Crime/Corruption

Obama on torture: they were just “folks”

An Iraqi man hugs his brother in November 2005 after being freed from Abu Ghraib prison, a site where some prisoners were tied up, hooded and sexually degraded by the American military. – Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

I voted for Barack Obama twice and would do so again, given his election opponents, but man, he can annoy the hell out of me.

This time, it’s his statement Friday that after Sept. 11, the CIA “tortured some folks.” Here’s the story in The Guardian.

Let’s dispense with the small detail first: That statement is a 10 on the no-shit-ometer. Is there anybody who didn’t already believe this? We’re a long way from “breaking news” alerts from your favorite news websites.

I have a bigger problem. It’s Obama’s use of the word “folks.” It’s a colloquial word. It’s relaxed. It’s informal. Example: “My folks have a cabin in Tennessee.” Or “I’m eating barbecue this afternoon with my folks to celebrate my dad’s birthday.”

Obama is a clever enough orator to understand there’s a major difference between “folks” and “people.” The latter word brings to mind—well, ourselves, really. “People” are what you and I are. We have faces, names, families and lives. Almost 3,000 people—not “folks”—died in the Sept.11 attacks.

The same article from The Guardian provides another indication of how Obama used the word “folks” deliberately. Here’s how he referred to members of the CIA who enabled the torture:

 “It is important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job those folks had. A lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots.”

Yep, they’re just folks, just like grandma sitting in a rocking chair on the veranda, doing her knitting. They’re folks, not war criminals.

Something else about Obama’s remarks shows another way he’s still trying to word-dance around the torture: his use of the passive voice, which sweeps the torturers safely out of the bull’s eye of criticism. Again, from The Guardian:

In 2009, for example, he said he believed that waterboarding, one of several controversial interrogation methods used by U.S. intelligence agencies during George W. Bush’s administration, constituted torture, and that “whatever legal rationales were used, it was a mistake.’”

“Whatever legal rationales were used,” he said. The passive voice whisks the “users,” if you will, out of sight. Used by whom? This allows the president to sound candid and principled while at the same time not naming names of torturers, who “crossed a line,” in the president’s words.

True leadership would have been evident had the president admitted, in a much more timely and emphatic manner, that the CIA tortured people. But as NPR reports, the president “stopped the practices when he took office, but he decided against a ‘truth commission’ to examine what happened. Criminal investigations conducted in secret resulted on no charges.” Of course they didn’t. 

Instead of leadership, we get admissions that are empty and reflect no full understanding of the consequences of torture: Again, from The Guardian:

 “When we engaged in some of these enhanced interrogation techniques—techniques that I believe, and I think any fair-minded person would believe were torture—we crossed a line,” he said.

Setting aside the horrific damage and destruction of tens of thousands of people’s lives, including Americans in the military and the citizens of many nations who lost everything, the crossing of this line has added cynicism about how Americans feel about their country. I would be ignorant to believe that the CIA never has tortured people before. However, such a systemic, widespread and widely publicized program of post-Sept. 11 torture has dimmed the light of America in my eyes and the eyes of much of the world. We have lost moral standing in arguments against torture being carried out by regimes anywhere.

I do not dispute that the world after Sept. 11 was a scary place for Americans, and I don’t doubt that the American military and intelligence communities were under great pressure to prevent further terrorist attacks. But “enhanced interrogation techniques” are of little to no value in terms of extracting actionable information. Was the extraction by torture of a little information worth the much larger loss of American prestige?

Depends on which folks you ask.

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