Sunday, April 26, 2009

"Heart of darkness"

Wayne Brown (Trinidad & Tobago Express):
"The trouble with torture is that sometimes it works; and when it does, the devil sings." (Simon Jenkins: UK Guardian, April 21, 2009.)

As those who have followed Barack Obama's meteoric rise over the past 28 months will have realised, at some point, he is the consummate political animal. Indeed, what separates him from the failed Democratic presidential candidates of the past-Humphrey, McGovern, Dukakis and Gore-has been the clarity of his recognition that all else depended on his achieving and retaining power-and the ruthlessness with which he's pursued that end.
What's difficult yet important to realise is that such opportunism doesn't mean that Obama is at heart a blank slate, and intent upon writing thereon only things that are politically advantageous to him. To the contrary, from his writings and his years in public service, we know him well; and it's a fair conclusion that, in all the big things, his heart is in the right place.

But Obama knows, more clearly than his predecessors, that politics is the art of the possible, and that there's no point in having the most progressive agenda if you're not in a position to enact it.

Indeed, this pragmatism has been the secret of his success-until now. Until, that is, the Golden Boy set out, as he did last week, to negotiate with the heart of darkness.

The Bush administration's creation of a global network of torture camps was not merely an "excess". It was a crime against humanity, it broke both US and international law, and it affronted the very meaning of America. No democracy can practise torture; the two things exclude each other. And Obama was not just right upon assuming office to announce the impending closure of Guantanamo and the CIA's "black sites"; philosophically, he had no choice.

He coupled these announcements, however, with a proclaimed determination not to investigate or prosecute the torturers: a clearly untenable position he tried to justify by talking about this being not a time for retribution but a time for "looking forward".

This was of course both a-historical and philosophically tendentious: try to imagine the Allied governments, at the end of World War II, telling their shattered citizenry that they weren't interested in the "retribution" which the Nuremberg trials would involve, and that, in the interest of "looking forward", Goering, Bormann and the other surviving members of Hitler's genocidal regime would be allowed to live out their lives as they pleased.

Obama is, of course, much too sophisticated legally to believe in the tenability of his stated position himself. As legal commentators have pointed out, so long as the US Government doesn't prosecute its torturers, it remains complicit with them. Then why has he adopted it?

The answer is that if there's anything that can derail an Obama presidency, cripple his agenda, and remake the US electorate into the scared and vengeful, rightwing polity it became after 9/11 (when even the world's "great" newspapers, the Washington Post and The New York Times, abandoned all professionalism to become, instead, mindless cheerleaders for the coming Iraq War), it's another successful terrorist attack on US soil; and Obama is only too aware of this.

It's why he won't end the Bush administration's programme of warrantless wire-tapping; why he has made an exception to keep open the notorious torture camp at Afghanistan's Bagram Air Base (where several "suspected terrorists" have been tortured to death over the past seven years); and why, above all now, he's judged that he cannot afford to make an enemy of the CIA, his first line of defense against another 9/11.

So, even when he blinked last week in the face of growing pressure to permit Congressional and other investigations of the Bush administration's torture programme, he nonetheless tried to shield the CIA operatives who actually carried it out-never mind that this put him, once again, in breach of the UN Convention Against Torture (to which the US is a signatory) which binds governments to take into custody those, high or low, guilty of perpetrating it.

As for the Bush hacks who wrote the travesties of legal opinions purporting to legitimise torture, Obama reluctantly conceded that it was up to Attorney General Eric Holder and his Justice Department to decide what to do about them. And as for those who demanded the programme in the first place-none other than Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice, and the rest of that criminal gang-Obama was conspicuously silent about them. Clearly he is horrified at the thought of how politically divisive their prosecution would be. And how such a polarisation of Congress would imperil passage of his ambitious (and thoroughly progressive) agenda.

Nonetheless, with the release by the Obama administration of some of the Bush regime's torture memos, the genie has been let out of the bottle. Just as in Watergate, that genie seems likely now to roam, and rise, not stopping until it arrives at the doors of those who, until January 20, occupied the highest positions in White House.
And on philosophical, moral, and even political grounds, there's no sorrier sight in Washington these days than that of Barack Obama-Barack Obama!-trying desperately-granted, for his own, good reasons-to stuff that genie back from whence it came and cork up the bottle.

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