Thursday, April 15, 2010

Dealing With Our Demons

I have spent a tremendous amount of energy over the past seven years on human and civil rights activism. When I was in high school, I started a chapter of Amnesty International which now thrives; during my first three years of college, I tried to save the AI chapter at Indiana. The fight for the universal recognition and defense of human rights is a really big deal for me as a person, and because of that, the biggest problems I had with the Bush Administration weren't the economy or the gross abuses of power -- they were always things like Guantanamo Bay and torture.

Of all the things that the preceding administration did, I feel like the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" was the worst, primarily because it's something about which I can't believe there's disagreement. It seems so antithetical to the things that America stands for, and the flaws in the argument for its effectiveness are abundant. (Here is where I was going to link to a clip of Dee getting waterboarded on "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," but evidently none exist. Thanks, Internet. The relevant line is Frank's "Yeah, I got her to admit to things she never even did!") Hell, even Shepard Smith agrees. He even swore and banged on his desk about it.

I know that if you're reading this you probably already agree with all or most of what I just said, so I won't waste any more time trying to convince you. What's more important is the way we proceed.

Late last month Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell when he was Secretary of State, gave testimony in the Hamdi case concerning Bush administration policy on so-called enemy combatants. It's about what we thought it was. Many detainees "had never seen a U.S. soldier in the process of their initial detention" and not only was their detention not under any real review, but often no evidence pertaining to the detainee was turned over, meaning that the staff at Guantanamo Bay sometimes had no way of knowing why a person was even there.

The worst part is that according to Wilkerson's conversations with Secretary Powell, he believed that the problems went all the way to the top, with Secretary Rumsfeld, Vice President Cheney, and President Bush all involved in the decision-making. Essentially, any problems weren't because of a few bad apples -- decisions were coming from the White House.

We need to do something about this. It cannot be ignored. Some want President Obama to give President Bush a full pardon, a la Ford/Nixon. Honestly, I like this idea. Without rehashing the post to which I just linked, it offers a good mixture of maximizing responsibility for the actions of the previous administration while minimizing the political damage to this one. It would also offer us an opportunity to find out exactly what happened, as insiders would be less worried about prosecution. We could figure out what exactly we did and make sure that it never happens again.

I understand why nothing like this has happened. It would still be politically rough, to say the least. On our side, he'd be hammered for being too soft on the Bushies. On the right flank, he'd take it for being soft on terrorism, or the like. The President has an agenda, and he's trying to implement it, and the political capital he'd have to spend would likely put some other issues off for a while. It wouldn't be as bad as if the Justice Department attempted to prosecute, but there would be damage done.

But without sounding too grim, this is a little bigger than politics. This is really about what America is, and what we stand for. Either we stand for the rule of law and liberty, or we don't. We can't really prosecute the entire Bush Administration without tearing the country apart, but we can't sit idly and refuse to acknowledge that some really bad things happened from 9/11 until President Obama took office without it potentially having the same effect down the road.

The United States doesn't have the best record historically in terms of human rights. We've helped to enslave Africa and tried to wipe out the continent's native population, or at least get them out of our way. We've imprisoned our own citizens because they happen to have the same ancestry as people with whom we're at war. We continue today to deprive citizens of their rights due to their sexual orientation. This is something that we continue to confront as a nation every day, and I really think it's time that we stop adding more links to the collective chain of our sins that we have to carry. To paraphrase Shepard Smith (something I never thought I'd say): We're America. We are better than this. We need to do something about it. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but it has to happen, and I think our President needs to be the one to do it.

While he campaigned, the President asked us as individuals to be the change that we wish to see in the world. We ask countries like China and Sudan to end their human rights abuses, but those requests would probably have more weight to them if we did so ourselves. The President is working on closing Guantanamo, but I don't think that's enough. We need to confront what happened there before we can move on, because if we don't, there's nothing to stop it from happening again. We as a nation need to be the change we want.


Andrea Watts said...

Thomas, great post!

We need more content on human rights.

Welcome to Lefty's Last Cry!

Rabi Abonour said...

Thomas, this post is helping the terrorists win.

Except not. Great post man.

Thomas Wachtel said...

Thanks, everyone. Glad you all liked it.

P.S. This is kind of awesome, though it goes a bit against what I was saying.