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Correcting America's Dark Chapter of Torture

There's a bomb of a contradiction at the heart of what's passing for a debate on the torture regime of the past eight years. President Barack Obama calls those years of secret prisons and "enhanced interrogation techniques" a "dark and painful chapter in our history." That's not just a suggestion of something amiss. It's an admission and an indictment of wrongs, in terms that have been applied to atrocities like war crimes and slavery. The secret Bush administration memos Obama released -- the black book of those years, translating Soviet torture methods into "corrective" and "coercive techniques" like sleep deprivation, simulated drowning, beatings, starvation, hanging from hooks -- prove the point.

Little of it is new information. Obama is merely documenting what's been coming to light in newspaper reports, books and a graphic Red Cross report for the past several years. And he's not doing it of his own initiative. We have the American Civil Liberties Union to thank for forcing his hand. Still, he's removed all doubts about what Jane Mayer, in "The Dark Side" (Doubleday, 2008) summed up: "The Bush administration invoked the fear flowing from the attacks on September 11 to institute a policy of deliberate cruelty that would have been unthinkable on September 10. President (George W.) Bush, Vice President (Dick) Cheney and a small handful of trusted advisers sought and obtained dubious legal opinions enabling them to circumvent American laws and traditions. In the name of protecting national security, the executive branch sanctioned coerced confessions, extrajudicial detention, and other violations of individuals' liberties that had been prohibited since the country's founding."

"Dark and painful chapter" isn't an exaggeration. Nor would be a truth commission, a tribunal, punishment for the perpetrators -- not as retribution, but as correction. And not to appease the rest of the world or even rehabilitate America's image in the world's eyes. World opinion doesn't define who we are. American principles do, for our sake. Yet the response to that dark and painful chapter is turning into its own crime.

Sen. Patrick Leahy's "commission of inquiry" would stop at an inquiry and grant all participants immunity. Obama wants to look forward, not back, because "nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past." But justice is all about squaring proper blame with past and proven crimes. Otherwise, might as well release the 2.4 million people in American prisons and jails, most of whose crimes were victimless, non-violent or less heinous than torturers'.

CIA Director Leon E. Panetta opposed so much as the release of the memos, claiming it set a dangerous precedent for the disclosure of intelligence sources and methods. But sources of intelligence aren't being revealed. Methods of torture are. Keeping them secret would only safeguard them for use in the future. And to date, not a single name of actual torturers ("interrogators," as the preferred euphemism goes) has been released. Only the names of a posse of Bush administration staffers and lawyers tasked with finagling legality out of indefensible practices have: David Addington, John Yoo, Jay Bybee, Steven Bradbury.

There's a disturbing parallel between the way the posse and al-Qaida went about justifying their mutually indefensible deeds. The Quran specifically forbids the killing of women and children. It declares in one of the Quran's most humanistic passages that "anyone who murders one innocent person shall be treated as if he murdered all of humanity." No Muslim cleric worth his turban would have sanctioned 9/11, designed exclusively to murder innocent people by way of suicide bombing. So Osama bin Laden shopped around for a rationale. He found it in the twisted sophistry of branding suicide bombers as martyrs, and innocents as infidels. Then he got himself an obscure cleric to sign off on the rationale. He had his secret memos, too.

Should interrogators and the lawyers of a rogue administration be punished? They were just following orders. That, anyway, is the Nuremberg defense -- despicable then, despicable today. In Israel, the country most justifiably outraged by the Nuremberg defense, soldiers may disobey orders they personally consider illegal or unconscionable. Some lawyers and interrogators, we now know, heroically did just that during the Bush regime, and paid the price. Others didn't. Following orders is no defense. Nor is "moving on."

But if there's a bomb of a contradiction at the heart of this debate, there's also an elephant: George W. Bush. His name is hardly mentioned in all these stories of shame and torture. It's all about the lawyers, the process, the exigencies of the moment. But it isn't. The decisions were his. "I am the decider," as he put it. And so he was. This "dark and painful chapter" began with him. His orders for secret memos. His orders to torture. It should end with him.

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