The other value you have eloquently expressed as essential to your public life is faith. We share that faith, although I am a wayward Catholic and you a born-again evangelical. Our faith tells us that what you authorized is an absolute evil. By absolute evil, I mean something that is never morally justified. I have no doubt that you believed you were doing your duty in protecting the country, and every political leader in a dangerous world has to make decisions that haunt the conscience. But even war, with all its murder and mayhem and abuse and trauma, can still, in our Christian tradition, be deemed just, under certain circumstances. I am not a pacifist by any means. Defending free countries from the architects of 9/11 is just; bringing some semblance of democracy to Iraq was just; unseating the Taliban was just. Even those decisions that cost lives—of young Americans and countless Iraqis and Afghans—can be morally defended by Christians, in good faith and clear conscience, as a last resort. In fact, fighting terrorism and jihadism is, in my view, an eminently just use of military power, if that use of power is constantly subjected to scrutiny and reflection and revision.
But torture has no defense whatsoever in Christian morality. There are no circumstances in which it can be justified, let alone integrated as a formal program within a democratic government. The Catholic catechism states, “Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions… is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.” Dignity is the critical word there. Even evil men are human and redeemable. Our faith demands that, even in legitimate punishment or interrogation, the dignity of prisoners must be respected. Our faith teaches that each of us—even Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—is made in the image of God. To violate that imago Dei by stripping and freezing him, by slamming him against a wall, or strapping him to a board to nearly drown him again and again and again, to bombard him with noise and light until he loses his mind, to reduce a human being to a mental and spiritual shell—nothing can justify this for a Christian. Nothing. To wield that power is to wield evil. And such evil is almost always committed by those who believe they are pursuing good.
America is exceptional not because it banished evil, not because Americans are somehow more moral than anyone else, not because its founding somehow changed human nature—but because it recognized the indelibility of human nature and our permanent capacity for evil. It set up a rule of law to guard against such evil. It pitted branches of government against each other and enshrined a free press so that evil could be flushed out and countered even when perpetrated by good men. The belief that when America tortures, the act is somehow not torture, or that when Americans torture, they are somehow immune from its moral and spiritual cancer, is not an American belief. It is as great a distortion of American exceptionalism as jihadism is of Islam. To believe that because the American government is better than Saddam and the Taliban and al-Qaeda, Americans are somehow immune to the same temptations of power that all flesh is heir to, is itself a deep and dangerous temptation. The power to torture is a case in point. Because torture can coerce truth, break a human being’s dignity, treat him as an expendable means rather than as a fragile end, it has a terrible power to corrupt. Torture is the ultimate expression of the absolute power of one individual over another; it destroys the souls of those who torture just as surely as it eviscerates the dignity of those who are its victims. And because torture is so awful, it also often requires a defensive embrace of it, a pride in it, an exaggeration of its successes. And those so-called successes invariably lead to more torture until we end up with the record of wanton and systematic abuse that occurred under your command.
I think you know this. You have rarely failed to describe absolute evil when you’ve seen it. You are not known for Clintonian parsings of moral truths. I think you understand also because you are a man of faith. And I think this faith should guide you to a reconciliation with the truth of the past, a reconciliation that this divided country needs, and that your successor and the men and women he commands deserve.
Over the past few years, I have gone from desperately trying to find out and expose this systematic abuse, to expressing enormous anger, to hoping for criminal prosecution of all the major figures. Now I feel profound discomfort with all the options in front of us. To ignore the flagrant evidence of war crimes, reported by the Red Cross, is itself a violation of America’s treaty obligations. And yet to prosecute only those lower down the chain of command is pure scapegoating. Your own former CIA officers and service members do not deserve to take the fall for the policies they were told were legal and authorized by their commander in chief. And yet to initiate prosecution of those ultimately responsible for this pattern of criminality and abuse—namely you, your vice president, your defense secretary, and all those involved in constructing the torture program—would also tear this already polarized society apart at a time when we are still at war. There is a reason the Obama administration has remained almost paralyzed in the face of this inheritance. Every option is awful; and yet, some action is necessary.
Only you can do what’s needed. Only you can move this country forward by taking full responsibility for the past and supporting the current president in his abolition of torture and abuse and in his conduct of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The decisions you made were complex; it may well be that you only subsequently grasped the full import of the actions you took in good faith; that you were misled about, or misunderstood, what “harsh interrogation” meant. All presidents are human, and taking responsibility does not mean self-flagellation.
The model is Ronald Reagan, who denied he had ever traded arms for hostages in Iran but eventually realized that that was indeed the consequence of the actions he took, the men he appointed, and the policy he pursued. Reagan’s speech to the nation on this matter was, in my view, his greatest, because it revealed humility and integrity. “First, let me say,” he told us in 1987,
I take full responsibility for my own actions and for those of my administration. As angry as I may be about activities undertaken without my knowledge, I am still accountable for those activities. As disappointed as I may be in some who served me, I’m still the one who must answer to the American people for this behavior … A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.
If you read the Red Cross report and the Senate Armed Services Committee report, I believe you will reach a similar conclusion about your own record on prisoner treatment. You may not have intended to torture people, but you did; you may have wanted to protect the country within the law, but that admirable desire too easily slid into your approval of actions that are indefensible, illegal, and deeply damaging to America’s reputation and honor. You were let down, as Reagan was. He took responsibility. You need to as well.
Demanding that you alone be held accountable and no one else be scapegoated would itself be an act of honor. It would draw a line between the past and the future in the same way that Lincoln’s defense of his brief suspensions of habeas corpus conceded Congress’s sole right to remove this core constitutional provision, but defended his action as a necessary emergency measure because a mass rebellion “had subverted the whole of the laws.” You do not deserve to go down in history as the president who brought torture into the American system and refused to take responsibility for it. It is also vital that torture not become a partisan issue, that any future terror attack not become an opportunity for your party to reinstitute it or wield it as a political weapon against future presidents who are following the rule of law. After the next attack, America will need unity—not a poisonous division over the issue of torture. You had that unity after 9/11. Your successors deserve the same support.
Demand, as Reagan did, a full accounting and report from an independent body. Explain your evolving views. Defend your honor and your family’s long record of public service. Blame no one else. Explain why you felt you had no choice or why you did not fully understand the brutality of the methods you approved. The impact this would have on the world—the example of a democratic society confronting its own crimes, led by the man who authorized them—would itself help restore this country’s reputation. And yours. It would unite rather than divide.
In all this, think of the troops, the hundreds of thousands of honorable men and women, doing enormously difficult jobs in dangerous places, risking their lives to bring human rights to countries where they’ve never existed. They deserve to have this taint lifted from their uniform. And only you can lift it, by assuming responsibility for everything.I recall one such soldier, a young man in Iraq, Captain Ian Fishback, who witnessed routine abuse of prisoners and tried to get his commanders to stop it. They didn’t. He tried to get the attention of his superiors, up to the secretary of the Army. He failed. After 17 months of effort, he finally wrote a letter to John McCain. This is part of what he wrote:
Despite my efforts, I have been unable to get clear, consistent answers from my leadership about what constitutes lawful and humane treatment of detainees. I am certain that this confusion contributed to a wide range of abuses including death threats, beatings, broken bones, murder, exposure to elements, extreme forced physical exertion, hostage-taking, stripping, sleep deprivation and degrading treatment. I and troops under my command witnessed some of these abuses in both Afghanistan and Iraq. This is a tragedy. I can remember, as a cadet at West Point, resolving to ensure that my men would never commit a dishonorable act; that I would protect them from that type of burden. It absolutely breaks my heart that I have failed some of them in this regard. That is in the past and there is nothing we can do about it now. But, we can learn from our mistakes and ensure that this does not happen again.
Captain Fishback then focused on what he called “the larger question, the most important question that this generation will answer”:
Do we sacrifice our ideals in order to preserve security? Terrorism inspires fear and suppresses ideals like freedom and individual rights. Overcoming the fear posed by terrorist threats is a tremendous test of our courage. Will we confront danger and adversity in order to preserve our ideals, or will our courage and commitment to individual rights wither at the prospect of sacrifice? My response is simple. If we abandon our ideals in the face of adversity and aggression, then those ideals were never really in our possession. I would rather die fighting than give up even the smallest part of the idea that is “America.”
Mr. President, what I am asking is that you exhibit the same candor, reflection, and honor as one of your own service members, a man still serving his country in a uniform he is still proud of, but a uniform that bears a stain of dishonor that only you can remove.
Mr. President, remove that stain, for your own sake as well as ours. You have one last charge to keep.