It might be fun to see Cheney behind bars for condoning torture

With Barack Obama coming up to the completion, on Sunday, of his first 100 days in office, the commentators are busy sizing up his record and generally giving him pats on the back for his performance so far.

They can’t yet know the extent to which he will succeed or fail in the gigantic tasks he has set himself (restoring America to economic health and leadership of the world), but they are already impressed by the speed and energy with which he has distanced himself from the nightmare legacy of George Bush. Nowhere is the contrast between the two presidencies more vivid than in Obama’s unequivocal rejection of the interrogation methods authorised by the Bush administration for use on the prisoners in Guantánamo Bay.

It still seems extraordinary that any American government, even one as rightwing and heavy-handed as Bush’s, could have condoned forms of treatment that were clearly torture by any common-sense definition. Waterboarding, the technique by which detainees are half-drowned and half-suffocated in efforts to get them to talk, was even condemned as torture by the US itself during war-crimes trials after World War II. But because it was subsequently inflicted by the US military on some of its own servicemen as a way of training them to resist such barbaric treatment by ruthless foreign captors, the Bush administration managed to delude itself into thinking it couldn’t be illegal.

Last year, journalist Christopher Hitchens subjected himself to waterboarding on behalf of the magazine Vanity Fair, and was left in no doubt that it was torture. Such was his terror and panic, he wrote, that he would have said or done anything to have it stopped. Hitchens’s experience was brief, but we now learn from old Justice Department memoranda made public this week by Obama that CIA interrogators used waterboarding 266 times on just two of the main al-Qaeda suspects at Guantánamo Bay. The fact that it was repeated so many times on the same two people suggests that Bush officials lied when they said that its use was strictly controlled. It also suggests, more puzzlingly, that it wasn’t very effective in getting them to talk.

Obama appears to have hoped that by exposing the true facts about the CIA’s interrogation methods (which also included slamming prisoners into walls, squeezing them into small boxes, and shackling them in standing positions for days), by promising never to repeat them, and by pledging that nobody would be prosecuted for offences approved by the White House, he would be able to bring an end to the controversy and move on. But this is not turning out to be easy. Besieged by critics from both right and left, with the latter insisting that Bush administration officials be brought to account for their actions, the president has made an about-turn and refused to preclude prosecutions after all.

That is a pity; for though it might be fun to see Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld behind bars, putting people on trial would exacerbate and prolong a divisive debate and distract the Obama administration from its essential business. Albeit with a tinge of regret, one can only hope it won’t happen. –

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