george-bushWhen 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.

broo450That 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.

wtort16They 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.

resid_43685sSo 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.

iraq_torture_01Is 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.

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Mike Williams

Mike Williams

With roots in Mississippi and Alabama, Mike Williams worked for newspapers across the South for 27 years. After earning a degree in American Studies at Amherst College, he worked for Alabama newspapers in Baldwin County, Montgomery and Birmingham, followed by stints at the Miami Herald and The Atlanta Constitution. His last job was as a foreign correspondent for the Cox Newspaper chain. He now splits his time between Florida and the North Carolina mountains. His interests include race relations, history, Southern folk culture and the environment.

7 Comments
  1. Billy Howard

    I still believe Lindy England was a stooge for Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney and Rice, taking the fall for the team that set her actions in motion. She was the inevitable end to the ideals of this cabal of global bullies, succumbing through youth and ignorance to the horrendous actions and moral vacancy of people with the intellect to know what they were doing. If any nation had done to our soldiers what we did through official decree, the world would have arose in anger, as it has rightly and justly done against us.

  2. Let’s go surfin’ now
    Everybody’s learnin’ how
    Do some waterboardin’ with me!

  3. All Americans should share your outrage. All good Americans do. Forget those (highly orchestrated) Tea Parties. This is an issue that really should bring people out in the streets to protest.

  4. Should a president be judged more on how he treats his own citizens, or how he treats citizens of other countries?

    I agree that waterboarding is torture, but where is the outrage when the US waterboards its own military?

  5. i don,t know how human being do those can of thing and live throw and smile and laugh as human being this is evil they are doing devil work really evil i don,t believe there is freedom anywhere even in American you can speak out but there is not that do action is what do the job not talk american after four years of good life they forget about what happen like bill clinent time it was good life then come bush the guy who is so stupid that he can,t even speak one or two time without say ahhh ahhh

  6. SPEAKING OF TORTURE, WHY do sites insist on torturing people with Captchas and stupid idiotic questions to answer?

    When one has to be online and is suffering from a vicious migraine headache, is lying down in the dark using a trackball to surf because he/she is too miserable to even sit up, has a rotator cuff injury in one shoulder and the other hand and wrist is unusable because of a scaphoid fracture and a big clumsy contraption immobilizing the arm from the elbow down for the purpose of preventing movement, pressure, or anything else that could interfere with healing of the fracture, to be demanded to try to see captchas with vision that has been sabotaged by the effects of migraine, reach up wiith a shoulder that emits excruciating pain when lifted, and type captchas and answers to stupid questions when every movement of that one usable shoulder and arm hurts so much you want to scream, is NOTHING LESS THAN PURE TORTURE!!

    And for anyone who says to use audio captcha alternatives offered by some sites, well, you must not know how a severe migraine affects the senses, making bright light, sound, certain scents, and some other things excruciatingly painful due to the hypersensitivity that migraine can cause. I endure migraines for a few days every month, but often have to do things online anyway.

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