only intention is to avoid antagonizing government agencies and the military,
then he has thrown away a good deal of the confidence that the world has placed
in him. … The claim of just following orders can be validly made only by
those living under a dictatorship.… But if
by offering immunity to the perpetrators, Obama has prepared the ground for an
unsparing assessment of Bush's policy, then Obama will be thoroughly
The more that the gruesome
details of the incidents are known, the easier it becomes to sympathize with
the victims. One hundred eighty three times, suspected terrorist Khalid Sheikh
Mohammed was subjected to so-called waterboarding and made to
suffer the fear of death by drowning. If we had only known! There was an
apparent system to the crimes of the Bush Administration. It wasn't just a
matter of obtaining confessions and information relevant to security - it was also
about breaking people. So should this raise the level of revulsion over such
practices? No. It need not and should not.
A violation of
human rights remains a violation of human rights, and behind torture, there is
always a system. But there are horrors that cannot be intensified - that cannot be topped. A single experience
of torture is traumatic. Whether 183 experiences of torture are worse than
one - that's a judgment that canbe made only by those concerned - not by the public. Few can assess
whether a single rape is easier to cope with than a series of sexual assaults.
Torture has no place in a
democratic society. Point made. With this statement the appraisal begins and
ends. It could also be said: He who holds a prisoner under water a single time
acts no less illegally or abominably than someone who holds a detainee under
water 183 times. But what does this fact mean for the promise of immunity that
U.S. President Obama has granted the perpetrators?
In this context, it isn't about
what the public, which wasn't directly involved, may or may not put up with.
It's rather about a political assessment of decisions in the field
of tension between what can be done and what should be done. This is more difficult than it may appear.
There may always be good
reason to let the "little ones" go - namely when one goes after the "big
ones" and, therefore, the masterminds. This is a widely accepted
principle in the battle against crimes like
drug trafficking and forced prostitution. But there could also be good reason to let the "big ones"
go: namely when thousands more victims would otherwise face certain death.
Dictators who have reason to fear being brought before an international
criminal court cling to power more stubbornly than those who may look forward
to a comfortable, stress-free exile.
Clearly this is unsatisfactory.
The longing for criminals to be punished somewhere, sometime, is the source of
all desire for justice and all religious ideas of hell. But since we now live
on earth and not in the hereafter: how is one to evaluate the decision of Barack
Obama, the most powerful man in the world?
But hang on. If the only intention
of the U.S. president is to avoid antagonizing government agencies and the
military, then he will be throwing away a good deal of the confidence that the
world has placed in him. The claim of just following orders can be
validly made only by those living under a dictatorship. And whatever else might
be said of the United States - it is not a dictatorship.
A torturer, who would have told
his story to the U.S. media, would have become a star. Unlike his counterparts
in Africa or Latin America, he certainly needn't fear ending up in an anonymous
mass grave. This doesn't justify amnesty.
If Obama, however, with his
promise of immunity "for the little ones," has prepared the ground
for a candid and unsparing assessment of the policy of his predecessor, then
this promise will be thoroughly vindicated. There are indications that offer hope.
For example, his release of memos on interrogation practices of the Bush
The publication of the memos
is a rather courageous step. How it is intended, the next few months will
surely show. Perhaps criminal proceedings against former U.S. Vice President
Dick Cheney will take place. That would make the discussion over CIA amnesty
obsolete. And if that doesn’t happen? Then Obama will have lost his charm.