Obama and torture

Last night's panel on torture was a success, according to those who attended; I had the privilege of sitting with the four panelists earlier in the day yesterday. They were articulate, intelligent, and passionate on the subject -- how it happened here, its ramifications (both practical and social-moral), and how to prevent it in the future.

"That really has to do with my grandkids," Reverend Richard Kilmer, executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, told me. "I want them to grow up in a country that does not torture. The past is very necessary to that this does not happen again."

Kilmer, along with the American Civil Liberties Union's Ben Wizner, author and former US interrogator Matthew Alexander, and Tom Parker, of Amnesty International, all agree that the Obama administration is not looking hard enough at -- or taking sufficiently proactive steps to address -- the torture practices signed off on and perpetrated by American officials and soldiers. 

"The president's notion that we can look forward without looking back is false," said Wizner, a bright, bemused young staff attorney who heads the ACLU's National Security Project. Later, he elaborated: "It's a political decision predicated on the complacency of progressives who care about rule of law," Wizner said, of people who voted for Obama and likely care about this issue but haven't spoken up loud enough. "If we don't make clear that this is a top priority, then this message will not be heard."

(Voters in Maine, Parker added, are uniquely positioned to make an impact on this issue, given that one of our moderate Republican senators, Olympia Snowe, sits on the US Senate's Select Committee on Intelligence, and the other, Susan Collins, sits on the Armed Services Committee.)

In a room of policy wonks, Alexander (a pseudonym the former Air Force Officer uses because of the delicate subject matter he speaks about) was direct and quietly convincing. "Torture cost us lives, and it will continue to cost us lives," he said, a idea he treats in depth in his 2008 book, How To Break A Terrorist: The US Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, To Take Down the Deadliest Man In Iraq (Free Press). By and large, fear, control, and coercive methods don't work, Alexander said. "What worked time and time again were the same techniques that street cops use every day -- applying your intellect."

What each of these individuals, and the organizations they represent, want (along with a good percentage of the American people, mind you) is accountability. 

"Laws are meaningless unless they're enforced," Parker said, pointing out that prosecution (both of those who tortured, and those who allowed/instructed them to) is "only one piece" of accountability.

The organizations are also pushing for an independent commission -- "not necessarily to discover facts, as to acknowledge them" publicly, Wizner said. Such a commission would also "set the example that torture is not tolerated within the American military," Alexander said -- which he believes would lead to a sharp decrease in terrorist recruitment. 

While the president isn't yet amenable to the idea of such a commission, Kilmer has not lost hope. When he and other religious leaders met last week with White House officials, they left with future appointments on the calendar. "If they had no interest in having their minds changed, thayt wouldn't have happened," Kilmer said. 

I'll have more about this topic in next week's paper. 

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