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Rory O'Connor

Rory O'Connor

Posted April 30, 2009 | 03:42 PM (EST)

Time to Think About Torture and the Media


Ever wake up in a funk, just spoiling for a fight?

Me too -- and when I do (despite my best Buddhist intentions) I invariably reach for the New York Times and turn to the latest column by Tom Friedman, that Op-Ed gift that keeps on giving such deep-rooted and seemingly willful sheer wrong-headedness as to make ire rise, blood boil, and bile taste most foul. What I seek most from opinion columnists is consistency, and Friedman, consistent and persistent in his excuse making for the powerful, never disappoints in this regard.

Thus it was no surprise to find him hailing 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.

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." Nevertheless, he justified the "Obama compromise" and failure to prosecute by offering two reasons not to go after the evildoers: "the first is that because justice taken to its logical end here would likely require bringing George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and other senior officials to trial, which would rip our country apart; and the other is that Al Qaeda truly was a unique enemy, and the post-9/11 era a deeply confounding war in a variety of ways."

Why Friedman and his ilk fear that prosecuting senior officials who break the law will "rip our country apart" more than their having ignored the law, the Constitution and any conceivable standard of basic morality is best left to him, his shrink and his God. But Friedman's apologia -- which recognizes that, "yes, people among us who went over the line may go unpunished" but concludes, "because we still have enemies who respect no lines at all," Obama is doing his "best" in an "ugly war" by letting the torturers go unpunished -- is but the latest in a long line of journalistic defenses of torture by well-paid, prize-winning and access-granted mainstream journalists.

Consider, for example, Newsweek Senior Editor and NBC News correspondent Jonathan Alter, who wrote shortly after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 that:

In this autumn of anger, even a liberal can find his thoughts turning to... torture. OK, not cattle prods or rubber hoses, at least not here in the United States, but something to jump-start the stalled investigation of the greatest crime in American history. Right now, four key hijacking suspects aren't talking at all.

Couldn't we at least subject them to psychological torture, like tapes of dying rabbits or high-decibel rap? (The military has done that in Panama and elsewhere.) How about truth serum, administered with a mandatory IV? Or deportation to Saudi Arabia, land of beheadings? (As the frustrated FBI has been threatening.) Some people still argue that we needn't rethink any of our old assumptions about law enforcement, but they're hopelessly "Sept. 10" -- living in a country that no longer exists.

Alter's before-and-after excuse echoed that of US counterterrorism coordinator Cofer Black, who infamously noted, "There was 'before 9/11' and 'after 9/11.' After 9/11 the gloves came off." Alter went on to observe, "Actually, the world hasn't changed as much as we have," and that "judges and lawyers" are left "in a strange moral position. The torture they can't see (or that occurs after deportation) is harder on the person they claim to be concerned about -- the detainee -- but easier on their consciences. Out of sight, out of mind."

What about the "strange moral position" of the many media figures who countenanced torture, or who now hail the failure to prosecute the torturers out of some misguided fear the country will be "ripped apart?" Such moral concerns present no problem to "realists" such as Alter and Friedman, since "Some torture clearly works."

Of course, "We can't legalize physical torture," Alter opined, as "It's contrary to American values." Still, "we need to keep an open mind" about other torturous measures -- "and we'll have to think about transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies, even if that's hypocritical. Nobody said this was going to be pretty."

Sadly, Alter is not alone among leading journalists and pundits in adopting a more favorable and "modern" assessment of torture. Lest we forget, Mark Bowden, another acclaimed journalist who is a national correspondent at the Atlantic, wrote a feature in the October 2003 edition of that magazine and noted that professional terrorists such as captured Al Qaeda operatives "pose one of the strongest arguments in modern times for the use of torture," and that "A method that produces life-saving information without doing lasting harm to anyone is not just preferable; it appears to be morally sound." Bowden later added, "It may be clear that coercion is sometimes the right choice," and -- to be perfectly, one hundred per cent clear, "the Bush Administration has adopted exactly the right posture on the matter. Candor and consistency are not always public virtues. 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."

Alter and Bowden aren't the only MSM journalists to have defended torture or the torturers in the immediate wake of 9/11, and Friedman is but the latest. As the ever-excellent watchdog group FAIR has documented, they have plenty of company.

No pretensions to legal scholarship attended the pro-torture shoutfest that took place on the McLaughlin Group's November 9 show, where four out of five of the panelists endorsed torture. The Washington Times' Tony Blankley and MSNBC's Laurence O'Donnell joined host John McLaughlin and National Review editor Rich Lowry in approval of torture. Only Newsweek's Eleanor Clift objected. (When Clift asked her co-panelists where they would send suspects for torture, McLaughlin shouted, "The Filipinos!" while Lowry barked, "The Turks!")

On October 26 CNN news anchor Paula Zahn pressed Philadelphia police commissioner John Timoney, trying to get him to endorse extra-legal means in the case of terror suspects. When she asked him if 'beatings' might be appropriate, Timoney stood his ground: "No. No. This is America, you know."

A day later on CNN's Crossfire (10/27/01), conservative Tucker Carlson was succinct: "Torture is bad. Keep in mind, some things are worse. And under certain circumstances, it may be the lesser of two evils. Because some evils are pretty evil."

When it comes to America's torturing, none of us are blameless in our actions, our ignorance or our acquiescence -- not the President and other senior officials who allowed, not the President and senior officials who condone it by refusing to prosecute, and certainly not citizens who elected them and then looked away. Like Jonathan Alter and his ilk, we all preferred to keep our dirty little torture secrets "out of sight, out of mind." But hell should reserve a special place for those journalists who abdicated their professional and constitutional duties in exchange for access and exaltation -- because yes, young Tucker, some evils ARE pretty evil...