The OPR report: this era's 'Hiroshima'

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(Title of this item changed from previous soft-sell approach.)

When you are done reading this month's issue of the Atlantic -- and, as previously instructed, you should start with this article by Don Peck; then read Bruce Falconer's incredible and riveting profile of a "Dr. Death" in Switzerland; and then read all the rest of the great offerings:

After that, please read the full Office of Professional Responsibility report on the "torture memo" misconduct of Jay Bybee, now a Federal appeals court judge; and John Yoo, now a tenured professor at the UC Berkeley law school. The report is available as a 10MB, 289-page PDF download here. Seriously, this is a document that informed Americans should be familiar with, as a basis for any future discussion about the costs and consequences of a "global war on terror" and about the maintenance of American "values" in the world.

Through American history, there have been episodes of brutality and abuse that, in hindsight, span a very wide range of moral acceptability. There is no way to "understand" lynchings that makes them other than abominations. But -- to use the extreme case -- America's use of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki will always be the subject of first-order moral debate, about whether any "larger good" (forcing an end to the war) could justify the immediate suffering, the decades-long aftereffects, and the crossing of the "first use" frontier that this decision represented.

My point now is not to go through the A-bomb debate. It is to say that anyone who is serious in endorsing the A-bomb decision has to have fully faced the consequences. This is why John Hersey's Hiroshima was requisite basic knowledge for anyone arguing for or against the use of the bomb. The OPR report is essentially this era's Hiroshima. As Hersey's book does, it makes us confront what was done in our name -- "our" meaning the citizens of the United States.

If you want to argue that "whatever" happened in the "war on terror" was necessary because of the magnitude and novelty of the threat, then you had better be willing to face what the "whatever" entailed. Which is what this report brings out. And if you believe -- as I do, and have argued through the years -- that what happened included excessive, abusive, lawless, immoral, and self-defeating acts done wrongly in the name of American "security," then this is a basic text as well.

To conclude the logical sequence, if not to resolve this issue (which will be debated past the time any of us are around), you should then read the recent memo by David Margolis, of the Justice Department, overruling the OPR's recommendation that Yoo and Bybee should be punished further. It is available as a 69-page PDF here. Margolis is a widely-esteemed voice of probity and professional excellence inside the Department. What is most striking to me as a lay reader is how much of his argument rests not on strictly legal judgments but rather on a historical/political assertion.

The assertion is that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, anxiety was so high, fears were so great, and standards of all sorts were so clearly in abeyance, that normal rules about prudence and arm's-length deliberation cannot fairly be applied in retrospect. Ie, "you had to be there." Perhaps. (And, of course, we all were there.) In normal life we recognize the concept of decisions made in the heat of the moment, under time pressure, and without complete info. But it is worth noting that the central "torture memos" were from mid-summer 2002, nine months after the initial attacks -- by people whose job was supposed to be providing beyond heat-of-the-moment counsel.

The "torture years" are now an indelible part of our history. The names Bybee and Yoo will always be associated with these policies. Whether you view them as patriots willing to do the dirty work of defending the nation -- the Dick Cheney view, the 24 view, which equates the torture memos with Abraham Lincoln's imposition of martial law -- or view them as damaging America's moral standing in ways that will take years to repair (my view), you owe it to yourself to read these original documents. I tried to make this point in more halting real-time fashion yesterday in a talk with Guy Raz on NPR.

Photo credit: wikimedia commons.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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