By now we’ve all heard that the Bush administration approved torture of detainees during the war on terror. But the full circumstances of its approval were not public until last Wednesday, when ABC News first reported on the meetings of the National Security Council’s Principals Committee chaired by Condoleezza Rice in 2002. In these meetings, the president’s top advisors authorized not only the use of torture and cruel treatment but also signed off on specific “techniques” and methods. ABC indicated that the discussions among the group — which also included Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, John Ashcroft and George Tenet — were so detailed that “some of the interrogation sessions were almost choreographed.”
Last Friday, when asked about the 2002 meetings, President Bush acknowledged his personal support for them: “Well, we started to connect the dots in order to protect the American people. And yes, I’m aware our national-security team met on this issue. And I approved.”
Apparently, after one of these meetings, Ashcroft, feeling uncomfortable, asked: “Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly.” Scott Horton, a columnist at Harpers, writes that “on this point Ashcroft proves a master of understatement. The seniormost members of the Bush cabinet sat, plotted, advised and directed the implementation of war crimes. And that’s exactly how history will view it.”
The lack of serious public reaction to this latest set of revelations challenges Horton’s prediction. Many mainstream media outlets remained quiet about the story. Even activists, with a few exceptions, have been slow to respond.
One view is that the administration has succeeded in normalizing torture to such an extent that it has made the American public complacent. We’re so accustomed to horrible news about it that the details no longer surprise us. Another take is that the public discourse is simply too crowded for news like last week’s to surface.
But I think there’s something bigger at work here. After all, it’s not just news of torture that’s going unnoticed. A few weeks ago, the State Department renewed the contract of Blackwater, the notorious private security firm that has massacred civilians in Iraq, with hardly a whisper outside independent media. And in the wake of Gen. Petraeus’ Congressional testimony last week, Bush and others have renewed their demagoguery about Iran, making the false claim that it is the primary cause of violence in Iraq.
Perhaps the lack of concern stems from the oft-made comparison between Barack Obama and John Kennedy. Most Democrats seem to think that, should a Democrat — and particularly, Obama — win the election this November, he or she will bring us out of the darkness of the Bush years and back into the light, restoring our “greatness” as Kennedy restored America after McCarthyism. But such a conception ignores the fact that, while Kennedy was no McCarthyite, he not only continued and intensified the Cold War in Cuba but actually expanded it to Vietnam.
Today, too many Democrats are unwilling to reject the framework of the war on terror — Obama and Hillary Clinton among them. Even if they argue that it should be fought differently and that we should eliminate torture, their embrace of the war on terror legitimizes the ideological world that has produced John McCain and may help steer him to victory. Discouragingly, both plan to retain major troop presences in Iraq, and Obama has refused to support a ban on private security contractors like Blackwater.
The idea that we can clean up the war on terror by electing a new president rests on the belief that torture is the “exception” which defines the Bush administration alone — and that it is all that is inherently wrong with the war on terror. That argument sees torture as taking the war on terror “too far,” as an aberration of and not continuous with the war as an ideological and political discourse.
That idea is held up by those on the left who oppose the use of torture by citing George Washington’s prohibition of it against British captives during the Revolutionary War as evidence of the United States’ long-held opposition to wartime cruelty. While it may be politically expedient to cite such examples, this move ignores the long history of American-backed torture initiatives during the Cold War as well as the pervasiveness of the logic of the war on terror that demands the use of “any means necessary” in the pursuit of racialized “terrorist” subjects.
But acting like torture is the only thing wrong with the war on terror has grave consequences and opens the door for the United States to ban torture but continues its war by other equally violent means. We must be willing to recognize the centrality of torture to the war on terror and to reject the entire premise that legitimizes it in the first place. If not, we will continue to live in a world defined by the logic of this war, and history may judge Ashcroft, Rice and their cronies far too kindly.
Hugh Baran is a junior in Davenport College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.