Monday, June 18, 2018
Opinion

Column.: Obama's breezy words for post-9/11 torture

"... But we tortured some folks."

— President Barack Obama, Aug.1, 2014

Okay, in the first place: "tortured some folks?" Really?

Was there not something annoyingly breezy in the president's phrasing last week as he acknowledged the abuse of suspected terrorists in the wake of Sept. 11? Was there not something off-putting in the folksy familiarity of it?

"We tortured some folks."

What's next? "He raped a chick?" "They stabbed a dude?"

Granted, it's a relatively minor point. But to whatever degree phrasing is a window into mindset, the president's phrasing was jarring. It is, however, what he said next that we are gathered here to discuss.

Obama, speaking to reporters Friday, invoked the atmosphere after Sept. 11 to explain why the CIA, ahem, tortured some folks. He reminded us that we were all terrified more attacks were imminent and our national security people were under great pressure to prevent them. So while what they did was wrong, said Obama, "It's important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had."

In other words, we were all scared spitless, so it's ... understandable if not precisely condonable, that the CIA behaved in ways that betrayed our national values. But the president is wrong.

In fairness to him, though, let's stipulate a few things:

One: Obama has never wavered in calling the torture of suspected terrorists precisely what it was, nor in defining it as a betrayal of what America is supposed to stand for. He did so again last week. "We did some things that were contrary to our values," he said.

Two: Those things did not happen on Obama's watch. It was George W. Bush's administration that rationalized and justified the use of so-called "enhanced interrogation." Bush made this mess. Obama is just the guy with the push broom.

Three: Obama was trying to walk a political tightrope that was probably unwalkable. Anticipating declassification of a Senate report that is said to cast a harsh light on these tactics, he sought to signal disapproval of what the CIA did, yet not throw its personnel — who now, after all, work for him — under the proverbial bus. That wouldn't be great for morale.

All that said, it was disappointing to hear the president invoke the frenzy of that era as a mitigating factor. By that logic, you could justify the internment of Japanese Americans in 1942, the McCarthy witch hunt of the 1950s, or dozens of other sins against freedom strewn like scars across the face of American history. All were born of the same broken rationale: We were scared, so we did things we should not have done.

The thinking seems to be that sometimes fear makes our values too heavy to uphold. Actually, it is our capacity for fear that makes them more critical to uphold. And it is disingenuous to pretend the hysteria of the 9/11 era was such that anyone might have done the same thing. Not only is that not true, but it also insults the moral courage of people like Sen. John McCain and Obama himself who did stand up and say, emphatically and at political risk, that this was unworthy of us. So it's not that it was impossible to speak reason, but that the torturers refused to hear it. They followed orders instead.

The president opposes the idea of prosecuting them for that and he's right. That would cast a pall over American intelligence gathering for generations forward. But there is a lesson here that urgently needs learning, an accounting that ought not be ignored. With the best of intentions and the approval of a morally blinkered White House, the CIA vandalized American honor and all involved must be called on it. That isn't sanctimony.

It's patriotism.

© 2014 Miami Herald

Comments
Editorial: Trump should stop taking children away from parents at the border

Editorial: Trump should stop taking children away from parents at the border

Innocent children should not be used as political pawns. That is exactly what the Trump administration is doing by cruelly prying young children away from their parents as these desperate families cross the Mexican border in search of a safer, better...
Updated: 2 hours ago

Editorial: ATF should get tougher on gun dealers who violate the law

Gun dealers who break the law by turning a blind eye to federal licensing rules are as dangerous to society as people who have no right to a possess a firearm in the first place. Yet a recent report shows that the federal agency responsible for polic...
Published: 06/17/18
Updated: 06/18/18
Editorial: Encouraging private citizens to step up on transit

Editorial: Encouraging private citizens to step up on transit

The new grass-roots effort to put a transportation package before Hillsborough County voters in November faces a tough slog. Voters rejected a similar effort in 2010, and another in 2016 by elected officials never made it from the gate. But the lates...
Published: 06/15/18
Editorial: 40 years later, honoring remarkable legacy of Nelson Poynter

Editorial: 40 years later, honoring remarkable legacy of Nelson Poynter

Forty years ago today, Nelson Poynter died. He was the last individual to own this newspaper, and to keep the Times connected to this community, he did something remarkable. He gave it away.In his last years, Mr. Poynter recognized that sooner or lat...
Published: 06/15/18

There was no FBI anti-Trump conspiracy

The Justice Department released Thursday the highly anticipated report on the FBI’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe and other sensitive issues in the 2016 election. It is not the report President Donald Trump wanted. But there is enough i...
Published: 06/14/18
Updated: 06/15/18

Voter purge may be legal, but it’s also suppression

The Supreme Court’s ruling last Monday to allow Ohio’s purging of its voter rolls is difficult to dispute legally. While federal law prohibits removing citizens from voter rolls simply because they haven’t voted, Ohio’s purge is slightly different. T...
Published: 06/14/18
Updated: 06/15/18

Editorial: Free rides will serve as a test of whether the streetcar is serious transportation

Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to ride for free?This fall, the TECO Streetcar Line eliminates its $2.50-a-ride-fare, providing the best opportunity yet to see whether the system’s vintage streetcar replicas can serve as a legitimate transportation a...
Published: 06/14/18
Updated: 06/15/18

AT&T and the case for digital innovation

A good way to guarantee you’ll be wrong about something is to predict the future of technology. As in, "One day, we’ll all …" Experts can hazard guesses about artificial intelligence, driverless cars or the death of cable television, but technologica...
Published: 06/14/18
Editorial: State, nonprofits share obligation to help Hillsborough’s foster kids

Editorial: State, nonprofits share obligation to help Hillsborough’s foster kids

The Florida Department of Children and Families has correctly set a quick deadline for Hillsborough County’s main child welfare provider to correct its foster care program. For too long the same story has played out, where troubled teens who need fos...
Published: 06/14/18
Editorial: Educate voters on Amendment 4 and restoring felons’ rights

Editorial: Educate voters on Amendment 4 and restoring felons’ rights

This fall voters will have 13 constitutional amendments to wade through on the ballot, but Amendment 4 should get special focus. It represents a rare opportunity to rectify a grievous provision in the Florida Constitution, which permanently revokes t...
Published: 06/13/18
Updated: 06/14/18