By Eugene Robinson
“I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantanamo, and I will follow through on that. I have said repeatedly that America does not torture, and I’m going to make sure that we don’t torture. Those are part and parcel of an effort to regain America’s moral stature in the world.”
That unequivocal passage from President-elect Barack Obama’s first extended interview since the election, broadcast on “60 Minutes” Sunday night, was a big step toward healing the damage that the Bush administration has done not just to our nation’s image, but to its soul.
Amid the excitement of the election and the urgency of the economic crisis, it has been easy to lose sight of the terrorism-related “issues” that defined George W. Bush’s presidency and robbed America of so much honor, stature and good will.
I put the word issues in quotation marks because torture can never be a matter of debate. Yet the Bush administration sought to numb Americans to what has traditionally been seen as a clear moral and legal imperative: the requirement that individuals taken into custody by our government be treated fairly and humanely.
This doesn’t mean handling nihilistic, homicidal “evildoers” with kid gloves. It means being as certain as possible that the people we are holding are indeed real or would-be terrorists, not unlucky bystanders; and treating these detainees in accordance with international law, as we would expect detained U.S. personnel to be treated.
At Guantanamo, at Abu Ghraib and in a little gulag of secret CIA prisons overseas, the Bush administration failed to live up to these basic responsibilities, and thus sullied us all.
We will look back on the Bush years and find it incredible, and disgraceful, that individuals were captured in battle or “purchased” from self-interested tribal warlords, whisked to Guantanamo, classified as “enemy combatants” but not accorded the rights that status should have accorded, held for years without charges—and denied the right to prove that they were victims of mistaken identity and never should have been taken into custody.
A new study by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley, based on interviews with 62 men who were held for an average of three years at Guantanamo before being released without ever being accused of a crime, found that more than a third said they were turned over to their American captors by warlords for a bounty. Those who reported physical abuse said most of it occurred at the U.S.‘s Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, where about half the men were initially held before being taken to Guantanamo.
Two-thirds of the former detainees reported suffering psychological problems since their release, and many are now destitute, shunned by their families and villages. None has received any compensation for the ordeal, according to the report, titled “Guantanamo and Its Aftermath.”
Years from now, we will be shocked to see those pictures of naked prisoners being humiliated and abused at Abu Ghraib—and we will be ashamed of a U.S. government that punished low-level troops for their sadism but exonerated the higher-ups who made such sadism possible.
Years from now, we will know the full truth of the clandestine CIA-run prisons where “high-value” terrorism suspects were interrogated with techniques, including waterboarding, that both civilized norms and international law have long defined as torture. From what we already know, it’s hard to say which is more appalling—the torture itself, or the tortured legal rationalizations that Bush administration lawyers came up with to “justify” making barbarity the official policy of the United States government.
Obama’s clarity on the issues of Guantanamo and torture stands in contrast to his necessary vagueness about how he will deal with the economic crisis. Torture is wrong today and will still be wrong tomorrow, whereas today’s economic panacea can be tomorrow’s drop in the bucket. Who would have thought that these “war on terror” issues would be the easy part for the new president?
Not that easy, though. More reports like the UC Berkeley study will come out, but this is not a task that can be left to academic researchers alone. The new Obama administration has a duty to conduct its own investigation and tell us exactly what was done in our name. Realistically, some facts are going to be redacted. Realistically, some officials who may deserve to face criminal charges will not. But to restore our national honor and heal our national soul, at least we need to know.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group