Sunday, December 09, 2007

Our Monsters
This is why I can't be a truly partisan, always-give-the-benefit-of-the-doubt, blindly-support-because-of-course-the-other-guys-are-so-much-worse Democrat:

In September 2002, four members of Congress met in secret for a first look at a unique CIA program designed to wring vital information from reticent terrorism suspects in U.S. custody. For more than an hour, the bipartisan group, which included current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), was given a virtual tour of the CIA's overseas detention sites and the harsh techniques interrogators had devised to try to make their prisoners talk.

Among the techniques described, said two officials present, was waterboarding, a practice that years later would be condemned as torture by Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill. But on that day, no objections were raised. Instead, at least two lawmakers in the room asked the CIA to push harder, two U.S. officials said.

"The briefer was specifically asked if the methods were tough enough," said a U.S. official who witnessed the exchange.
Waterboarding as an interrogation technique has its roots in some of history's worst totalitarian nations, from Nazi Germany and the Spanish Inquisition to North Korea and Iraq. In the United States, the technique was first used five decades ago as a training tool to give U.S. troops a realistic sense of what they could expect if captured by the Soviet Union or the armies of Southeast Asia. The U.S. military has officially regarded the tactic as torture since the Spanish-American War.
Pelosi declined to comment directly on her reaction to the classified briefings. But a congressional source familiar with Pelosi's position on the matter said the California lawmaker did recall discussions about enhanced interrogation. The source said Pelosi recalls that techniques described by the CIA were still in the planning stage -- they had been designed and cleared with agency lawyers but not yet put in practice -- and acknowledged that Pelosi did not raise objections at the time.

Doesn't mean there's no difference between the parties. Doesn't mean that the Republican isn't, in fact, usually much worse by my reasonable analysis. But it does mean that, on some deep level, the party that worse options compel me usually to support nonetheless is led by people with values profoundly alien to mine. This isn't a one-shot deal, as Glenn Greenwald grimly details: other Democrats, whose expertise and purview should have led them to know more and know better, have sat by as we commit policy stupidity and moral evil.

It's not even entirely that they accepted torture in specific instances--the story says that only three individuals, including the 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammed and at least somewhat similarly likely to have possibly life-saving information, were waterboarded. At the time, I remember writing in online debates that I'd be fine with them torturing Khalid Sheikh Muhammed. I'm not proud of this and I don't feel that way now, in large part because I better understand that torture has minimal practical value so the theorized wrenching moral choice between evil means to good ends isn't even valid, and in part because I do think it stains the national honor in a way that's not entirely quantifiable. But I wrote it and I admit that I was wrong.

To my knowledge, the next time Nancy Pelosi admits that she might have shown similar ignorance--shouldn't she at least have thought to ask the experts if torture works?--and/or moral cowardice (the justification for silence being fear of losing other political fights), will be the first. The combined effect of inattention, bad judgment and lack of action consistent with the highest American values, the knowledge that those things are prone to inform the choices and actions of Democratic leaders, and by extension the party itself, is why my stomach turns a little at blind partisan-cheerleading. "Our guys" can be monsters, or at least passive enablers of monstrosity, as can theirs.

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