When George W. Bush was at Yale, he played intra-mural basketball. Decades later, a competitor from those glorified pick-up games could still remember what the man who became our president stood out for most: he played dirty. While most of the other intra-mural players were more interested in a friendly game, Bush threw elbows, shoved other players around beneath the basket and generally evinced a “win at all-costs” attitude that some of the other players found unseemly, according to a profile I read in the New Yorker or some other “liberal” publication.
That image has stuck with me, and, in light of revelations in the New York Times about the Bush administration’s rush to adopt harsh interrogation tactics in the crisis following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it resonates even more. Bush’s approach to intramural sports, and, presumably, to life, joined with his famous incuriosity, anti-intellectualism and his absolute self-assurance to lead our country down a morally repugnant, disastrous path. I want a confident leader, to be sure, but I don’t want a man who never admits to doubts and adamantly insists he never engages in self-reflection.
So it comes as no surprise to read the Times’ April 22nd headline: “In Adopting Harsh Tactics, No Inquiry Into Their Past Use.” So rushed, so fearful of another attack and so consumed with a desire to win the struggle against our enemies at any cost were the Bush underlings that they did not even know when they proposed the use of waterboarding that the practice “had been prosecuted by the United States in war-crimes trials after World War II,” the Times reports.
They bolstered their shoddy intellectual case by basing it in part on a military program developed to help American pilots survive capture and presumed torture at the hands of the communists during the Korean War. But they failed to delve deeply enough into the history of the program to learn that many of the pilots who were indeed captured and tortured were convinced the harsh tactics were ineffective. These were our men who had actually been tortured, and they said the harsh tactics mostly elicited only false confessions. But Bush and his team didn’t bother to seek the benefit of their experiences or insights.
Also disturbing is a quote in the Times from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s counselor, Philip Zelikow, who noted that while Bush was “entitled to get the most thoughtful and searching analysis our government could muster,” he apparently didn’t bother to seek it, or didn’t get it. “Competent staff work could have quickly canvassed relevant history, insights from the best law enforcement and military interrogators and lessons from the painful British and Israeli experience,” Zelikow stated. Too big a crisis for that, though, so let’s just waterboard ‘em and worry about the consequences and the morality later.
So we had an incompetent rush to switch one of our nation’s bedrock precepts – humans rights and freedom from unjust government coercion – to a new policy of winning at all costs, fighting dirty, sacrificing our honor and principles because they were no longer convenient, or because the threat against us was so great it was no longer worth the risk that sticking to those principles might cost us.
I am sure conservatives would say I’m sounding like British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who tried to negotiate with Hitler. I believe in a strong national defense, and I was itching as much as any American for payback after watching the Twin Towers fall. But I believe it is best to act out of cool detachment, not blind passion, and to take at least enough time with an important decision to search my conscience and make sure my actions agree with my principles, much less that a well-canvassed group of objective, skeptical subordinates actually agree the policy would be effective.
Dick Cheney claims the torture got us valuable intelligence. It may even have averted another attack. My question to him is: was it worth it? Is it better to play dirty and win than to stand for something all good-thinking people agree is a higher purpose, even if it might mean you pay a price? I think I know what Abraham Lincoln and George Washington would’ve said.
Is it possible, too, that in a democracy, there should be an open debate over something so momentous as a decision by our leaders to adopt a policy of torturing our enemies? Untidy stuff, such debates. It seems clear Cheney, at least, believed in the unfettered power of the president, that one man, surrounded by a tiny group of yes-men, could and should make such a decision.
I am thankful that our new president believes differently. Cheney can spin the story all he wants on Fox News. At least we’re having the debate now. Obama, in sharp contrast to his predecessor, is intellectually honest and secure enough to take such a momentous step in full public view, willing to meet his critics and defend his approach on something so essential to our nation’s self-identity and international reputation.