It seemed that the debate over torture was going to blow over, but that hasn’t been the case. One week ago, President Obama spoke in the gallery of the National Archives in Washington with four pages of the Constitution for his background, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. He said that America cannot accept torture. America needs a safe and fair system to tackle the problem of detainees who cannot be prosecuted yet pose a danger for the American people. “We need,” he added, “a legitimate legal framework for these detainees. In our constitutional system, prolonged (preventative) detention does not belong.” Congress voted against the funding to close Guantanamo, but the president insisted on Thursday that the detention center will be closed.
One very dangerous detainee, accused of the 1998 attacks on American embassies in Africa, will be tried in a New York court. In Guantanamo, suspects who have not been tried have been tortured until today. But for the first time in four months, the Republican Party believes that it can uncover a huge leak in the White House.
The situation has become dangerously tense. The previous president has kept silent, but his Vice President, Dick Cheney, took the floor at a neoconservative think tank the same time that Obama spoke at the National Archives. Cheney believes that the practices employed in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib are harsh but do not qualify as torture (a nominalism that is hard to solve). For Cheney, the War on Terror cannot be won from centrist positions. The U.S., remember, has not suffered any attacks since September 11th, 2001.
The Obama administration has given short, firm responses to Cheney. The dignity of the nation is not compatible with torture, whoever the prisoner may be, out of respect for that prisoner and his captors. The parents of the American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are who most fear torture, as a form of vengeance that threatens their children.
Guantanamo violates the norms of any democracy (in one week, a Muslim prisoner suffered more than one hundred rounds of water boarding, simulated drowning in a bathtub). According to the director of the CIA, the agency “does not engage in torture, only imaginative tactics.” The intelligence services can kill, but they do not torture. At times, torture works against the state that practices it. A person who is tortured ends up giving false information, provided that his torture ends. Sometimes torture reinforces the cause being fought against: since Guantanamo, jihadism has returned with greater impetus. The U.S. has not suffered more attacks, which is true: but it is not true that that is due to torture rather perhaps in spite of it. Many far right Americans urgently need a terrorist attack these days to prove them right.
Is Obama naive? He does not seem to be. No one in his administration believes in the one-time event theory of one isolated attack. 9/11 is part of an escalating plan.
On Thursday, top White House adviser David Axelrod launched a discreet depth charge: we are fixing problems that have accumulated in the last five or six years, it is a thorny process. Meanwhile, General Colin Powell, a Republican who voted for Obama, backs him in his security policy as opposed to Cheney. Water boarding, icy temperatures, sleep deprivation through the use of loud noises, are practices employed in Guantanamo. As the great American columnist William Pfaff wrote not long ago: “This country has been governed by people who have always defended principles. If the principles are lost, all is lost.”