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As we well know by now, the Obama administration has outlawed those procedures most of us consider to be torture. Other rulings included a target date for closing Guantanamo and exempting low-level CIA personnel from punishment. We approve these steps. We also prefer that our president look forward for the future is now.

However, letting criminal behavior go unrestrained provides ammunition to critics both at home and foreign who can claim Obama is copying Bush and is himself a polarizing president. That is not true of course, but it is the appearance that counts. We strongly suggest action be taken to punish criminal behavior, provided that the solution is bi-partisan, the Constitution is amended to prevent criminal behavior on high and at the same time that we as a people look inward for the deeply seated roots of this problem that most of us may not even realize.

As it is, Obama has released enough ammunition for Congress to base investigations on. And that is proper.

But can Congress do its job absent more complete information?

We wonder.
First some background.

Does Torture Work?

To a degree, of course. And when it works, it is quicker.

Inexperienced, low-level, operatives may well tell his/her captors anything they want to hear.

What good is that?

Low-level operatives rarely know much beyond how and where they were trained. They also are more likely to just repeat back what the interrogator wants to hear. It is rare that these people can offer helpful insight.

Veterans will sometimes come out with usable information to avoid the pain. As often as not, however, they provide misinformation or none at all.

Top-level operatives are the hardest nuts to crack. The typical result of torture is no information at all.

WWII methods differed considerably. We used interrogators who shared, language, culture, and religious backgrounds with the operatives. Instead of hard-nosed questions and painful punishment, they employed simple friendship, played games and other pleasantries to establish relationships within which the operatives more often than not passed on useful information, sometimes in idle talk. Being understood and understanding the other side at the individual level is vital in interrogations. Operatives at all levels, who can identify with their captors, tend to be more inclusive in disclosing whatever they might know. Veterans of WWII interrogation teams agree on the effectiveness of their procedures. Even German generals, top-level people, provided information! The interrogators took time to get bonded with the prisoners, and it paid off. The Pacific war has a similar history.

All this is the easy part. The harder part is recognizing what is going on within ourselves; yes our very own selves. Vengeance is natural to most of us; much of the world literature is full of it. It is a knee-jerk reaction to meet violence with violence that arises from our jungle/savanna heritage. So it is easy to interrogate from our guts instead of our heads. Since retribution is natural, too few people get worked up over this issue.

Nevertheless, we live in a society with rules that govern our behavior in the interest of the safety and well-being of all of us. In America, we have a Constitution that serves this purpose to our nation. It is backed up by a legal code that fills in the details. The Constitution and legal code bear on the substance of this page. The issue addressed is simply stated.


Where does it begin?
Where does it end?

The Neocons say the "actual perpetrators are guilty," never mind that they were only acting under direct orders. Rational people say the "situation must be investigated so appropriate action can be taken." The hard Left agrees except that "this issue must have top priority and punishment must be swift and severe." The hard Right asks: "Where is the crime? Anything goes in the fight against terror."

Things are never so simple that one shoe size can possibly fit all. What may be right for an individual may be very wrong for society, or the other way around.

There are broad issues:
  • Most broadly perhaps: Do we as a nation want to address an issue that will surely be divisive when the times require outreach and healing?
  • How can we not bring people guilty of war crimes to justice when it is in our interests to obey our own laws and set an international example of justice?

And there are narrow issues:
  • Can we afford the time, distraction and human capital required to clean up a mess in these critical times?

  • Any trial of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld will surely be acrimonious. What will that do to our political system? Does anyone really want a single party state not to mention a potential for homegrown terrorism?
  • Records already in the public domain seem sufficient to bring an indictment. What more is needed? The American Civil Liberties Union is suing for more.
  • After the Constitution, the applicable statute is Section 2441 of Title 18 of the US Criminal Code which refers to Article 3 of the Geneva Convention.

  • How can we prosecute?
  • How can we not prosecute?
  • Is there a middle ground? There has to be.

Any trial will end up wrangling over the definition of torture. And well it might for that is point at issue. Water boarding has high profile and there is ample evidence it was used liberally. But guess what?

After WWII, America prosecuted Japanese soldiers
for water-boarding American captives!

As Attorney General, John Ashcroft was a nervous insider. The Bush Administration was deeply divided on this issue. Ashcroft is on record as asking:

"Why are we talking about this in the White House?
History will not judge this kindly."

Abu Ghraib, while perhaps of lower profile, is nevertheless a further example.

In that case Human Rights Watch drew up a list of indictable participants below presidential level.

  • Donald Rumsfeld -- Secretary of Defense
  • George Tenet -- Former CIA Director
  • Ricardo Sanchez -- Lieutenant General
  • Geoffrey Miller -- Major General

This list is too narrow, for Mr, Bush himself signed orders approving the use of torture. There was also the chain of command which Zimbardo refers to simply as The System.

As an Abu Ghraib insider, Philip Zimbardo, indicted these same individuals. His famous Stanford Prison Experiment presaged Abu Ghraib and provided insight into why it and other disgraceful practices by this Administration happened. If you find this astonishing read his book-- "The Lucifer Effect"! However, the blame, if blame is the right word, lies within each and all of us; we do after all elect our leaders and support the System. In the process, we suffer the same psycho-genetic heritage as the participants on both sides do.

Zimbardo's well-known Stanford Prison Experiment, SPE, has special significance into our times; it presaged conditions that arose at Abu Ghraib even as it paralleled conditions leading to the holocaust as a local system.

There is much awful, yet dramatic, material pertinent to the human condition and violence in Zimbardo's treatise. His book is a crowning achievement of an already distinguished researcher and teacher.

Zimbardo was an insider to the fallout from Abu Ghraib. His apt and utterly descriptive metaphors capture what is wrong with civilization in our day--the US culture in particular. They have the ring of truth to any feeling or thinking person.

Our take on this prosecution issue is: Yes, officials from the top down must be prosecuted--with three vital caveats, lest it all be in vain:

  • First: Any action must be bipartisan if our political system is to survive in a form suitable to meet the challenges sure to come with the passage of time.
  • Second: At least one amendment to the Constitution is needed to ensure a mess like this never happens again.
  • Third: Our society must recognize the deeply seated roots giving rise to this problem and find means to eliminate them in ways that are safe and friendly for all world citizens.

Obama is rightly concerned with the fallout. We are, too. Doing something and doing it wrong, seems worse than doing nothing at all. At the least, he must be very careful. If he uses his political capital to bring about the above, his legacy could rival that of Lincoln. We hope his Justice Department moves with deliberation in a timely manner. Then there is the Congress--a subject for another time perhaps.


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