istorical memory is painfully short. Normandy, Nuremberg, the Marshall Plan: they represent the heights of America’s moral authority in the last century, and they mean everything to me. But how much do they mean to the generation coming of age all over the world in this century? How is America making itself known, right now?
Often with stories like the following (to choose just one of hundreds): A prisoner at Guantanamo was deprived of sleep for more than fifty-five days. Some nights, he was doused with water or blasted with cold air. After he had spent weeks in a state of delirious, shivering wakefulness, gravely ill from hypothermia, medical officers bound to an ethical code that instructs them to “first do no harm” strapped him to a chair, pumped him full of three bags of medical saline, brought him back from deathand then sent him back to his interrogators.
I hear that story and think, “That’s impossible. That’s not us. That can’t be real.” But to a young man or woman growing up in Amman or Caracas or Guangzhou, it is more real than the nation that once extended the rule of law to those enemies it hated the most. That nation can seem like another place entirely when you hear the stories of our secret prisons, or see the photographs from Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.
But we know that it is not another place entirely. This is the country that refused for centuries to suspend its Constitution for vengeance. It is the country of which George Marshall said, “Respect for the reign of law … is expected to follow the flag wherever it goes.” In recent years, we have diverted wildly from this course. The burden is on us now to prove that we can once again be that country.
I believe the next administration could restore the rule of lawwithout loopholeson its first day in office. I believe we could do it tomorrow, if we chose to. I believe that it is possible to keep our country safe and our Constitution whole at the same time.
There are many Americans who believe that this can’t be done: that the terrorist threat we’re facing is so vast and unprecedented that parts of our Constitution have become luxuries, and that the Geneva Conventions have been rendered, in the words of Alberto Gonzales, “quaint.” They could not be more wrong.
The question is not, “Does torture work?” Of course it works. If your goal is to get a confession out of someone, then torture is an excellent tool. Almost everyone breaks eventually. If you hit a man often enough, if you keep him awake for long enough, if you fake his execution convincingly enough, he will sign whatever you want him to sign.
But how many of those confessions are true, and how many are lies to make the pain stop? How do we tell the difference? General David Petraeus has called torture “neither useful nor necessary.” America’s most experienced interrogators have been saying the same thing for years.
If only we were listening to them back in 2002. That was the year we sent an al-Qaeda paramilitary trainer named Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi to Egypt. Under torture, he said that Saddam Hussein trained al-Qaeda members in the use of weapons of mass destruction. That confession found its way into a speech that President Bush gave in October 2002, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. It was a centerpiece of Colin Powell’s speech to the U.N. Security Council justifying the invasion.
It was also a total falsehood. Both the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency found that it was a lie elicited by torture. But by then, it was too late: it had helped pave the way for a war in which more than 3,900 of our sons, daughters, and neighbors have lost their lives.
First, it puts our troops in danger. The White House has now declared that waterboarding is not torture. What is to stop other regimes from “not torturing” our soldiers in the same way? Second, torture excels at making terrorists. It can help spawn warped men who will seek revenge for the rest of their lives. Justice Robert Jackson recognized the dangers of mistreating our enemies when he explained the necessity of fair trials for Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg: “To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice,” he said, “is to put it to our own lips as well.”
To me, Robert Jackson is an immediate figure; my father was his deputy at Nuremberg and described him in detail in his letters home. But to my two young daughters, and to every member of their generation, he is already ancient history. To them, the history that matters most is the one we are writing right now.
Someday, when they’re old enough, they’ll read in their textbooks the history of a great nation that lost its wayand how, I hope, it found its way back. The most pressing question they’ll have won’t be about George Marshall or Robert Jackson. It will be, “What did you do?” That question is coming, soon, for every single one of us.