I don’t care that the torture report makes George W. Bush and Dick Cheney bad. I care that it makes us all look bad. Now that the report by the Senate Intelligence Committee has been released, more or less, to the public—and that’s a very good thing—we should seize this opportunity to agree that there is no place for torture in our national security toolbox.
It’s time for us to be the good guys again.
Unfortunately, they released this report in Washington, DC, where it is as likely to engender a productive, thoughtful discussion as debating our relationship with Cuba would be in Miami. Some liberals have used the report as fresh evidence for old crimes. Some Republicans even accused Democrats of releasing the report to “appease our enemies,” “put…America in danger,” “make Westerners less safe in the world and once more crush morale at [the] CIA.” And that was just Ted Cruz’s spokeswoman.
Cruz himself, not content to let his PR team win the day, said Democrats released the report to prove that “everything, everything, everything is George W. Bush’s fault.”
The belief that releasing the torture report, and not the torture itself, damages our standing and security in the world is so naïve, it’s nearly endearing. It’s based on the wrong-headed idea that the rest of the world was unaware of the contents of the torture report when Americans were the last to know what was done in our name. And it’s not the release of the torture report that incites terrorism. It’s the torture.
The report put out by the Senate Intelligence describes behavior more at home in a Saw sequel than in West Point textbooks. I could have lived a long, happy life without knowing that “enhanced interrogation” is a translation from the original Gestapo term “Verschärfte Vernehmung,” or that someone decided hummus was the appropriate food for rectal feeding.
It doesn’t fundamentally matter that torture is ineffective at preventing attacks. A nuclear bomb works just fine, but we don’t use it because we don’t accept the moral cost. Yet for years, we—and yes, this is on all of us, folks—have countenanced the small-bore erosion of our character that torture caused.
When did we forget that we were supposed to be the good guys? Did it never occur to them, or rather us—it’s us that did all this—that what we were doing was turning the heroes of our intelligence community into state-sanctioned terrorists? No one read their Neitzsche. In fighting the monster, we became a monster.
Now the bill on our Faustian bargain has come due, and the politicians in DC are going through the motions of patting their pockets, making a show of looking for their wallets. Let’s use the release of the torture report as a confession, followed by repentance.
America is not without sin, but we’re still the country everyone turns to when something goes wrong. Think about it: When ISIL manifested a living nightmare in Syria, did anyone ask, “What’s France gonna do?” Monsters still hunt, and the world still needs a good guy to kill it. If not us, who? Canada?
But we do not defeat the bad guys by becoming a different nightmare. We win not just when we defeat those who attack us but when our foreign policy is an extension of our values and when the way we engage with the world reflects our character at home. Let’s not let the debate over the torture report devolve into a theater of absurdist posturing that follows a tired script of partisan finger-pointing. This is our chance to agree—all of us—that torture is not who we are.
Jason Stanford is a partner with the Truman National Security Project. He is also a national Democratic consultant who writes regular columns for The Austin American-Statesman and The Quorum Report. Views expressed are his own.