Last week to mark the 150 anniversary of the American Civil War the American Red Cross released a survey of US attitudes to international humanitarian law which revealed a shocking tolerance of torture across American society.
The Red Cross survey found that 59% of the 502 teenagers and 51% of the 1,019 adults polled believed that it was sometimes acceptable to torture enemy fighters to obtain important military information.
41% of teenagers and 30% of adults also accepted the logical corollary that it might therefore sometimes be acceptable for enemy forces to torture captured American POWs. The survey powerfully suggests just how far the norm against torture in American public life has been eroded.
Giants of American public life like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln have spoken out against torture but the evidence seems to suggest that, for now at least, the ants have carried the day.
An American public weaned on a diet of hard-charging maverick cop shows like 24, video games like Modern Warfare, and the obfuscating legal maneuvers of Bush’s torture team has drunk the kool aid and, despite all evidence to the contrary, concluded torture works.
In the real world, torture carried out at Abu Ghraib and Bagram provided ammunition to Al Qaeda and the Taliban that got countless US servicemen, and Iraqi and Afghan civilians, killed and produced little or no intelligence of any value.
We all bear some of the responsibility for not pushing back harder against the moral compromises and outrages on human dignity born out of the ‘Global War on Terror’. We have not just let ourselves down in the process, we have also let down our children.
An America at ease with the torture of its prisoners and even its own servicemen is the real legacy of the Bush administration, and it is a legacy that President Obama has done little to redress.
Accountability matters. We can’t just turn the page – we need to make the change. Until those who broke the law are brought to book and justice is seen to be done what kind of example do we expect to set for our children?
A second interesting, albeit somewhat contradictory, finding from the Red Cross survey concerned support for holding war criminals judicially accountable for their actions. 66% of youths and 79% of adults supported the trial and punishment of individuals who broke the ‘rules of war’.
In a week where the Head of the Federal Aviation Authority’s Air Traffic Organization, Hank Krakowski, promptly resigned after several cases emerged of air traffic controllers sleeping on duty, the contrast between accountability in the FAA and that in the defense and intelligence community could not be more stark.
Accountability for torture is every bit as much a public safety issue as ringing the changes at the FAA. As Darius Rejali, author of Torture and Democracy, has demonstrated so convincingly in his work the bacillus of torture migrates inevitably from the battlefield to the precinct.
If we don’t want to want our kids to grow up thinking torture is as American as apple pie, we must redouble our efforts to press for justice. Torture is, and has always been, against the law. When laws are broken we punish the transgressors – it’s Civics 101.
We can’t afford to give torturers a free pass – thanks to the American Red Cross we now know precisely what kind of example that sets for our children.