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Obama's First Hundred Days: Torture, Transparency, and Swine Flu

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The 'net has changed everything, from 1) the way we are viewed both by others and by ourselves 2 )to how we think about the Somali pirates 3) to how we respond to Swine flu. The world is now a place of transparency, and that can be both exciting and frightening. After all, as Warren Buffett said, "when the tide goes out, you find out who's swimming naked."

When Mosaic's first Netscape browser was introduced in 1993, it opened the riches of the world wide web to the public. For the first time, people outside universities could really see what resources were on the Internet, and it was all down (or up) hill from there. Since then, the web has only grown, and what's more, it has grown from the edges -- content is user-generated, by anyone who cares to post it. The growth of broadband worldwide has meant immediate contact with people ALL over the world, and instantaneous transmission of information, both good and bad.

As a result, President Obama really can't be compared to any other American President, except perhaps President Bush 43. No one else has lived under these conditions. I'm sure Obama finds them trying.

First of all, he's not going to be able to turn the page, at least not without Congressional hearings, on torture. If he doesn't allow hearings, other countries will hold them for us, because unless we police ourselves, we have lost all claim to moral authority.

We became the "good guys" after World War II because we rebuilt Europe, did our best to remember the Holocaust, and participated in the war crimes tribunals held all over the world. America, everyone thought, was the land of the free, home of the brave, country of laws and fairness. We don't torture.

Believe me, outside the US the argument isn't whether it worked-whether we got good information from torture or bad. It's about whether, as the moral arbiter of the world, the convener and host of the United Nations, America had any right to do to "terrorists" what we judged so many others for doing. If we don't subject ourselves to some kind of self-flagellation, which doesn't necessarily mean prosecuting the perpetrators, but at least apologizing to the world for what we did, we will never regain the influence we have lost over the last eight years.

Especially since we've also been tagged with starting a global economic recession. We need all the good will we can summon.

Because, as the internets have pointed out, with the proliferation of different points of view and the dredging up of carefully buried and redacted information out into the sunlight, one's man's terrorist is another man's hero. The Somali "pirates," in our society, are wage-earners and food gatherers in their own. Their fishing beds have been raided by the boats of others, and poisoned by the dumping of hazardous waste in our oceans -- the hazardous waste of countries far from Africa who knew they could do it because Somalia was a failed state.

And the Islamist "terrorists" are, in their own culture, religious martyrs. Just as the Israeli "terrorists" are the defenders of the homeland, and the Palestinian "terrorists" are the defenders of the Holy Land. These perspectives are widely published online.

At some point not too far in the future, the transparency of the web will force us to be honest about all this, and to respect the points of view that are now flooding the online world from every corner of the globe, and, indeed, from our own records. How long did it take the Nixon tapes to be released: 30 years? How long did it take Bush's records? 30 days?

Lest you think all is lost, and yearn for the days when Roosevelt could hide his paralysis and Kennedy his womanizing, there are magnificent and life-saving upsides to this troublesome transparency. Look at swine flu.

Two days ago, no one knew swine flu existed, yesterday people were already tweeting CDC Alerts, and last night my male dinner companion brought me an N-95 face mask as a gift. By today, the information about where to go and what to do was everywhere. If this is indeed a pandemic (whatever that is), the speed with which information travels, and the transparency of the processes, will be quite a change from when China tried to hide bird flu and SARS. In fact, arguably we can stop this from developing into a pandemic by using the same transparency that spreads information about what actually happened in Abu Graib.

And think of the young medical student who thought he'd get away with killing a stripper even though he had a Blackberry.

Today, some talking newshead asked an administration spokesperson whether President Obama knew about what was being done to avert the swine flu pandemic. What a stupid question. Obama may have been golfing, but he does have a Blackberry.

HT to Mark Salustro for much of the thinking in this piece.