Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures…or do they?
While the torture debate rages around the globe, I believe we need to step back from emotional responses, name-calling and demanding the heads of the tyrants (see John Cusack and Sean Penn on The Huffington Post). Sometimes divisive issues bring out the best and the worst in people. But haven’t we progressed enough to have reasonable discourse on the issues that divide us? For any serious discussion about torture, I think we need to first understand our own history – specifically the history of the Executive branch as it relates to actions under the guise of a perceived “national crisis”.
News flash: Laws and policies are constantly changing and sometimes they are altered by the Executive branch during times of national crisis. This is nothing new or unique. The Bush administration certainly was not the first to use its authority to override national or international laws during a time of national crisis. Let us, for a moment, travel back to the nineteenth century and revisit one of America’s most revered national heroes: Abraham Lincoln. President Lincoln’s name and legacy have been evoked many times over the past several months, mainly due to the fact President Obama hails from the Land o’ Lincoln.
Unfortunately, what most Americans don’t know is that Lincoln suspended the Writ of Habeas Corpus, abolished certain freedoms of the press and even had those who publicly disagreed with his policies arrested. He also condoned POW torture in order to obtain military information from the Rebels. President Lincoln was certainly a tyrant to many. He was also a savior to others. The point is not to admonish Lincoln for the decisions he made, but to revisit the facts - Lincoln unquestionably authorized torture and abuses in POW camps, like Camp Douglas near Chicago, with little to no public knowledge or resistance. He also authorized General William Tecumseh Sherman to burn the South while his army frequently committed war crime after war crime, destroying families and plundering civilian property, and did not stop Sherman’s infamous “March to the Sea”. The Confederate soldiers in Camp Douglas and civilian victims of General Sherman were not unrepentant murderers or religious zealots, yet they received treatment much worse than the Al-Qaeda detainees.
Ultimately, I think that we can all agree that Lincoln made some tough, controversial decisions in order to preserve the Union. He clearly did what he thought was right at the time. The same can be argued for the Bush administration. September 11th was an extraordinary time in our nation’s history. The past administration used enhanced interrogation techniques to obtain information from individuals who participated in and were complicit in the murdering of thousands of innocent American civilians on American soil. Laws were written and policies were put into motion to allow these techniques and obtain information from some of the most dangerous organized killers in the world. Unlike President Lincoln, the Bush administration cooperated with and informed the legislative branch of their intentions, and both Democratic and Republican leaders encouraged the administration to move forward.
Throughout our nation’s history, certain Presidents have had to make extremely controversial decisions in order to preserve our country’s sovereignty, liberties, and unity. John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts; Andrew Jackson ordered the removal of the American Indians to the West; Lincoln launched the Civil War; Truman dropped the atomic bomb; and Kennedy invaded Vietnam. I believe the actions of the Bush administration regarding torture should be left to the historians to determine whether these choices were right or wrong and not to frivolous lawsuits and investigations that will do nothing but further divide an already divided country. I agree with President Obama’s original reaction - let’s move forward. While I believe that a debate can be had on the parameters of what is and what is not torture, to claim that the act of water boarding a high-ranking Al-Qaeda terrorist is among the worst crimes in our nation’s history is without merit. I think it is time the detractors study and understand our nation’s history before evoking it.
Adams, Charles. When in the Course of Human Events: Arguing the Case for Southern Secession. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2000.
Levy, George. To Die in Chicago: Confederate Prisoners at Camp Douglas 1862-65. Pelican Publishing, Inc. 1999.
Thornton, Brian. 101 Things Things You Didn’t Know About Lincoln: Loves and Losses! Political Power Plays! White House Hauntings! Adams Media Co. 2005
Trudeau, Noah Andre. Southern Storm: Sherman’s March to the Sea. Harper Collins Publishers. 2008.