The Torture Memos, Our Safety, and the Quote of the Day

Apr 27 2009 Published by under Politics

First, the Quote of the Day:

we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

If you're an American, those fourteen words will hopefully look at least vaguely familiar. They're the closing words of the Declaration of Independence. Those words weren't tacked on to the end of the document as a fancy ending. That was the price that the Declaration's signers were willing to pay. When they signed, there was a very real chance that they would in the end pay that price.

Over the weekend, Newsweek's Joe Meacham published an editorial that managed to miss the point when it comes to investigating the use of torture on suspected terrorists. Actually, "miss the point" is a little mild. I don't think Meacham can even see the point from where he's standing.

As an alternative to torture prosecutions, Meacham not only suggests that we use a 9-11 Commission-style process, but that the mission of this commission should be broader than just looking at whether a line was crossed - and if so, by whom - when it came to questioning people captured in Iraq and Afghanistan:

The idea that our only options are to move on completely or to prosecute is a classic false choice. A third way would be a 9/11-style bipartisan commission that would include clear supporters of the Bush administration. Such a panel would meet largely in private, have the power to grant immunity to witnesses and be charged with answering, as clearly as possible, the central question of whether Bush's war on terror in its entirety saved lives. Michael Isikoff touches on these matters in this week's issue, writing about FBI agentAli Soufan, who got intel from key terror suspects--without using torture.

Still, it seems likely that the interrogations, among other things, including surveillance, helped us prevent further terrorist attacks. We may never know for sure--you cannot prove a negative--but the public interest would be served by knowing more rather than less about how the war on terror has unfolded. (With, to be sure, the appropriate caveats about not revealing ongoing sources and methods.)

The question of whether or not torture worked, or whether or not it somehow helped save lives or prevent attacks is - or at least should be - entirely irrelevant. Armed robbery can be a very effective method for increasing personal wealth, but we don't endorse that. "It works" is the classic form of the argument that the ends justify the means. We've rejected that argument - or at least tried to - throughout our history. Why on Earth would we make an exception now?

Take another look at the quote back up there at the start of the post. The people who signed the Declaration of Independence did not pledge their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor in an effort to protect their precious asses. If they placed a high value on personal safety, they wouldn't have signed the damn thing in the first place, and we'd still be singing "God Save the Queen" instead of the Star Spangled Banner.

The people who put their necks on the line to set up our country clearly placed their values ahead of their safety. When we fail to do the same, we don't just tarnish our ourselves. We tarnish their legacy.

4 responses so far

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    Such a panel would meet largely in private, have the power to grant immunity to witnesses and be charged with answering, as clearly as possible, the central question of whether Bush's war on terror in its entirety saved lives.

    We've done this before when there was a controversy over high-level wrongdoing. I emphasized the most important output of such panels.

  • I disagree. Torture almost certainly hasn't worked. Having an official panel make that aspect clear would be helpful if it came down to it. Moreover, if it did work we will have learned at least that fact (I agree it doesn't change the morality substantially).

  • GaryB, FCD says:

    Still, it seems likely that the interrogations, among other things, including surveillance, helped us prevent further terrorist attacks.

    Interesting way to put things. By lumping torture in with other tactics that can be shown to be effective, he validates torture without showing it had anything to do with prevention.

    We may never know for sure--you cannot prove a negative...

    Huh? What negative is he talking about?
    Seems he has a bit of trouble with simple logic.

  • Pocket Nerd says:

    Sounds like a simple attempt to tie this up with red tape and hope nobody will care in five or ten years. Justice too long delayed...