee, and they dragged us all into a moral abyss with them because not enough of us cried “Stop!” loudly enough even to prevent the re-election of the president who’d countenanced it.

But the report’s main significance may be its attempt to assess what the United States government did in the years after 2001 and how it should be judged. The C.I.A. not only waterboarded prisoners, but slammed them into walls, chained them in uncomfortable positions for hours, stripped them of clothing and kept them awake for days on end. The question of whether those methods amounted to torture is a historically and legally momentous issue that has been debated for more than a decade inside and outside the government. The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel wrote a series of legal opinions from 2002 to 2005 concluding that the methods were not torture if used under strict rules; all the memos were later withdrawn. News organizations have wrestled with whether to label the brutal methods unequivocally as torture in the face of some government officials’ claims that they were not.

Simply put, the “government officials” were liars. I don’t know when it became journalistic protocol to give the benefit of the doubt to people who lie to us, but that was not a good day for the First Amendment. But the final offense against democracy was not John Yoo’s, or Dick Cheney’s, or even that of old President C-Plus Augustus. It belongs to Barack Obama and his people.

Like the still-secret Senate interrogation report, the Constitution Project study was initiated after President Obama decided in 2009 not to support a national commission to investigate the post-9/11 counterterrorism programs, as proposed by Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, and others. Mr. Obama said then that he wanted to “look forward, not backward.” Aides have said he feared that his own policy agenda might get sidetracked in a battle over his predecessor’s programs.

Asa Hutchinson, the co-chairman of the panel, and nobody’s idea of a centerpiece at the next ACLU fundraising dinner, apparently tumbled to this essential truth about the administration in which he himself had served.

He said he thought everyone involved in decisions, from Mr. Bush down, had acted in good faith, in a desperate effort to try to prevent more attacks. “But I just think we learn from history,” Mr. Hutchinson said. “It’s incredibly important to have an accurate account not just of what happened but of how decisions were made…The United States has a historic and unique character, and part of that character is that we do not torture.”

That was true once. It is not true any more. The previous president made sure of that, making us all complicit in monstrous crimes against humanity. And the current president, perhaps because he thinks we are all delicate flowers who need to be shielded from an honest account of what we allowed to happen in this country, is attempting still to prescribe an anesthetic to treat a crime. Read this whole report. Know what we all did, you and I. In the days ahead in which we will talk a lot about the nature of political violence — and, depending on the news, may well hear again the shrill cries of the harpies of unreason and fear and abanoned wrath — read this report and learn how the big kids do it. And here’s the thing about moral quagmires.

It doesn’t matter if you’re looking forward.

It doesn’t matter if you’re looking backward.

You’re still fking sinking.


Charlie has been a working journalist since 1976. He is the author of four books, most recently Idiot America. He lives near Boston with his wife but no longer his three children.

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