There are many people in this country, including government leaders, who don’t want to know what the CIA did to prisoners suspected of terrorism.
There are other people who simply believe no matter what happened at “black sites” it is best to move on and not look back. Former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama are among those.
And there are many ordinary Americans who think it is unfair for congressmen to question President Donald Trump’s CIA director nominee, Gina Haspel, about what “enhanced interrogation” methods she approved of as chief of base at a black site and whether she ordered the destruction of records.
I believe as a citizen of the United States it is my duty to know what our employees did to people in prison camps.
We owe it to all of our allies who joined in the Nuremberg Trials following World War II in an effort to make Nazi leaders accountable for their war crimes, not only to punish them for atrocities, but also to send a signal to the rest of the world that such behavior would not be tolerated.
Germans who claimed they were simply following orders were sent to prison and even hung. That defense was mocked by Americans for 60 years.
Following the terrorist attacks of 9-11 and the deaths of nearly 3,000 people, the U.S. government decided to authorize actions previously forbidden to prevent another attack.
That included a secret program of surveillance on American citizens without court order.
And it included a Justice Department memorandum allowing, even condoning, the use of what had previously been considered torture.
Prisoners could be slapped, stripped naked, held in cold cells, deprived of sleep, waterboarded, slammed into walls, deprived of food for significant periods of time and then placed in a small box — repeatedly.
This was not torture, according to our government at the time, because it was necessary.
Americans such as John McCain thought otherwise. The U.S. senator from Arizona had been a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He knew torture when he saw it or heard about it. He denounced those tactics and made it clear that he was prepared to ask Haspel some tough questions if she was nominated for promotion.
There are many, including those in the CIA, who consider Haspel a hero. They believe she and other CIA officers have been thrown to the wolves, betrayed, by government leaders who encouraged them to do whatever it took to protect Americans.
There is truth to that. The government leaders who encouraged such activity and those who turned the other way have avoided accountability. It is also true that most Americans didn’t want to know what was being done in our country’s name.
If it saved even one life, if it stopped one terrorist attack on American soil, we were satisfied.
But if we feel it is necessary to torture our enemies, we cannot argue that it is wrong for our enemies to torture Americans. And if that was your son in a prison cell stripped naked, with a hood over his face, having buckets of water repeatedly poured over his head and left hanging from manacles in a cold cell for hours, you would not call it “enhanced interrogation.”
You would call it torture.
Yes, our enemies have done far worse to Americans. But we do not strive to be them. We have always claimed that we are different. Better.
Our country has made mistakes in the past. But we have always been willing to confront them, to acknowledge our errors and take pains to avoid repeating them.
Now we have accepted torture as justifiable. Our government has endorsed it under the guise of “enhanced interrogation.”
A line has been crossed, and in the future people will use this history to justify doing so again. President Trump has said he endorses such tactics.
We need to decide if this is who we are and, if so, are we proud of it. Burying the truth tells me we are not.
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