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Rory O'Connor

Rory O'Connor

Posted May 12, 2009 | 06:25 PM (EST)

Media Torture


What is it about torture that is so seductive to our mainstream media?

First, our leading (and often "liberal") commentators and analysts, writing in supposedly respectable publications such as Newsweek and The Atlantic, tried to appear as tough-minded believers in realpolitik by siding with such REALLY tough-minded believers as Dick Cheney when he led our country over to "the dark side."

Then multiple Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Friedman -- ever consistent and persistent in his excuse making for the powerful -- hailed, in a recent column, Barack ("Split the baby") Obama's "torturous compromise" to expose, but not prosecute, those responsible for violating our Constitution and international law by torturing in our names. This despite the fact that, as Friedman accurately noted, "More than 100 detainees died in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan, with up to 27 of those declared homicides by the military. They were allegedly kicked to death, shot, suffocated or drowned. Look, our people killed detainees, and only a handful of those deaths have resulted in any punishment of U.S. officials."

Then Jacob Weisberg, chairman and editor-in-chief of the Slate Group, agreed with Friedman's contention that there should be no torture prosecutions because we had all "acquiesced" in the Bush-Cheney Torture Agenda; we were all "the President's accomplices," and thus "pursuing criminal charges would be too hard legally and politically and too easy morally." According to Weisberg's twisted morality and logic, "Prosecuting Bush and his men won't absolve the rest of us for what we let them do."

His explanation for this astounding conclusion is simply that "everyone knew" about the torture -- so no one should be prosecuted for it:

"Congress was informed about what was happening and raised no objection. The public knew, too. By 2003, if you didn't understand that the United States was inflicting torture on those deemed enemy combatants, you weren't paying much attention. This is part of what makes applying a criminal justice model to those most directly responsible such a bad idea. The issue we need to come to terms with is not just who in the Bush administration did what but how we were collectively complicit in their decisions."

Unfortunately, seeing and hearing leading and allegedly liberal media figures such as Weisberg and Friedman blame the rest of us for the Bush-Cheney moral failings -- and then claim that prosecuting senior officials who break the law will "rip our country apart" -- has now become as common as seeing and hearing the likes of Newsweek Senior Editor and NBC News correspondent Jonathan Alter, or The Atlantic's National Correspondent Mark Bowden, say things like "In this autumn of anger, even a liberal can find his thoughts turning to... torture," which can "be morally sound," as Bowden wrote. "It may be clear that coercion is sometimes the right choice."

"Couldn't we at least subject them to psychological torture, like tapes of dying rabbits or high-decibel rap?" Alter demanded. "How about truth serum, administered with a mandatory IV? Or deportation to Saudi Arabia, land of beheadings?"

As Bowden explained in the formerly august pages of The Atlantic, "The Bush Administration has adopted exactly the right posture on the matter...Torture is a crime against humanity, but coercion is an issue that is rightly handled with a wink, or even a touch of hypocrisy; it should be banned but also quietly practiced."

That makes us accomplices? I think not -- remember, the same media figures told us, falsely, that "Some torture clearly works," that "we need to keep an open mind" about it, and that "we'll have to think about transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies, even if that's hypocritical." After all, my fellow "accomplices," as Alter wrote in his Newsweek column shortly after 9/11: "Nobody said this was going to be pretty."

But nobody ever said it would get this ugly, either! As if the calls for torture and the claims that prosecution will "be too hard legally and politically and too easy morally" weren't infuriating enough, we now find the latest media/torture depredation: The Philadelphia Inquirer has had torture architect John Yoo on its payroll as a columnist since last year!

As revealed by Will Bunch in his excellent Attytood blog, the Inquirer now "defends the indefensible" with its rewarding of a monthly column to Yoo, author of the infamous 'torture memos' that in 2002 and 2003 gave Bush and Cheney "the legal cover to violate the human rights of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, based on the now mostly ridiculed claim that international and U.S. laws against such torture practices did not apply." As Bunch noted, "Working closely with Dick Cheney, Cheney's staff and others, Yoo set into motion the brutal actions that left a deep, indelible stain on the American soul."

Not deep enough, however, to prevent Bunch's "colleagues upstairs at the Philadelphia Inquirer" from signing Yoo up for a regular monthly column. "The Inquirer thus handed Yoo a loud megaphone on what was once a hallowed piece of real estate in American journalism," Bunch pointed out. "To write on the very subjects that have now led Justice Department investigators to reportedly recommend disbarment proceedings against Yoo and has led international prosecutors as well as millions of politically engaged Americans" to consider him worthy of charging with war crimes.

"Yoo's immoral guidance," Bunch says, "aided the United States in sanctioning the torture practice known as waterboarding -- used in the Spanish Inquisition, by despots such as Pol Pot and by Chinese Communists in the Korean War to obtain false confessions from Americans -- as well as slamming detainees into walls, part of a harsh interrogation regime that has been linked to the deaths of at least a dozen U.S. detainees and possibly more. But apparently the Inquirer didn't get the memo on Yoo."

Or maybe they did -- and that's why they hired him. After all, defending torture -- and the torturers -- is now a long accepted practice in American journalism, one that brings you much acclaim and access to power, bylines, headlines, prestigious awards, and lucrative contracts.

Plus there are all the reader benefits to consider as well! As editorial page editor Harold Jackson's stated, Inquirer readers now "have been able to get directly from Mr. Yoo his thoughts on a number of subjects concerning law and the courts, including measures taken by the White House post-9/11. That has promoted further discourse, which is the objective of newspaper commentary."

Oh good -- just what we need from our leading media -- further discourse on why torture is a good thing from a columnist who is also America's top defender of the practice. And of course let's remember, while we're at it, never to prosecute Yoo for actions that have shredded our democratic values. After all, we're all his accomplices... if you believe the media!

Weisberg, Friedman and their ilk should be ashamed of themselves. Kudos instead to Will Bunch, who had it right when he concluded:

"For a much-honored newspaper like the Inquirer to pay someone like Yoo to write a regular column is surely the exclamation point on a dark period in which most of my profession flunked its greatest moral test.

As an American citizen, I am still reeling from the knowledge that our government tortured people in my name. As a journalist, the fact that my byline and John Yoo's are now rolling off the same printing press is adding insult to injury."