Mar 1 2009

When ‘We’ All Supported Torture

Richard Cohen--Photo Credit: Washington Post

Richard Cohen–Photo Credit: Washington Post

Amidst the many calls for Barack Obama to abandon campaign promises and move to the right, one set stood out for its ghoulishness: the media pleas for Obama to keep torturing (e.g., Washington Post, 1/10/09; Newsweek, 1/19/09; Wall Street Journal, 1/29/09). News accounts of the new administration’s intelligence plans have tended to leap hopefully on any sign, real or imagined, that Obama didn’t really mean it when he promised to abide by laws and treaties banning torture (CounterSpin, 1/30/09).

Why does torture have such appeal for so many in corporate media? A Washington Post column by Richard Cohen (1/27/09) provided some clues. Cohen began:

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.

According to Cohen, following September 11, when George Bush’s approval ratings were over 90 percent, everyone wanted torture done; he cited Newsweek’s “thoughtful” Jonathan Alter (11/5/01) and media-friendly lawyer Alan Dershowitz as examples. Cohen concluded: “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.”

But for someone who used to live in the past, Cohen doesn’t remember it very well: While it’s true that many of his friends in the “liberal media” were keen on torturing people, the general public was not. An Investors Business Daily and Christian Science Monitor poll from November 2001 found 32 percent of the public saying they could “envision a scenario” in which they would support “government-sanctioned torture”; 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, 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. Not that we support punishing opinion, but pundits might think twice next time about exactly what they’re doing before dashing off a column on ticking time bombs and the virtues of waterboarding.