Mr. Cohen, I Used to Live in the Past

Looking back on the good old days when we all supported torture, Richard Cohen writes today in the Washington Post (1/27/09):

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” So goes an aphorism that needs to be applied to the current debate over whether those who authorized and used torture should be prosecuted. In the very different country called September 11, 2001, the answer would be a resounding no.

Back then, a Post poll gave George W. Bush an approval rating of 92 percent, which meant that almost no one thought he was on the wrong course. At the same time, questions about the viability of torture were very much in the air. Alan Dershowitz was suggesting the creation of torture warrants–permission from a court to, in effect, break some bones….

The thoughtful Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter mulled the legality, the morality and the efficacy of torture…. Alter’s essay created quite a stir–and to his considerable surprise, a lot of whispered support from liberals…. The conventional wisdom that torture never works–so counterintuitive as to be an absurdity–was not yet doctrine.

And so, Cohen concludes:

We were the ones, remember, who just wanted to be kept safe. So, it is important, as well as fair, not to punish those who did what we wanted done — back when we lived, scared to death, in a place called the Past.

Fortunately, we don’t have to take Cohen’s word for what the past was like; thanks to the Web, we can visit it ourselves. And when we do so we find that while it’s true that a lot of Cohen’s friends in the “liberal media” were keen on torturing people, the general public was much less so. In a poll conducted by Investors Business Daily and Christian Science Monitor on November 7-11, 2001, 32 percent of the public said that they could “envision a scenario” in which they would support “government-sanctioned torture of suspects held in the U.S. or abroad”; 66 percent said they could not envision such a scenario.

Cohen’s column is headlined “Torture? Prosecute Us, Too,” which is evidently meant to suggest the absurdity of prosecuting anyone for torture. Actually, though, the Nuremberg Trials established that advocacy of crimes against humanity is itself a crime against humanity. And systematic torture is counted as a crime against humanity by the International Criminal Court. Pundits ought to think long and hard about this before they dash off another 700 words about ticking time bombs.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.