Five Stages of Impunity for Torture
One hallmark of the administration of President Barack Obama has been the commitment of the administration to move forward and not look back—to, as a Democratic Party operative only concerned with election results might say, not re-litigate the eight years of the administration of George W. Bush. This means no accountability for those responsible for committing torture. It means no justice for torture victims.
Professor Alfred W. McCoy, author of Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation, was on “Democracy Now!” on Friday to talk about his book. Host Amy Goodman played a clip of President Obama in his first prime-time press conference giving a slick, calculated but somewhat banal comment on whether the administration would have a truth and reconciliation commission examine the past years of the Bush administration.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: My administration is going to operate in a way that leaves no doubt that we do not torture, that we abide by the Geneva Conventions, and that we observe our traditions of rule of law and due process as we are vigorously going after terrorists that can do us harm. And I don’t think those are contradictory. I think they are potentially complementary. My view is also that nobody is above the law, and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen, but that, generally speaking, I’m more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards.
McCoy reacted to this clip saying what Obama said was an example of “the third stage of impunity.” He then went through the stages of impunity, a “universal process” that he argues “happens in countries emerging from authoritarianism that have had problems with torture.”
Step one, McCoy stated:
…is blame the bad apples. Donald Rumsfeld did that right after the Abu Ghraib scandal was exposed in 2004.
Step two is saying that it was necessary for our national security—unfortunate, perhaps, but necessary to keep us all safe. That was done very articulately by former Vice President Cheney at the time, and he continues to make that argument. He claims that these “enhanced techniques,” as he calls them, i.e. CIA torture, saved thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of lives. OK?
The third step is the step we just witnessed in President Obama, saying that, well, whatever might have happened in the past, we need unity as a nation, we need to move forward together into the future. So, the past isn’t germane. We need to put it behind us, not investigate, not prosecute. And that was the position he was taking there.
In the fourth stage, those implicated in acts of torture seek not only exoneration for their crimes but also vindication. For example, former Bush administration officials argued “enhanced interrogation under the Bush administration led the Navy SEALs to Osama bin Laden,” despite there being no evidence for the claim. They created pressure on Attorney General Eric Holder to not investigate torture and drop investigations into torture, which appears to have worked.
“The fifth and final stage,” according to McCoy, is “rewriting the history, rewriting the past, ripping it apart, without respect to the truth of the matter, and reconstructing it in a way that justifies the torture.” Vice President Dick Cheney’s appearances on news television have frequently been utilized for this purpose—to make it seem as if torture was effective in getting suspected terrorists to talk so that plots could be disrupted.
Like the Party slogan in George Orwell’s 1984, “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past,” The Party controls the records, which allows it to control all memories. That allows the Party to control the past.
This is but another vile aspect of President Barack Obama, his administration, the Democratic Party leadership’s fealty to the mantra of moving forward and not looking back now enshrined in the messaging of the Obama 2012 campaign with the simple word, “Forward.” It is but another despicable aspect of members of Congress, especially Democrats, and supporters of Obama and Democrats’ refusal to raise their voice to take issue with the administration’s inaction and active refusal to prosecute individuals for torture.
Without accountability or justice, those who were at the center of acts of torture may work to clear their name, as if they never committed any wrong. They are able to suggest that if what they had done was criminal, they would have been put on trial. They would have been charged with committing a crime, but there are no prosecutions so all the civil liberties and human rights advocates and the antiwar or peace activists may just be part of focus groups, which happen to be deluded.
No justice gives former officials license to argue there was no torture. No convictions gives former officials the conviction and brass to sit before a television camera, write a memoir or pen an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal and assert what they did was for Americans’ protection and it is wrong for them to be scrutinized or questioned.
This does a great disservice to the victims of torture, especially those still indefinitely imprisoned in Guantanamo; but it is the inevitable byproduct of the Obama administration’s complicity in allowing officials responsible for torture to walk free. To the extent that the Obama administration continues to subject prisoners to torture and outsource torture to allies in the “war on terrorism,” it is worse than complicity. It is a coverup—an act to conceal and ensure the national security state can continue to be purveyors of violence and torture against those the US contends it has a right to indefinitely hold in detention without charge or trial, without judicial or due process.