Here We Go Again

“Any act by which severe pain or suffering , whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him, or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in, or incidental to, lawful sanctions.”

Definition of “torture” in the United Nations Convention Against Torture

Just when I think that maybe some form of sanity has returned to politics in Washington DC, I am made to face the realization that I am self-delusional. I really thought that for once we were going to debate the issues. Silly me! I now know that we are – once again – going to debate everything but the issues.

Specifically, the issue we are not going to debate is the place of torture in America’s tool kit of investigational devices. This would be an interesting debate and one which sorely needs to occur so that America can find its lost soul. In my humble opinion, the debate should be short and sweet simply because the answer is that it has no place given our mores, morals and legal obligations. However, I realize that I am, at heart, a simple man given to adherence to simple homilies. Given this realization, I am more than willing to let the debate linger on longer than it took me to reach this conclusion since there are apparently a number of people who either (a) don’t understand what it means to be an American when it comes to this issue, or (b) (i) don’t understand the historical definition of torture or (ii) want to redefine it retroactively to make acts previously considered despicable to be free of its taint.

But, we aren’t going to have this debate if several interested parties have their way. Instead, if we are the Republican Congressional leadership, we are going to debate what Nancy Pelosi knew and when she knew it. If we are Dick Cheney, we are going to debate what the unknown memos he has demanded the release of actually say – do they find that we got meaningful information out of the actions now being questioned (as Mr. Cheney asserts) or didn’t we (as many specialists in the area assert). Both are obfuscations of the real issue, but that’s what we do best in Foggy Bottom – obscure the real issues because we might actually have to take a stand and be counted if we discuss issues that really matter.

Think about it for a minute. Do you really give a damn what Nancy Pelosi knew and when she knew it? For that matter, for purposes of the real debate we need to have, do we care whether the CIA lied to her or not? I assert that is another discussion for another day.

Do you really care whether torture is effective or not? If you have any moral standards to which you adhere in your daily life (regardless of their source), you ought not to care. I assert that even if torture is highly effective (the evidence suggests otherwise, but let’s assume for just the merest moment that it is), we ought, as Americans, to have the courage to decry its use by others and to forbid it in our own dealings. And, in fact, we Americans have done just that! The United States signed the United Nations Convention Against Torture in 1988 and the Senate ratified the treaty in 1994. It is the law of our land even if you don’t believe in the United Nations and think it akin to the Tooth Fairy. Our own Senate ratified the treaty and that ratification makes it the law of our land.

I wonder how long it will be before the American voting populace truly decides to throw the rascals out of Washington DC (the “Other Washington” to us simple folks out here in Humptulips County). I thought we had a good start on the process of ridding our nation’s capitol of the vermin, but the media certainly doesn’t seem to understand that the above-described discussions are red herrings (look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls!). I wonder how long it will be, if ever, before the new leadership in Washington rises up and says: “Enough! We are wasting the people’s time and money, let’s have the real debate.”

After reading the last paragraph, you have probably come to the realization that in some respects I do believe in the Tooth Fairy – and in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the concept of the Good/Honest Politician. I do believe that we can get these discussions right if only we stay focused and don’t allow ourselves to be misled or to become shunted aside by obfuscation. The question is whether we have the will and the moral fiber to assert ourselves.

Hmmm. Maybe I had better reconsider the existence of the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus the Easter Bunny and the Good/Honest Politician, but I do so want to believe.

President Obama suggested to the graduating class at the University of Notre Dame this weekend that there should be an honest debate about abortion rights and that each of us should respect our opponents’ opinions. He was dead right when he said this. So, I have to ask: Where is his voice and his leadership on the issue of torture? He is sending very mixed messages our way: “Yes, we will release the memos authorizing the use of torture; no, we won’t release the photographs that establish its use.” “Yes, our actions were reprehensible and un-American; no, we won’t prosecute anyone who authorized the activity and we should only look forward and not back.”

President Obama would be well advised to remember that sometimes you cannot see where you are going without looking back to see from whence in the murk you emerged. It is high time he came to the table on this debate and took his place as the debate grandmaster. His waffling is derailing his moral authority and is getting close to sidelining him from the debate we will inevitably have on the subject. Not only is it time to cleanse ourselves of the stains of the last 8 years, the subject is just too juicy for the Congressional majority to allow it to die a quiet death. We need President Obama’s leadership on this issue, otherwise the debate will happen on someone else’s watch and he will have marginalized his presidency.

We never even seem to get the process of having these debates right. Historically, we always seem to shy away initially from the need to have the debate and find excuse after excuse after excuse not to have them, only to finally do so at an inconvenient future time when the effect of the debate’s findings that we were in error is to cause little more than a yawn. If we are going to learn from history, we need to do so promptly after the complained of acts are finished. We did so after World War II and we actually remembered those lessons for a long time – until uneducated men became President and Vice President.

I suspect the politicians really know that we need these debates sooner than later, but would probably argue that they are doing us a favor by their present-day obfuscations because we need time to let the hotheads calm down. Only an idiot would believe in the appropriateness of that argument. Or, as my sainted Grandmother used to say: “That has a face only a mother could love!”

In the words of Mark Twain: “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”

Or, if you prefer, consider this from Will Rogers: “If Stupidity got us into this mess, then why can’t it get us out?”

As funny as Will’s question is on first reading, there is an easy answer to his question: it won’t. It is high time to try the real thing. Let’s debate openly and honestly, and then let’s apply whatever we learn from the debate and let the chips fall where they may.

About Gavin Stevens

Humptulips County is the wholly fictional on-line residence of Stephen Ellis, a would-be writer, an avid fan of William Faulkner and his Yoknapatawpha County, and a retired lawyer.
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