Americans still capable of focusing on human decency rather than their own comfort should shudder with revulsion at the cheerleading for torture that occurred in the latest Republican presidential debate. These displays of willful ignorance and bloody-mindedness are farcical, but we scoff at our peril—history has too many examples of the vast damage that can be inflicted by buffoons.
For those who missed the spectacle, Bachmann openly welcomed torturing detainees in dungeons because it has worked so well to date. (Members of the audience stopped pulling the wings off butterflies and cheered wildly.) Cain said torture was bad but waterboarding doesn’t count as torture because he heard a general say so. Only Huntsman and Paul came out against drowning people repeatedly to make them talk—note their rank in the opinion polls.
This repugnant display will generate more ammunition for those voices obsessively convinced that we must save our republic by lining up behind Barack Obama. But Obama is the one individual who did most to enable Saturday’s celebration of viciousness. It was Obama who tried to close Guantánamo, met resistance and then dropped the subject. It was Obama who declared three months into his term that we must ‘look to the future’ and not even consider criminal investigations of ‘our’ torturers.
It was Obama who arranged for a new super-max facility to be built (in his home state of Illinois, no less) to house never-convicted detainees in inhuman conditions of isolation, even though they have been convicted of no crimes in any court.
The justification for this shredding of our 500-year-old system of legal protections for the accused, which dates from the resistance to the arbitrary power of the monarch, is that these particular accused are terrorist bad guys. How do we know? Someone in authority, preferably wearing a uniform, said so. Obama has done nothing to resist this mentality, and the argument that he was powerless in the face of right-wing fury is simply an excuse. We have no idea what would have happened if Obama had taken a firm stand against torture and lawlessness because he never did. And despite compromising away his principles, the attacks rain down upon him as a Muslim symp and a weakling anyway.
We have the worst of all worlds, and the torture regime is now an established part of our legal and political landscape with impunity for the perpetrators. The implications are chilling.