Crazy Talk on Torture? Blame Obama

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President Obama's failure to reckon with America's recent past has opened the door for Republican candidates to seriously advocate torture

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Celebrating his affinity for crazy talk, Herman Cain said Saturday night in South Carolina that he would leave it up to our military to determine what is and what is not torture. Fellow future also-ran Michele Bachmann picked up the ignorance stick and carried it even further down the road; water-boarding those terror detainees, she said, was "very effective." Not to be outdone, noted historian Newt Gingrich tried to make believe that Anwar Al-Awlaki, the U.S. citizen killed in a drone strike a while back, was first duly "convicted" of  being a terrorist.

None of these candidates will ever be president. But it surely says something profound about the Republican race that so many candidates would be so eager to pitch arguments so unsupported by the legal or factual history we endured from September 11, 2001 to January 20, 2009. To argue that torture should be a valid instrument of American policy is simply "un-American," to quote the suddenly reasonable Ron Paul. And to argue that drone strikes should be beyond judicial review is to deny the disaster brought by the "torture memos."

That Cain and company would seek so stridently to re-litigate bad terror law policies makes sense only in the cynical world of modern American politics. It's easier to spout off on terror detainees, to give bumper-sticker answers to complex questions, than it is to talk sensibly about Greece, or the Euro, or the economic fate of Europe itself. Those vital topics of international intrigue evidently were not discussed Saturday night at the "foreign policy" debate held at Wofford College and sponsored by both CBS News and the National Journal.
 
These candidates know their prime audience of conservative voters. They knew the Saturday night crowd wouldn't be interested in hearing too much about high finance or foreign debt structures. And they know that Al-Awlaki or Khalid Sheik Mohammed wouldn't have any slick-talking tribunes in the "spin room" after the debate. These candidates are selling a return to the "good old days" of Abu Ghraib by taking advantage of the vacuum of objective truth about torture, a void intentionally left in place by both the Bush and Obama administrations.

There is plenty of blame to go around for a world in which presidential candidates gleefully  make arguments that were long ago rejected by the nation's most sensible leaders. You can blame the media for covering this issue as though the competing views were morally or legally equal. You can blame the voters themselves for not demanding more from their candidates. You can blame elected officials in Congress for exhibiting cowardice on topics like civilian trials for terror suspects and closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Today, however, I would like to blame President Barack Obama for the silliness we saw and heard Saturday night. He practically invited it when he refused to authorize a national commission on torture-- a so-called "Truth Commission"-- that would have filled with factual testimony and documentary evidence the vacuum that now exists on the topic. Such a commission would likely have done for the torture debate what the 9/11 Commission did to all the conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11. It would have separated fact from fiction.

When President Obama let all those Bush-era officials off the hook, when he didn't push for indictments or even Congressional hearings on the topic, he famously said that he wanted to look forward, not back, on the debate over torture. Even though some civil libertarians warned that such magnanimity would backfire on the president, Obama was generally heralded at the time for not putting the nation through the agony of serious self-reflection. Legal and political accountability took a back seat to convenience; we all took the easy way out.

That was in 2009, back before the 2010 election and the debt/deficit debate, back when the President still naively believed that America would be better off if he acted like a bipartisan statesman rather than as a partisan politician. The problem, then and now, is that the disgraced advocates of torture, men like Dick Cheney and John Yoo, never agreed to the truce. They took the gift of mercy the Obama Administration gave them-- no trials, no testimony, no reckoning-- and repaid it with scorn. One side disarmed; the other didn't.

So long as Yoo and Cheney and the gang are still out there, spewing their own discredited versions of law and history, candidates like Cain and Bachmann and Gingrich will be able to market the myth that water-boarding wasn't torture and that torture isn't illegal or immoral. We've traded the inconvenient truths of 2009 for the expedient sound-bytes of 2011. We failed when we had the chance to extinguish from mainstream political thought the idea of torture as a policy. And now it's destined to linger on, like a zombie, lamentably undead and unburied.

Of the candidates in South Carolina, only Paul and Jon Huntsman Saturday night were willing to say what needs to be said, over and over again and to anyone who will listen, about America and torture. For example, Huntsman said:

We diminish our standing in the world and the values that we project, which include liberty, democracy, human rights and open markets, when we torture. We lose that ability to project values that a lot of people in corners of this world are still relying on the United States to stand up for.

He's right and -- along with Paul -- looking up at most of the other candidates in the race. That says a lot, too, about the lingering damage President Obama caused in 2009 when he asked us all to 'look forward" on America's torture policies. We're looking forward, but we don't know where we are headed. We don't know that because our elected officials didn't have the foresight and courage back then to tell us precisely where we had been.  

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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