President Obama's semi-surreal and disconnected "debate" on Thursday with former Vice-President Cheney over Guantanamo, torture and national security provides an opportune moment to pose Three Good Questions for our times.
Actually, the questions were asked by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967: "What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?"
Johnson's questions came during the announcement of the Presidential commission to investigate the racial violence and riots that tore through urban America in the "long, hot summer" of 1967 - the year before Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. The inquiry would be known as the Kerner Commission after its chairman Governor Otto Kerner, Jr. of Illinois. Unfortunately for the country's future, most of the Commission's wisdom was tossed into the wastebasket with Richard M. Nixon's arrival in the Oval Office. The Kerner Commission's call to create new jobs, construct new housing, and put a stop to de-facto segregation was not a priority under Nixon and the Republican Party's new "Southern Strategy."
But today, LBJ's "Three Questions" still resonate as the nation grapples with the accusations of torture in the interrogation of suspected terrorists during the Bush/Cheney Administration. They were the very same questions that the country had to ask after Watergate. And during the Church Committee's investigation of abuses by the CIA and FBI in the 1970s. And by the Tower Commission probing Iran-Contra during the Reagan years. And again, most recently, by the 9/11 Commission.
It is also worth noting that the formation of each of these commissions or investigations usually ran up against the same sort of brick wall of objections now being raised to any kind of full-scale investigation of torture as official American policy.
In his National Archives speech addressing national security issues, President Obama said:
"I can stand here today, as President of the United States, and say without exception or equivocation that we do not torture, and that we will vigorously protect our people while forging a strong and durable framework that allows us to fight terrorism while abiding by the rule of law. Make no mistake: if we fail to turn the page on the approach that was taken over the past several years, then I will not be able to say that as President. And if we cannot stand for those core values, then we are not keeping faith with the documents that are enshrined in this hall."
What the President would not say is that the country needs to address the Three Questions when it comes to the Cheney's euphemistic "Enhanced interrogations." The problem with the President's "turn the page" stance is that it fails to look at what was written on the page. This approach it is just as foolhardy as it is wrong. In pure political terms, the torture question has all the looks of the mythical Hydra -- cut off one head and two grow back. The Pelosi-CIA storm. The photographs that were set to be released and then held back. Count on it--there will be new revelations. These stories are not going to go away. A President who came to office promising unprecedented transparency should know much better -- nasty things grow when they fester in the dark. The torture controversy will only continue to spread its tentacles. Leaks, the Internet and enterprising reporters all but guarantee that.
LBJ's "Three Questions" lie at the core of the rigorous self-examination that fans of the popular HBO series In Treatment know are the essence of personal transformation. They are hard and often painful questions. But sometimes they bring clarity and healing. A healthy, functioning democracy must go through the same sort of intensive therapy when confronting unpleasant realities. Such a reality includes the revelations of the official sanction of torture, a policy that does not fit into this nation's fundamental, founding principles.
In a very different time in America, George F. Kennan, the architect of America's Cold War "containment" policy, once said:
"The worst thing the Communists could do to us and the thing we have most to fear from their activities is that we should become like them."
He probably wasn't even thinking of falling so low as to borrow techniques, like waterboarding, used by the Communists during the Korean War. And Kennan might well disagree with Vice-President Cheney's assertion in his "rebuttal" to Obama's speech:
"No moral value held dear by the American people obliges public servants to sacrifice innocent lives to spare a captured terrorist from unpleasant things."
There is, of course, a large difference between torture and "unpleasant things." And once we become so frightened of exploring those differences and finding the truth that we -- the media, our elected officials and the public at large -- cease to be willing to confront the Three Basic Questions, we increase the grave risk of becoming "like them."
That can hardly be the "change" President Obama had in mind.