12/10/2014 01:13 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Thomas Becket and the CIA Torture Report


In the year 1170, King Henry II was engaged in a furious power struggle with Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket had been a close ally of the king, who had appointed him to reform the Church and cede more power to the throne. But after his appointment as Archbishop, Becket had a religious conversion and bitterly opposed Henry's attempt to seize power from the Church. In a fit of rage, Henry publicly declared, "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?"

Without further ado, four of Henry's knights rode off to Canterbury cathedral where they found Becket at prayer before the high altar. One of the knights hit Becket on the head with the flat of his sword, perhaps not intending to kill him. But when Becket resisted, the knights proceeded to butcher him, cracking open his skull and spilling his brains onto the floor of the cathedral.

When he heard the news, Henry was truly horrified and put on sackcloth and ashes, and starved himself for three days as penance. Becket was soon declared a martyr and canonized a few years later, his shrine in the Cathedral becoming famous throughout the Christian world. The story of the murder has been told for centuries in literature and song, including T.S. Eliot's play Murder in the Cathedral.

The incident has also become important in legal, political and diplomatic circles as the issue of moral responsibility of political leaders has become more important, most horrifically in the case of the responsibility of the German leaders during World War II, but in many other cases in the recent past. As political and military leaders face criticism or even trial because of the action of their subordinates, their defense is most frequently "I never ordered them -- or even wanted them -- to do such a terrible thing."

But the case of Henry and Becket is a perfect illustration of how terrible political crimes occur. A leader will utter a vaguely worded desire in the heat of the moment -- or more likely create a climate of revenge -- and his subordinates translate the vague desire into specific, often tragic action. Over and over again, political leaders have been held responsible for the actions of their subordinates, whether they ordered the specific action or not. In the case of American presidents, "the buck stops here," or, as President George W. Bush said, "I am the decider."

Which brings us to the release of the report on the horrific incidents of torture by the CIA in the years after September 11. Former President Bush, in a careful statement, praises the CIA operatives as "patriots," while not either condoning or defending their actions. Former Vice President Cheney calls the report "a bunch of hooey" and decries the damage to national security. While they may feel some chagrin at the actions of their subordinates, they are clearly not donning sackcloth and ashes, even though they as the nation's leaders bear the ultimate responsibility for these crimes.

We have often heard in the defense of torture that we are no longer dealing with rational states who might refrain from if we do the same. The terrorist groups are torturing our people (and lots of others), so why shouldn't we torture them? Senator Feinstein, and many others dating back to World War II and before, have come to the conclusion that there is no justification for torture whatever the cause, whoever the enemy.

Furthermore, extensive experience in counterterrorism by Israel and many European countries show that torture is a useless exercise that rarely produces valid intelligence and almost always produces false information. Time and again, the Israelis and the Europeans warned the CIA that torture techniques were pointless and led to false intel, but still they persisted.

Bush apologists may argue that this was a "rogue" operation by the CIA, but that does not explain why Bush would refer to these CIA torturers (sorry, but that's what they are) as "patriots." What is missing is any assumption of moral -- not to mention legal -- responsibility for the perpetrators of these crimes. Ultimately, history, if not an international court, must clothe Bush, Cheney and their colleagues in the sackcloth and ashes that they deserve. And finally, we as Americans must also bear the moral shame for these acts.