Restoring Human Rights Must Be Next Prez’s Top Priority

Both major presidential candidates have promised to roll back the Bush Administration’s torture archipelago. Both say they’ll close Guantánamo, abolish legalized torture, and respect the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war. Obama also pledges to eliminate “extraordinary rendition,” in which the CIA kidnaps people and flies them to other countries to be tortured, and says he will investigate Bush Administration officials for possible prosecution for war crimes.

If followed by other meaningful changes in behavior–withdrawing from Afghanistan and Iraq and foreswearing preemptive warfare–restoring the rule of law and respecting the rights of “enemy combatants” can start America’s long, slow climb back to moral parity in the community of nations. But there are worrisome signs that Barack Obama and John McCain’s commitment to moral renewal is less than rock-solid.

McCain, who claimed to have been tortured as a POW in North Vietnam, says a lot of the right things. “We do not torture people,” he said in a 2007 Republican debate. “It’s not about the terrorists; it’s about us. It’s about what kind of country we are.” He used his Vietnam experience against fellow Republicans, bullying Congress into passing a law banning torture against detainees held by the military.

Bush signed McCain’s bill in late 2005, saying it “is to make it clear to the world that this government does not torture and that we adhere to the international convention of torture, whether it be here at home or abroad.”

Days later, however, Bush issued a secret “signing statement” declaring that he would ignore the Detainee Treatment Act. NYU law professor David Golove, an expert on executive power, said: “The signing statement is saying ‘I will only comply with this law when I want to, and if something arises in the war on terrorism where I think it’s important to torture or engage in cruel, inhuman, and degrading conduct, I have the authority to do so and nothing in this law is going to stop me.”

McCain, who says as president he would veto a bill rather than issue a signing statement negating its contents, was no doubt angry about Bush’s perfidy. But, fearful of alienating Bush and the GOP leadership as he geared up for his ’08 presidential campaign, he remained silent.

In February of this year, McCain backtracked still further from his anti-torture position, voting against legislation that would have blocked the CIA from subjecting inmates in its secret prisons to waterboarding, hooding, putting duct tape across their eyes, stripping them naked, rape, beatings, burning, subjecting them to hypothermia, mock executions, and other “harsh interrogation techniques.”

“The CIA should have the ability to use additional techniques,” he argued. He refused to explain why the CIA ought to be allowed to torture while the DOD should adhere to international standards of civilized behavior.

The U.S. continues to torture.

Unlike McCain, Obama remains a critic of officially sanctioned torture. “We’ll reject torture–without exception or equivocation,” Obama says. He would also end “the practice of shipping away prisoners in the dead of night to be tortured in far-off countries, of detaining thousands without charge or trial, of maintaining a network of secret prisons to jail people beyond the reach of the law.”

The trouble is, Obama isn’t laying the groundwork for stopping torture or closing Guantánamo or other U.S. gulags in his stump speeches. He talks a lot about energy policy, healthcare, jobs and the economy–and withdrawing troops from Iraq so they join the war against Afghanistan instead. If he becomes president, people will expect him to do those things. Without a sustained focus on human rights issues, however, any moves he makes will seem to come out of the blue–and face stronger pushback from Republicans anxious to bash him as weak on national security.

Why doesn’t Obama emphasize Bush’s war crimes? Maybe he’s trying to play the Great Uniter, or maybe he knows that many Americans don’t give a rat’s ass about the pain inflicted against people they’ll never meet in places they’ve never heard of. Who knows? All we know for sure is that, day after day, Obama fails to talk about what is arguably the worst crime of the corrupt Bush Administration.

Of course, renouncing torture isn’t enough. Those who authorized it must be held to account. However, it doesn’t seem likely that they will.

Asked in April whether he would prosecute Bush Administration officials for authorizing torture, Obama delivered his now-familiar duck-and-cover: say the right thing, then weasel out of it. “If crimes have been committed, they should be investigated,” he said.

But not for at least four years: “I would not want my first term consumed by what was perceived on the part of the Republicans as a partisan witch hunt, because I think we’ve got too many problems to solve.”

Memo to Barack: This isn’t about prosecuting Republicans. It’s about prosecuting torturers.

“Prosecution of any officials, if it were to occur, would probably not occur during Obama’s first term,” Slate reports, citing Obama campaign insiders. “Instead, we may well see a Congressionally empowered commission that would seek testimony from witnesses in search of the truth about what occurred. Though some witnesses might be offered immunity in exchange for testimony, the question of whether anybody would be prosecuted would be deferred to a later date–meaning Obama’s second term, if such is forthcoming.”

First would come a South African-style “Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” where the truth would come out. But the torturers would get off scot-free.
“The commission would focus strictly on detention, torture and extraordinary rendition, or the practice of spiriting detainees to a third country for abusive interrogations. The panel would focus strictly on these abuses, leaving out any other allegedly illegal activities during the Bush Administration, such as domestic spying,” says Slate. Second–well, there might not be a second. Even if there is, shortsighted Americans’ appetite for justice and accountability will probably have been diluted by the time 2013 rolls around.

Mainline media liberals, in conjunction with Obama supporters, are even going so far as to suggest that Bush issue his torturers with a blanket pardon in exchange for their testimony at Obama’s toothless commission.

Regardless of who wins in November, we will get a president who’s better on torture and other human rights issues than George W. Bush. At least their words sound nice. But real change and moral redemption will only begin if we–Democrats, Republicans and everyone else–demand the next president stands by his pretty promises.

Until they start taking taking torture, Gitmo and human rights seriously, neither Obama nor McCain should be able to appear in public without facing questions and heckling about these issues.


13 Responses to “”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    As usual, soft-on-terror liberals like Rall are trying to weaken the US. According to Rall, we should try to understand the terrorists, and determine if their motivation is our fault. It’s the liberal mantra: Blame America First.

  2. djelimon Says:

    The problem as you have pointed out is that this election is about guns and butter.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Anonymous # 1, are you Christian? If yes, you need to read the manual again. Love, Jesus Dorme bene.

  4. djelimon Says:

    anonymous at 11:05

    This is a put-on, right? You’re pretending to be some kind of stereotypical mouth-breathing neocon reciting 2006 talking points?

    I hope so, because somehow the Allies managed to fight the Germans during WWII without having to torture them with CommChi techniques expressly designed to produce FALSE CONFESSIONS.

    Torture buys nothing in terms of security. It does however, make the US become more of a rogue nation in the eyes of America’s allies, whose goodwill we need to fight this war where the enemy has no boundaries.

    Maybe torturing people makes you feel safe or maybe it just makes you feel good, but it does not help us.

  5. mishap Says:

    anonymous…did you even read the freakin’ essay? If you support torture, you’re a sadistic monster. There is no gray area here, no justification, and no defense.


  6. Jana C.H. Says:

    I didn’t read one word from Ted about understanding terrorists and determining if their motivation is our fault. He was writing about being tough on criminals– which torturers are, no matter what their citizenship, religion, or public office. As with accused terrorists, I say we should put ’em on trial, toss the guilty ones in the slammer and throw away the key.

    To get info from prisoners we need to use effective interrogation methods, not a technique that produces only what the torturer wants to hear. Even if you don’t give two hoots about human rights, I’d think you’d care about getting accurate intelligence instead of garbage. I’m really tired of soft-on-crime conservatives who think we should try to understand torturers and determine if their motivation is the fault of their victims. Get tough, wimps!

    Jana C.H.
    Saith Winston Churchill: The power of the executive to cast a man into prison without formulating any charge known to the law, and particularly to deny him the judgment of his peers, is in the highest degree odious, and the foundation of all totalitarian government.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    There is quite a bit of difference between being soft-hearted and mean-spirited. A real problem with some brands of liberalism is putting process above action. I would emphasize both the war crimes and the quite successful attempt to install an imperial presidency. Neither of those are partisan matters and neither of those means taking the position that acts of terrorists anywhere are something that should be ignored or dismissed as justifiable.

    The real red herring is the economy. That is the easiest one to resolve. The same goes for environmental issues. This one requires a sustained effort but there are plenty of places to start; even business knows this and that would create many good jobs in all regions of the country.

    The problems Ted is highlighting require thinking and acting like a citizen instead of a knee-jerk supporter of a gang of despots who were able to hijack a major political party and wrap themselves in national symbols every chance they get. What happens when these supporters wake up and realize that they have been played for fools? The US began with a war of independence. The revolution came 200 years later and has installed exactly the kind of government it rejected at the beginning. This time, though, most don’t seem to notice let alone know that the basic intention of liberals was to reject anything like a monarchy, theocracy or imperial government. All major parties in America were founded on those types of principals and just differ when it comes to the specifics about how the principals are realized.

    That’s a problem with democracies; they can vote themselves out of existence.

  8. Angelo Says:

    A Joker said:
    It’s the liberal mantra: Blame America First.

    This joke gets recited on the radio daily. Who do you suppose is to blame for this country’s sins?

  9. Anonymous Says:

    I really don’t “get” signing statements. The Executive’s job is to execute the laws. He’s saying he won’t do his job.

    Anyone else, anyone who refuses to do their job gets fired. How come we can’t fire him for that? I don’t know from impeachment, or “high crimes and misdemeanors,” or any of that stuff, but I do know that he’s not doing what we pay him to do.

    In fact, he’s admitted it (bragged about it) in writing. What more do we need?

    Maybe the presumptive candidates ought to promise to uphold the laws. Oh, wait, the Current Occupant promised that on a Bible — didn’t make a damn bit of difference.


  10. Anonymous Says:

    The next president whether he is Obama or McCain will change nothing
    regarding human rights and torture and as matter of fact anything else. Bush policies, both demostic and foreign will continue
    exactly as is with possible minor
    changes in details and rhetoric.

  11. Kurt Says:

    Anon #1:

    So, from your POV we should not understand cultural or economic reasons for problems that result in violent actions? You think that we should kill ’em all and let God sort it out? Who cares about Blowback, right? We, the soul owners of freedom and goodness get to parcel that out in neat little packages to the rest of the world, but nobody else has a right to self-determination? You are clearly a scholar of the highest order. Thomas Paine is your favorite, right? Gimme a break. You slack-jawed dumbasses are going to get us all killed and wreck our economy.

  12. Edward Says:

    Obama is allegedly a US Senator and does not need to wait to be elected to do something about torture.

  13. Nam De Plume Says:

    Soldiers are not policemen. If they encounter an non-uniformed enemy shooting at them, that enemy is dog meat as far as I’m concerned. Do with him as you will. The Geneva Conventions are only useful when dealing with nations with uniformed soldiers. Their good treatment in captivity is a tit-for-tat insurance for our own POW’s. Of course torture (if psychological, non-lethal or painless techniques truly must be lumped in with electro-shocking, hot iron branding and beatings) demeans the torturer and gains little. So what. So does war itself. It’s Hell, after all. To ensure that it is a rarely used method of conflict resolution it shouldn’t be nice.

    When the enemy we fight is not one whose leaders order beheadings of reporters, use women and children to bomb other women and children in schools or markets, attack cartoonists or writers for imagined slights against an imaginary god, or fly airplanes full of innocent travelers (not soldiers) into highrise buildings filled with stock brokers and janitors, then I’ll think about being more than a little miffed at our defense forces heavy-handedness.

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