VITKA: Torture straw man detracts from argument



Sean Vitka

A friend recently asked me how I felt about Obama’s presidency so far. He, a strongly pro-Israel and national security-minded intellectual, narrowed our argument to Obama’s recent illumination of “interrogation” techniques. I stopped myself from correcting him – torture techniques, I wanted to say – but we both know that litmus test. If national security is your principal principle, you call it “interrogation.” If it’s civil liberties, you call our country’s actions what they are and have been: torture.

“So you don’t think there are any negative repercussions?” he asked. He’d thrown the lure. No, I said. There may be, but I’m confident the repercussions of not releasing them and increasing transparency are significantly worse, both within and outside of America. “I couldn’t disagree more,” he sighed.

This is the argument that both neoconservatives and President Obama want to have. But these releases have been a political gimmick to distract the political hacks, and it has effectively distracted the national discussion from prosecution to … well, memo releasing. The media took the bait and began to argue whether the torture/interrogation letters should have been released at all. My friend and the rest of the right have accused Obama of endangering America, the same froth Cheney expounded weeks ago, while the left commends his bravery and courage.

Meanwhile the administration subtly reiterates that it wants to look forward, not backward – a stark and stunning reversal of campaign promises. No longer is there the need to offer even the vague hope of prosecution or cater to the seemingly obvious truth that if someone broke the law, they should be held accountable. Instead, we should all note that if one plans on breaking the law, one should be sure to first write a letter to someone stating that it is completely legal.

Even the subject matter of the memos is a subtle shift away from larger issues, and the above deconstruction of the issue falls into another trap. The limited practice of waterboarding, the use of insects in confined spaces, the description of a few physical assault techniques – all red herrings. Arguable wrongs provided for in case of the contrived and romantic realization of some paper-thin, Jack Bauer-based plot. These menial issues do not prompt the discussion of the true wrongs that have been committed. Condemnation of the use of white phosphorous in Iraq as an antipersonnel weapon evanesced more quickly than its victims burned, just like when phone carriers handed over records of phone calls between Americans, or when search engines (all but Google) forked over our search histories – all without even the illusion of judicial or legislative oversight. Perhaps the greatest example of the gross violations of American rights, only recently illuminated, is from an investigation by the Associated Press, which uncovered 55 cases where citizens were illegally deported without even a court hearing.

These are the crimes that need investigation, and it is remarkable that both the Bush and Obama administrations have escaped criticism by hiding behind the imagined soldier-turned-interrogator scenario. It is tantamount to saying a white-collar criminal cannot be tried because the blue-collar worker did what the former ordered him to.

This argument over memos is a straw man, leading those of us who voted for civil liberties away from our principles and into a useless argument construed by Robert Gibbs. It pits civil libertarians against our natural enemies, those who prioritize national security, and forgives Obama for his inaction.

The challenge for this administration was not to expose a variety of memos that detailed little new information, none of which would have remained uncovered after the slew of Freedom of Information lawsuits mature. These are placebos that Obama and neoconservatives alike want swallowed. The civil liberties test for this president was to uncover the people who sent contractors (re: mercenaries) in to torture detainees, name those who forced soldiers to act out our perverted policies, and try for treason the executives who made these decisions.


Sean Vitka is a junior economics major from the Bronx, N.Y. He can be reached at [email protected].