January 12, 2009
From Liberty Street


John Turner

Yesterday, on Fox News Sunday, George Bush said the most truthful thing he has uttered during his presidency. He announced that he rejects the word "torture." He certainly does reject the word, just not the practice. His whole term in office has been based on the notion that he could do anything he wanted as long as he called it what he chose. It's a common habit in politics but Mr. Bush has resorted to it more completely than any other major figure in U.S. history.

He is peculiarly fitted to use the technique by the quality of his mind. Most people, even when they're determined to deceive by twisting words, feel a pang when language is befouled. They know somewhere deep in themselves that words are a precious human heritage and that when we try to make them into nothing more than tools of opportunism we are injuring ourselves. I really don't think George Bush knows that.

If you were to ask Mr. Bush if he has ever thought of the relationship between words and their referents, I can't be sure what he would say. But my best guess is, "Huh?"

Barack Obama also made news yesterday by asserting, in response to a question about prosecuting crimes committed by members of the Bush administration, that we need to look ahead and not backward. I'm pretty sure that Obama does understand that those are weasel words employed mainly for the sake of avoiding a big fuss with Republicans at the start of his presidency. Unlike Mr. Bush, he knows that connections do exist and that the tie between what was done in the past and what will be done in the future is, like the bond between words and their referents, vital to human well-being. I'm not sure how he intends to construct that link, but I would be disappointed to discover he doesn't think it needs to be made.

In an interview last week, John Dean, White House attorney during the Nixon administration, said that many prosecutors outside the United States are waiting to see what this country will do about war crimes and tortures widely believed to have been committed by Bush and his people. In the international community there's a sense that these matters are best handled by authorities in countries where they occurred. But if those authorities refuse to take notice of them, others devoted to international law will take them up. Dean thinks it would be a major embarrassment to the United States and to Obama for charges against major American figures to be raised in international courts. Again, unlike Bush, Obama understands that there is a strong bond between America's reputation abroad and our ability to initiate and support policies that will enhance our health and our leadership. So, in Dean's opinion, Obama will be forced, sooner or later, to acknowledge the possibility that serious misdeeds occurred.

There's another connection about the torture chronicles that has been badly distorted by the press, and that's the link between popular culture and government practice. It has been reported that authorities at the prison in Guantanamo are fans of the TV series 24, because they think it makes a strong case for torture.  Jack Bauer, the hero of the series, in fighting melodramatic villains, has clearly done things that are legally questionable. But there are two major differences between what Jack Bauer does and what seems to have done in military and CIA prisons around the world.

Jack Bauer uses dire methods only when he knows beyond doubt that some specific thing is about to happen that will kill or injure large numbers of American citizens. Furthermore, the things that Jack does are over within about thirty seconds. Neither of those characteristics apply to the measures alleged against American authorities. There has been no ticking bomb scenario, and, in fact, most intelligence experts say it is hard to imagine one occurring in real life. In addition, the techniques used most often in American prisons are not over in thirty seconds, but go on hour after hour, day after day, month after month. Waterboarding may be an exception, but waterboarding has been given far too much attention by the press. Nobody, as far as I have heard, has been killed by waterboarding, but there are strongly backed charges that prisoners have been tortured to death by American authorities.

If the cases reported in such respected accounts as Jane Mayer's The Dark Side were to be fully laid out in a court of law, the public would be hard put to find much connection between them and what happens on popular TV melodramas.

The torture issue raises multiple connections, all with the potential to affect the nation's future. Obama clearly has a good mind and, so, we have every right to hope that he is spending some of his mental energy thinking through how he will manage the unbreakable bonds between bad behavior of the past and what he would like to see in our future.


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