Friday, April 17, 2009

Torture: you might not like it, but I can see where President Obama's coming from

Barack Obama's decision not to prosecute those responsible for the torture of those held at Guantanamo Bay has come in for much criticism from, how can I put this, people like us. "How can we let these people off scot free?", is an obvious question, given the circumstances.

However, I find myself in agreement with his decision. Not because I see a place for torture in any criminal justice system, nor because I believe that people shouldn't be held to account for their actions. The thing is this, should you prosecute people for doing something they have been told, by an authority as high as the Attorney General, is legal?

I personally think not. And yes, I am well aware that the 'only following orders' defence is a lame one. The problem is that, through the decisions of the Bush Administration, the normal frameworks within which combatants are handled were torn down, only to be replaced by whatever Dick Cheney and his neo-con cohorts said was permissable. Challenges to various aspects of the regime at Guantanamo Bay were lost in the thickets of appeal, process and Presidential decree, whilst the ability of politicians to scrutinise the intelligence community has always been limited.

In effect, any moral lodestone had been lost, leaving those at the sharp end of prisoner interrogation floundering in an ethics-free environment.

So, if you can't prosecute those who carried out the torture, surely you can prosecute those who gave the orders? Not so fast, Tiger...

The difficulty here is in proving that the law was actually broken. I'm not an expert in US law, and I know few people who are. Whilst waterboarding and the various other methods used to extract information are vile in nature, and in their impact on the victims, it is obvious from the actions of senior US law officers that the position was not as transparent as it might have been.

So, whilst prosecutions of Cheney and others might provide a degree of moral satisfaction, it is far from certain that they would be successful.

I think that President Obama has displayed a sense of pragmatism here. Torture has no place in a civilised society, no matter how evil our opponents are, and I trust that such acts will be prohibited, regardless of the circumatances. The victims of torture must be compensated and rehabilitated where possible. And then let the IRS loose on Cheney's tax returns...

1 comment:

Hywel said...

"The thing is this, should you prosecute people for doing something they have been told, by an authority as high as the Attorney General, is legal?"

"Be you ever so high, the law is above you"

In a situation like this is it something the judicial system should decide or for the President to make a blanket ruling?

There are so many nuances to individual acts that personally I'd prefer to see the former.