Breaking with the torture regime

BREAKING WITH THE TORTURE REGIME…. Barack Obama indicated yesterday that he doesn’t believe anyone is “above the law,” but when it comes to prosecuting Bush administration officials’ alleged crimes, he’s inclined to “focus on how do we make sure that moving forward we are doing the right thing…. [M]y general belief is that when it comes to national security, what we have to focus on is getting things right in the future, as opposed looking at what we got wrong in the past.”

His response was not especially surprising. Obama no doubt wants to invest his time, energies, and political capital in addressing the economic crisis, passing healthcare, ending the war in Iraq, etc., and probably believes the costs in investigating Bush-era wrongdoing would be too high.

Chris Hayes, among others, raises a good point, pushing Obama in the other direction.

Remember during the summer, when oil was $140 a barrel, how airlines started charging for each checked bag? It seemed to make sense at the time: bags weigh a plane down and necessitate more fuel consumption. It’s possible to ignore that marginal cost when fuel is cheap, but makes sense to charge for when fuel is very expensive. But: have you noticed that even though the fuel costs have dropped 70% and yet airlines are still charging for checked bags? Can you imagine them deciding to stop charging for bags anytime soon?

There’s a very, very worrying possibility that this kind of inertia will set in with our torture regime: something born of crisis embeds itself and becomes normalized.

Which is why accountability and investigation are absolutely necessary morally, legally and politically. The torture regime needs to be de-normalized. Short of that, what’s needed are a series of immediate actions in the early days of the administration that definitively break with the Bush/Cheney war crimes going forward. Whether the later will be effective without the former is a vexing question (I don’t think it will), but if we don’t even get the latter, then it’s time to really worry.

That’s a strong argument, but I’m pretty confident about Obama delivering on the latter.

I suspect that as far as Obama is concerned, the best — and arguably, only — way to politically deal with the “torture regime” is to simply end it. Obama won’t torture, will honor the rule of law, will close Guantanamo, will restore America’s moral standing, etc.

In fact, everything I’ve seen of late suggests Obama’s policies in this area are going to be the right ones, and will prevent the institutional inertia that Hayes wisely warns against. The incoming president has not only offered an unambiguous condemnation of torture, he’s also picked a progressive to head the OLC, an untainted opponent of torture to serve as CIA director, and an opponent of torture to serve as attorney general. Over the last eight years, these offices were filled with loyal Bushies (Yoo, Addington, et al) who created and instituted the “torture regime.”

Given this, Obama figures, he doesn’t need to imprison them, he needs to replace them.