Torture and the Moral Bankruptcy of Barack Obama (And the Rest of Us)

03/18/2015 05:45 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2015

President Obama deserves credit for his candor. He admits that we tortured people after 9/11, and that our actions violate our highest ideals as a nation. But apologies are hollow if they are not followed by attempts to make amends. "Sorry" is a lie if it is only a word. President Obama needs to prosecute.

The International Criminal Court has opened an inquiry into our actions. The Torture Report leaves little doubt that our so called "enhanced interrogation techniques" were sanctioned by top officials in the Bush administration. But Obama says he would rather not "refight old arguments." With these words, the president betrays our ideals yet again. He has sent a message to the American people and the rest of the world: in the United States not all people are equal under the law. Some people, namely government officials, are more equal than others.

With all due respect, torture is not an "old argument" to be refought. It is a war crime. And it is one of the worst things that can ever happen to a person. The first step of waterboarding is to immobilize the prisoner. He is tied to a table so that he cannot move, rendered utterly helpless. Victims of rape may have some sense of what this kind of helplessness feels like. (The feeling of being powerless, I am told, is one of the hardest things to get over.) Then someone presses a wet towel against the prisoner's nose and mouth, and another pours water over his face. Suddenly, he cannot breathe! Or he feels like he cannot breathe. The words, "simulated drowning," sound so innocuous. But what they really mean is that everything turns to panic! Humanity is stripped away, the world goes away, reason fades, and what was once a person is made to become a terrified body, a mass of nerve endings and primal instincts to survive.


My intention in saying the following is not to sermonize, but let me add that, as a Christian, I find this kind of dehumanization to be the most sickening and reprehensible part of waterboarding. Our founding documents say that all people are born with "inalienable rights." Christians believe they have these rights because they are made imago Dei -- in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). Every human being is precious because every human face is God's face. To press a wet towel against that face in order to fill the prisoner's mind with fear and panic is an act of human iconoclasm. It is nothing short of blasphemy.

We took these divine images and terrorized them with dogs. We blasted rock music into their cells to deprive them of sleep, which is as basic a human necessity as food and water; we thus altered their brain chemistry and made it so their minds could not function. We even anally raped some of them. And we did all of this in the name of the values we accused them of hating. Now it turns out that many of our prisoners, the so called "worst of the worst," may have been innocent people, handed to us by paid informants.

What does it say about our society that there seems to have been more collective outrage over what Michael Vick did to his dogs than what the Bush administration did to people? (If Dick Cheney went on Fox News to defend the water boarding of dogs, everyone in America would immediately see him as a psychopath.) What does it say about our society that more people took to the streets to celebrate the death of Osama Bin Laden than to demand justice for the victims of our hatred and anger? Our morbid enthusiasm at Bin Laden's execution lasted for one night, but we have had years to do something about the war crimes of the Bush administration.

Torturing prisoners was our first sin. Refusing to do anything about it is our second. When President Obama came to office in 2009, he had a chance to show the world that the United States is not above international law. Political expediency might have explained why he chose not to act back then. But now he has only two years left. The only explanation for his lack of action is apathy, both his apathy and ours. Again, I ask, where is the outrage? I understand that the United States is barely a democracy anymore. Nowadays, money is votes. But we can still nudge the system from time to time. We may fail to pressure the president and congress to do their jobs and seek justice for the prisoners we abused, but that is still no reason not to try. At the very least, the American people can show the world that we still care about our values, even if our "leaders" don't.

It is hard to imagine such a response, or lack thereof, from the masses of a similarly large and bureaucratic institution.Consider the Roman Catholic Church. Some of its leaders had been feeding children to pedophile priests for decades (if not longer). It was the outcry of the Catholic faithful that finally moved the church bureaucracy to begin to take steps to address systemic, institutionalized pedophilia. Imagine if, instead, when the scope of the problem and coverup was finally understood, the world's Catholics had responded with a  collective shrug. That is what we Americans are doing when it comes to torture. It is worth noting that, like the United States, the Catholic Church is not a democracy either.

I know it can be hard to demand justice for alleged terrorists, people we have been taught to see as "bad guys." If it helps, some of them are probably innocent, although we can never know for sure so long as evidence remains sealed within the secret proceedings of kangaroo courts. Maybe some of our prisoners were terrorists. Maybe not. Really, it does not matter. The American public has pledged itself to "liberty and justice for all." That means even "bad guys." Outrage is easy, but the greatness of a people is not proved in how it responds to those who mean them well; it is found in how it treats those who hate them. To quote Jesus in the New Testament, "And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same" (Luke 6:33). By that measure, America is not a great nation, but I believe we can take steps to become one if we allow our love of justice to triumph over our desire for vengeance.


Some may accuse me of living in the past, and they would be right. We are all living in the past, and we will remain captive to it until we take responsibility for it. We cannot change the past. A person can never fully atone for her sins. A single act of injustice is like a rock thrown into a pond. Its effects extend well beyond the initial impact. We took years from our prisoners lives, health from their bodies, and sanity away from their minds. We took fathers from children and husbands from wives. That kind of damage cannot be undone. The wounds we inflicted will never fully heal. There will always be scars, some of them deep. But justice can help the healing process. It can give people a sense of closure and make it possible for them to turn the page in their life's story. Our penitence is necessary for peace and for reconciliation. It will also help restore our image in the eyes of the world. One day, it might even make it possible for our victims to find it in their hearts to forgive us.

Whether we voted for Bush or have passively shrugged at Obama's inaction, we bear some responsibility for the torture committed on our behalf and in our name. Pro-life Americans get outraged that some portion of their tax money might go to support Planned Parenthood. If only they were equally wroth to think that some of their tax money bought the buckets we used to torture our prisoners.

There is a saying that the only thing needed for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing, but I disagree. Someone who does nothing in the face of evil is evil. The difference between a person who shoves a child into a street and the one who does nothing to save her is merely academic. In either case, the child is dead. It is true that the apathy of the majority is what allows a few people to commit heinous deeds, but the German theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, is right when he identifies apathy as the worst kind of evil. The opposite of love is not hate. Hatred, in its own twisted way, "cares" about what happens to another person. The opposite of love is indifference. In that case, God help us all!

I understand that nobody will do the right thing all of the time. That is impossible. But a good person will take responsibility for having done the wrong thing. As I tell my children, "Own the mistake, accept the consequences, and try to make amends." President Obama has owned up to our mistakes, but he is not finished yet. Now we must take the next steps. We must accept the consequences and try to make amends. Until we do, we are far more evil than the people we hunted down and terrorized in the name of our alleged peace, security and freedom.

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