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Torture, witch hunts and the 9/11 nightmare

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

Barack Obama is trying to avoid a witch hunt of the previous administration, while still holding it accountable for authorizing the torture of suspected terrorists.

If something must be done, he prefers a commission of investigation, such as that struck after 9/11, to avoid excessive partisanship.

But congressional Democrats may well defy him. And veterans of the Bush White House are counterattacking, with former vice-president Dick Cheney demanding that, if the President is going to release memos detailing acts of torture, as he did last week, then he should also release memos showing the results of those interrogations.

"I know specifically of reports that I read, that I saw, that laid out what we learned through the interrogation process and what the consequences were for the country," Mr. Cheney told Sean Hannity on Fox News.

This is a mess.

It's a mess because controversies such as these can overwhelm the public agenda. And it's a mess because, rather the acknowledging that the torture of suspected terrorists is a complex moral dilemma, most people simply apply reflexive prejudice - and arrive at false certainties.

So, just for a minute, let's try to put this problem in context. Then we can all go back to ranting pro or con, as we please.

During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, which prevents the government from, among other things, arbitrarily detaining people deemed a threat to the state. "Are all the laws, but one, to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated?" he asked Congress.

Federal governments have violated civil rights in time of war ever since, with varying degrees of constitutional justification. Woodrow Wilson suspended freedom of speech during the First World War. Franklin Roosevelt forced Japanese Americans into internment camps during the Second World War.

After the attacks on New York and Washington, the Bush administration - sometimes with the assent of Congress, sometimes on its own volition - greatly expanded the federal government's powers to investigate, detain and interrogate suspected terrorists.

This raises questions. Was the United States at war after Sept. 11, 2001? If so, who was it at war with? Is it at war now? If it's not, when did the war end?

And if it was and still is at war, to what extent does that justify the suspension of civil liberties?

Mr. Obama said yesterday that, while the United States is "confronted with an enemy that doesn't have scruples, that isn't constrained by constitutions," nonetheless, the torture memos "reflected, in my view, us losing our moral bearings."

Republicans respond, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell did yesterday, that "from 9/11 until the end of the Bush administration, not another single attack on the U.S. homeland" took place. "We were obviously doing something right," he told reporters. "It wasn't just good luck."

After the 9/11 attacks, Americans were afraid. They had every reason to be. Not only had the terrorist attacks killed thousands, but the anthrax-laced letters that followed (five people died) seemed to suggest that a comprehensive assault was under way. We know now the two events were unrelated. We didn't know that then.

The Bush administration initially had a popular mandate to do whatever was necessary to prevent another attack. The polls of the time confirm this.

By 2006, however, people were increasingly uncomfortable with George Bush's insistence that the nation was still at war with Islamic terrorists. (The situation in Iraq didn't help, either.) Popular mandate turned to popular revulsion, leading to Democratic victories in the 2006 and 2008 elections.

Fear is a terrible legislator, and a nation emerging from fear feels shame and remorse for some of the things it did. After 9/11, the United States lost its way. The election of Mr. Obama reflected the determination of Americans to return to course.

But we must also, and always, bear in mind that the Republicans are right: America has not been attacked at home, even though it is eminently reasonable to believe that its enemies have tried.

If we learn that attacks were prevented using outrageous methods, then what are we to think?

You might say the ends never justify the means. And you might be right. But here's betting you weren't living in New York or Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, even if it is reflexive prejudice to say so.

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