Torture comes from fear. Fear that something will be missed. Fear has made many Presidents operate outside the parameters of our constitution. FDR shoved all the Japanese in California into concentration camps in the beginning of World War II. Long after the fact we admitted this was wrong and paid reparations, but Franklin Roosevelt was remembered as a great President. Why? Because the justification for the concentration camps, the firebombing of Dresden, and the dropping of the atomic bomb, was that we were in a war of national survival. Total war. And total war means anything goes. You can kill civlians, children, destroy civilizations.
Take 9/11. Were we in a war of national survival? Did we fear for our very existence? I remember the days after the attack where no one wanted to go into Chicago because they thought some back packing nuclear terrorist might vaporize the city. Fear. Just look at the face of George Bush giving a speech soon after the attack while he flew around in Air Force One, trying to figure out where to land. Or when we went to buy tape and plastic in case of an attack with a dirty bomb. Fear had come to the United States in a way not seen since the attack on Pearl Harbor. Fear from an unseen enemy that could destroy us.
What did fear bring us then? It brought us a war in Iraq. It brought us eight years of a President that should have left after four. It brought us torture. Did Wolferitz, Bush, and Cheney fear for the security of the United States? Absolutely. Were their fears justified? In context of three thousand people vaporized in the middle of New York city...yes. In the context of the year 2009, we will have to let the historians sort it out. Did they have another agenda? Does it matter? Torture occurred. It doesn't matter what their motivations were.
But now we are left with this torture issue. The silly arguments on television demean the cruelty of the act. It doesn't matter if intelligence was gained from torture. It is still torture. Do we condone torture? Of course not. It is not part of who we are. But again, there is the history of democracies under siege, fighting for existence. Did Roosevelt know Pearl Harbor was coming, but needed a reason to get us into World War II and let it happen? Conspiracy buffs say yes. Was Lend Lease illegal? Yes. It was against the law to supply Britain by an act of congress with war material. But Roosevelt did it anyway, because he saw it as necessary for our national survival. Did Bush think torture was necessary for our national survival? The pundits will give you the answers, but again, it doesn't matter. Torture occurred. Good intentions or not.
The problem is the torture cat is out of the bag and President Obama will have to deal with it now. He has big problems on his hands right now. Do we really want the political cat fight that torture has already brought about to escalate into a full blown culture war? Can President Obama take on Health Care, the economy teetering on a depression, our sagging position in the world, and prosecute officials from a former administration? What is more important to us now--revenge against an administration we couldn't wait to get rid of. Or do we want to look to the future and put our energies into solving the real problems of our wounded country. If thine eye offends thee, pluck it out...or we let dead dogs lie and move on. It's really our choice.
Novelist William Hazelgrove writes from Ernest Hemingways attic. His latest novel is Rocket Man--the story of a man struggling to keep his home.