President Obama found himself in the middle of a crossfire last week, when his administration released four memos written by Bush administration lawyers, in support of what Dick Cheney has called "enhanced interrogation techniques."
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman insisted that "the only way we can regain our moral compass, not just for the sake of our position in the world, but for the sake of our own national conscience, is to investigate how [torture] happened, and, if necessary, to prosecute those responsible." Meanwhile, in The Washington Post, David Broder wrote that, while Krugman's argument is "a plausible sounding rationale, . . . it cloaks an unworthy desire for vengeance."
And, as the week went on, the rationale for using such techniques became increasingly clear. As Frank Rich reported in Sunday's Times, " . . . Major Paul Burney, a United States Army psychiatrist assigned to interrogations in Guantanamo Bay that summer of 2002, told Army investigators of another White House imperative: 'A large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq and we were not being successful.'"
The Bush White House was certain there was a link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden -- they sold the invasion of Iraq on that claim -- and they were convinced that, if they simply kept applying the appropriate pressure, that link would become clear. They needed that link to justify what they planned to do, something former Secretary of Commerce Paul O'Neil confirmed was part of Bush's first cabinet meeting, eight months before September 11th. Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney entered office obsessed with the idea that there was unfinished business in Iraq and -- come hell or high water, or "enhanced interrogation techniques," -- they were going to arrange a do-over.
The job of administration lawyers was to provide a legal rationale for those interrogation techniques. With law degrees from Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Michigan, they could be counted on to deliver. And, as the memos make clear, they did. Their defense now is, essentially, "it seemed like a good idea at the time;" and, anyway, they did not torture; they were merely offering policy options. Countless policies have been abandoned in the light of history and experience.
The problem is that others have been prosecuted and vilified for implementing those policies. Ordinary enlisted soldiers like Lynddie England and Charles Graner found their names placed in the docket. They were then court martialed, imprisoned and labelled "just a few bad apples." What is required is not vengeance, but justice.
The torture debate reveals a recurring pattern -- whether on Wall Street, in Washington or -- for that matter, as the Omar Khadr case make clear, in Ottawa. The folks at the bottom pay for the misjudgments and mistakes of those in authority. And the advantage of authority is that it buys immunity. Mr. Obama -- and Mr Harper -- have been confronted by a call for justice. They may not wish to respond. But the longer justice is denied, the angrier the reckoning will be.